Sergei Fokin – talented chef from St. Petersburg
Sergei Fokin is a young talented chef from St. Petersburg. Co-owner of the Four Hands restaurant and concept-chef of Salute Bar. Sergei was born in 1988 in Leningrad. In 2006 he graduated from the Professional Lyceum of Culinary Excellence. From the age of 16 he has started to work as professional cook. We have talked with Sergei and have taken a short interview with him, asking about how he has started his career, his own restaurant and about the gastronomic trends in Russia.
How many years have you been working in the restaurant industry?
Why did you decide to become a cook?
Even at school I had a great craving for cooking from the 8th grade. After the 9th grade, I went to study at a culinary school to cook. I was very lucky, as my aunt had her own restaurant, and she took me to her work. So, at the age of 16 I got into the kitchen and from the first year I started working in a restaurant.
Who from the famous St. Petersburg chefs was also your classmates?
Evgeny Vikentiev, Ilya Burnasov, Igor Kornev.
What experience do you consider the most significant and important in your career?
It was my internship in the Ligurian restaurant in Italy, which owns two Michelin stars. I worked as a trainee in the St. Petersburg restaurant Il Palazzo and in four years I grew there to the position of Russian chef. In this restaurant, the brand-chef was Italian Giuseppe Riquibono, who came to us every three months. In gratitude, he invited me to work in his restaurant in Italy for two months, but in the end our joint work was very successful, and I worked for him for six months.
How did you come to the opening of your own restaurant? How did the idea originate? Tell us about the concept of your restaurant.
The idea was born during a trip to Madrid in the restaurant StreetXO that is managed by David Muñoz. The kitchen in this place is in the center of the hall, the restaurant does not have waiters, and the guests are served by the chefs themselves, and the guests sit right behind the bar in the kitchen. So, I had a clear picture of what an ideal restaurant should be, and I decided to make my project. Our Four Hands restaurant is a test concept of this story. We wanted to see how the guests will react to the maximum contact with the cooks. Four Hands is a restaurant with a modern European approach. We open at 4 pm, the menu is constantly changing, we have no waiters, the chef meets the guests himself, serves them and puts them at the table.
How long did it take to start a new restaurant? Who helped you?
We took 4 months to open and start the restaurant. My partner and sommelier Vitaly helped me to open the restaurant.
How often the menu is updated in your restaurant?
Once a week. We change seven to eight different dishes. But there are those items that are in high demand and do not leave the menu, for example, pate from chicken hearts with halva and beef tartar with cream of smoked cheese. In summer the menu can be updated every day. Focusing on seasonality, we begin to add more herbs, plants, which we collect ourselves in the forest.
How do you come up with new dishes? Are you looking for ideas somewhere? Are they born in case of unusual culinary experiments?
Most often, ideas come in hours of active work. At moments when I’m wrong, and it seems to me at first that I did something wrong, but after trying the result, I understand that this is a very interesting and successful combination of products. This is how the pate from the chicken hearts was invented – the best-selling dish in our restaurant. I read a lot and watch different videos, where I mark interesting moments for myself. But most often recently inspiration comes to me during the flights.
Where do you buy food for your restaurant?
We purchase products in METRO Cash & Carry, as well as in the local market. All the products we buy every day on our own and exactly for one day. We do not have a separate warehouse for products and we do not have any leftovers. Our restaurant has existed for two years. We know our stats, when and on what days how many people come, so it is easy for us to plan the purchase of products. We print the menu for each guest individually, so in our restaurant you will never be given a menu with a meal from the stop-list. If the dish is run out, we just remove it and reprint the menu.
How many people is in your team?
There are five people. Two of them are cooks, one is manager and one is sommelier.
How do you manage to cope with minimal human resources in a restaurant?
Since I have recently often had to move off, I ask to help my friends on Fridays or on Saturdays. All employees work a lot, so we manage to do all on our own.
How do you advertise your restaurant?
Now this is an exceptionally word of mouth. When the restaurant was just opening, I was already known in St. Petersburg, so when we and partners posted information about this on social networks, the first guests came to us. After that, a lot of attention was received from the media. The first month we were visited every day by restaurant critics, journalists and gastro-enthusiasts.
Sergei, please describe one day from your life as a Chef.
Now I have a rather intensive schedule when I am in St. Petersburg. I spend about 3-4 meetings per day and go around 2-3 restaurants, go to the market, where I look, what new seasonal products have appeared and how prices for them have changed, then I come to evening service at Four Hands. When the time comes, I try to get out to meet my friends – other chefs, Anton Abrezov, Ilya Burnasov.
Who do you think you are: a chef or an entrepreneur? What role is more important to you?
Half a year ago I would definitely say that I am a chef. Now I’m more and more beginning to delve into finance and financial models, I start to like it very much, I began to study the entrepreneurship and marketing more deeply. Therefore, I think that in a year I will accurately say that I am an entrepreneur. My goal is to have a successful restaurant, while being aware of everything that happens in the gastronomy.
What gastronomic trends in Russia would you single out for today?
For myself, I would note such a trend as the search for new and forgotten products, as well as exclusively regional products. Now I travel a lot in Russia and I understand that every city has its own specific taste and its products, which we know little about, while they are incredibly interesting.
What products are you talking about here? Could you give me a couple of examples?
In Tomsk it is pine nut milk, pine nuts seasoning of herbs, raspberries, blueberries, spices of willow-herb, ants in a bottle. In Kazan it is horse and horse mane. Also, I consider very interesting Russian products such as grains, buckwheat, wheat, black bread and kvass.
What trends in cuisines and concepts in Russia will develop? Which will become less popular and fall into the shade?
We observe that now fine dining is falling into the shade. I also hope that soon the mass market will fall into the shade. I understand that I think like a chef. And nevertheless, I believe that the author’s cuisine will become increasingly popular. I mean the kitchen from a particular chef. First, it is much cheaper. Second, it is more interesting than restaurants of huge holdings. Also, I hope that burgers will also fall into the shade very soon.
What restaurants in St. Petersburg would you recommend to visit for chefs and guests from other countries?
I advise you to visit, of course, Four Hands, as well as Gras. If it is a question of high gastronomy with Russian taste, then it is CoCoCo and a cafe Erarta. If you want to try something interesting and modern, then this is the Atelier Tapas & Bar, as well as restaurants of Dmitry Blinov like Duo Asia and Tartarbar.
What countries would you like to visit in terms of obtaining new gastronomic experience and knowledge?
It is Japan. It feels like people there live completely on another planet. I just want to see how they are developing. I read a lot about them lately and understand that people there eat mostly simple street food. For them the taste is the most important thing.
Which foreign chefs would you like to study under?
Do you have any professional dream? Share your plans for the future.
For me dreams mean new goals. For example, this year my goal is to spend 3 dinners abroad. I already spent one in January in Spain during the Madrid Fusion festival. The second dinner we already plan to spend in Shanghai together with Stefan Staller (2 ** Michelin) in April.
Thank you, Sergei!