OLESYA DROBOT – HEAD CHEF AT “EM”, A VERY UNIQUE RESTAURANT IN ST. PETERSBURG
Olesya began her career at Giuseppe Park, and following, worked in the restaurant “Fliegender Holländer” as well as the “Grand Cru” restaurant in St. Petersburg. Currently she works as the head chef for the restaurant “Em”. In this interview she touches upon the concept of the restaurant, shares her insight into the vegan cuisine and brings us closer to her theme of Inspiration and veganism.
What made you decide on the field of cooking and how did you start your career?
I don’t exactly remember what spurred the decision to be a chef or whether it was even a conscious decision. I think it was just pure chance. Around the year 2000 I had to choose a career path after finishing school. At that time I didn’t have a good understanding of which careers were in demand and which were important. I myself didn’t have an understanding of what I wanted. It was tough for me to come to a methodical decision at that time, so I ended up doing a culinary apprenticeship program just to put myself somewhere and continue building experience and further my education. After 3 years of my apprenticeship it had become clear to me that I didn’t need to look for another line of work or start over in a different apprenticeship. I was aware that what I had been taught up till then needed to be continued, expanded on and I was happy with that decision.
My first job was at Giuseppe Park as an assistant cook. At that time I wasn’t thinking about a position of a Chef. I realized that I needed to start from the beginning, the bottom, to get to know the products and familiarize myself with the whole process, to get to know the cooking team and the techniques. It was an Italian restaurant. I didn’t know a thing about half the products, what they were or how they looked. I also had to learn how to take responsibility as a cook and all that came with the position. I only had the traineeship as a foundation, and I had to carefully build on that and familiarize myself with everything else.
What gives you the most inspiration working as a head chef?
I am inspired by just working as a kitchen chef, creating new things, the constant search of new ideas and working with my hands in general. It’s inspiring that you constantly create new things and never stand still. Inventing, designing while working with a product, Pretty much everything that has to do with the kitchen. I constantly strive to keep moving, and that is what inspires me.
At the moment you are the head chef of the restaurant “EM” which you describe the style as “Theatrical”. Could you go into more detail for us why “EM” is so unusual for you?
I don’t exactly know what the idea was behind the design of the space or if it was intentional to make it look like a theater. What I do know is that it was planned to build an open kitchen where there is no separation between the chefs and the guests, but where everyone enjoys their dinner in comfort and can see how everything is prepared. Throughout their dinner they can come up and ask questions about how things are prepared and even turn things or sautee. For me it is no problem to have this type of contact with the guest. With the lighting and the atmosphere the theatrical theme really works. The atmosphere is supported by the big dining room without walls and all the action in the kitchen. Moreover, all the guests sit down together to begin their dinner and watches what unfolds within the kitchen. So you really get this feeling that you sitting in a theater.
The stove in the kitchen attracts a lot of attention. When you enter, it is the first thing you will see. In the beginning was the stove, and then slowly everything else formed around it, the atmosphere, the kitchen, the lighting and so on. The stove is the heart of the restaurant and plays the role of protagonist in every performance, so to speak.
Which techniques do you use in your restaurant?
We utilize a lot of different cooking techniques here in the restaurant, some very new modern techniques and some long forgotten techniques from grandma, we use a lot of styles. Everything, from what I’ve learned, or something new I’ve read about is applied here if it fits, new ideas don’t just sit in my head for long.
How would you describe the style of the restaurant cuisine?
I don’t know how to really describe the style. It just all comes from my imagination. I still haven’t come up for a name for my style. As I see it in my minds eye, I go ahead and create it. Sometimes I just see a picture and the rest falls into place. I start out bringing together the components that are in my head or something I sketched out on a piece of paper and it ends up as a finished piece on the plate. Sometimes the exact opposite takes place where I have something on the plate and then I work on it, adding things here and taking away things there. I have no idea what kind of style that is. People can find out for themselves by watching and eating.
When you create a menu, what do you pay attention to the most?
When I create menus or dishes I first look at what we have on the shelves, then I visit the markets and take a look at what’s on offer and ask around about what new things will be coming and what interesting products have recently arrived. I first look for a product and if I come across something unusual, I often focus on that. The product itself is the most important variable to me when composing a menu, then the season and the general feel which I also pay attention to,
You also offer a vegan menu in the restaurant. What do you personally prefer and why?
Yes, we do offer a vegan menu, but not because it’s trendy but on the grounds that these groups of people exist and their choices should be respected. I’ve talked a bit with people who adhere to the vegan diet and have come to understand their lifestyle much more. Why do we eat animal products in general when there are so many non-animal products available that offer the nutrition that is so important for our bodies? There isn’t a need to kill animals to bring new products to the market. There are already so many options containing rich amounts of plant-based protein and I definitely think the vegan diet is the way of the future. As for myself, I eat pretty much everything and can’t avoid it. I am first and foremost a chef and must eat and try so many things. One of these days I’d like to open a vegetarian restaurant. Vegetarian, not vegan because personally it would be hard to give up milk products. I eat almost everything but what matters most is that it is delicious. I am still of the opinion that every restaurant should offer a vegan menu, there should at least be an alternative vegan dish in every category created by the chef. It hurts me when I go to a restaurant with vegan friends and see that there is not a single vegan dish available on the menu that they could enjoy.
Which three products do you love to work with the most?
At the beginning of my career I could have told you the three products I loved working with the most, but now after working with so many products I could not nail down a specific three. However, I can definitely say I love working with fish and shellfish and am in the moment in love with the cheese making process. So it seems at the moment I have no favorites. Everything is my favorite.
Where do you get your inspiration for new dishes and how would you describe your cooking style?
Sometimes I leaf through books and immerse myself, often it’s just a general idea with fuzzy details. I absorb information best through visual stimulation, colors, form and trips to museums. These things inspire me the most. Grand experiments in the restaurant kitchen, where the proverbial lightbulb goes off is actually kind of rare. To be honest, it’s not normal that things just fall into place. It happens, but rarely. Most of the time I’ll see a color scheme or an intriguing shape and my inspiration grabs onto that. If I am planning a set menu and not just one dish, then I sit down and think about the direction I want to move. I have created many theme-based menus such as the Fibonacci series, where each dish’s components were presented in relation to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers. I’ve had sets that were black and white with only special flashes of color. For me it’s not just a composition of taste but more a composition of visuals. The first thing the guest sees is the form and aesthetics of the dish, then the taste follows and that is a whole different topic.
The Job as a Chef is very demanding. As a woman, have you faced any specific difficulties that perhaps men do not face as often?
I have no difficulties communicating with people of any gender. Nobody wants to work in a negative atmosphere. There are only three of us here and we are friendly and relaxed. If I turn to someone and say how something should be done it is done in that way, and if there are questions that arise I answer them and clarify anything that is needed and don’t waste time with any other approach. Anybody that comes here learns something new. I especially like that young cooks come here to improve their skills and am always happy to hire people with no skills or experience in order to teach them new things. If they decide to continue on that is wonderful. I often stay in contact with everyone that has worked with me. Some even call me up for advice which I love to give.
How do you think the restaurant culture will change for St. Petersburg in the next 5 years?
I think that a part of very trendy gastronomie will slip away, there’s just so much of it and people can see and eat only so much of ongoing trends. All the street food and gastro-bars will probably stay. It all started around 5 years ago and everyone still feels the same. I think that in 5 years everything will settle down and level out, and we will see some real steadfast concepts. At the moment it’s all about the trendy concepts. Perhaps the new trend is around the corner and everyone will flock to that.
If it’s not a secret, do you have any future projects in the works?
No. There are no projects in the works, and honestly I don’t like having things going on in parallel. It’s dificullt to work on two projects at the same time. I’m not sure what the future holds, and it’s too soon for me to think about.
Thank you Olesya!