About

My name is Florian Pinel. For those of you who might wonder, although I’m originally from France, I am not the professional skier. I work as a computer science researcher during the week, and cook during my spare time. I moved to New York City in the late-90’s, and I now live here with my family. I graduated from the Institute of Culinary Education in 2005 and worked part-time in high-end restaurants for several years. I am now focusing on composing and testing my own recipes. I’ve been traveling to the Eastern Bloc regularly since my early teens, when it was still called the Eastern Bloc. If you wish to contact me, my email address is FLORIAN at FOODPERESTROIKA dot COM.

The Food Perestroika Manifesto

The word perestroika may be forever associated with Mikhail Gorbachev’s reformation movement in the late eighties, but in Russian, it simply means reconstruction. To understand what it is that needs to be rebuilt, I suggest we start with a brief look at culinary history in the former Eastern Bloc.

In discussing classic Russian cuisine, one must first look to France. After the French Revolution (1789–1799), many chefs once employed by the aristocracy and the clergy opened their own restaurants, catering to the soaring bourgeoisie. Haute cuisine is rooted in this first wave of establishments that made nobility’s culinary luxury accessible to anyone able to pay the price of a meal. From there, French gastronomy kept on renewing itself, with milestones such as Escoffier’s Guide culinaire in 1903, and the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in the 1960’s.

From the late 18th century until the October Revolution of 1917, Russian food followed a similar course. In fact, many chefs working for Russian aristocratic families were from France. Through them, Russia made some significant contributions to gastronomy at the time. It suffices to open Guide Culinaire to find recipes for pellmènes, varénikis, coulibiac, piroguissauce smitanecôtelettes Pojarskipudding Nesselrode, vatrouskis, and other preparations à la Russe. Service à la russe, a manner of dining that involves courses being brought to the table sequentially, was brought to France in the early 19th century, and still serves as the basis for modern food service.

Russian cuisine’s development stopped abruptly with the Revolution. For most of the 20th century, it remained stuck in cuisine classique. Worse even: the existing dishes were systematically bastardized to circumvent ingredient scarcity and shortages. This is, for example, how Salad Olivier turned from a decadent high-end appetizer to an unappetizing pile of factory-produced foods drowning in mayo.

Meanwhile, the other Soviet Republics — most of which featured very rustic culinary traditions — saw their cultures “harmonized” (read: repressed). Russian became the common language, socialist classicism the architectural norm, and national peculiarities were watered down. It is said that even the menus of the Tbilisi restaurants were dictated from Moscow. At best, bastardized versions of the most famous national dishes were adopted across the Empire for a touch of exoticism.

After World War II, the Iron Curtain further spread the culinary stagnation to Central and Eastern Europe as more countries became part of the Communist Bloc. The story differs slightly for each country, but the results ended up being similar: products were scarce, quality was poor, variety non-existent. In Hungary, for example, the fine wines and superior ingredients produced for centuries were almost completely forsaken, and Károly Gundel‘s eponymous restaurant, which enjoyed a fine international reputation before the war, was nationalized in 1949 and sunk into mediocrity. And in Berlin, if you visit DDR-Restaurant Domklause, an East German restaurant re-established in its original location at the former Palasthotel, you can taste for yourself original recipes dictated by product availability (or rather, lack thereof); they are unlikely to impress you.

The collapse of the Eastern Bloc (1989-1991) brought once-in-a-lifetime opportunities in almost all aspects of society. While gastronomy was no exception, the impact has been smaller than one might think. One reason is certainly that the majority of the population had more important issues to worry about in the 1990’s than fine dining, and those who had money to burn often preferred flashy surroundings or foreign travel to sophisticated local cuisine. Says chef Wojciech Amaro, of Atelier Amaro in Warsaw and recipient of Michelin’s first Rising Star award in Poland: “Did you know that Poland is famous for its edible flowers, herbs, wild game and mushrooms and most Poles don’t even know it?” As of 2012, there were 2 Michelin-starred restaurants in Hungary (Onyx and Costes), 2 in Czech Republic (La Dégustation Bohême Bourgeoise and The Alcron), and slightly over 20 in former East Germany. Compare this to 590 establishments in France, 249 in the whole reunified Germany, or 128 in the U.S. (you can find an up-to-date list here).

Eastern Bloc restaurants in the West didn’t fare much better. In New York, despite the multiple waves of immigrants throughout the 20th century, your options rarely depart from family restaurants on one hand, or big floor show establishments on the other. Many seem happy to serve straight-from-the-can eggplant caviar and shoe-sole-tough Beef Stroganoff without ever wondering if they could do better — just read my reviews. Of course the customers are to blame, too. Half of them want to throw vodka shots over their backs and eat caviar by the ladle as if the October Revolution never happened, and the other half turned their grandmothers’ frugal, substitute-filled stews into their own personal Proustian madeleines. Few people pass the doorstep asking for modern Eastern European cuisine.

Okay, maybe I’m dramatizing a little bit. I won’t deny that the food situation has considerably improved. Quality local products are readily available; you can have a delicious modern meal in Prague, Budapest, or Moscow. Sophisticated winemaking has made a triumphant return in Hungary, Slovenia, and Croatia; there are lavish cookbooks filled with traditional recipes from the Caucasus and Central Asia. I’ve even seen Stalik Khankishiev using a thermometer to check meat doneness! The Soviet Union also popularized some notable dishes, such as the chicken Kiev. My point is that the food culture in those countries is making a very slow recovery and still rarely challenges traditions. Despite History’s opportunities, the gastronomy of the Eastern Bloc is still light-years away from what you see in France — or Italy, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia, Japan…

My goal with Food Perestroika is to rebuild culinary traditions from the former Eastern Bloc, and try to re-imagine and elevate them to haute cuisine. The word perestroika means reconstruction, but I am not interested in replication so much as I am interested in innovation inspired by what came before, and in making the most of the ingredients and flavors that can be found in that part of the world. Most of the various topics I discuss can be pieced together to work towards this objective:

  • Travel stories investigate the ingredients, preparations, and principles that define each country (with many digressions, I admit)
  • Restaurant reviews report the state of things on my side of the pond, and occasionally elsewhere
  • Finally, the recipes, which are the cornerstones of my reconstruction, and fall under several categories:
    Some of them reinterpret traditional dishes, as I think it is impossible to innovate if you don’t master the classics. I’m not interested in publishing another passable 30-minute recipe with a pretty picture for instant gratification on foodgawker. I really try to come up with the best recipes possible, fine-tuning over and over until the results are worth publishing.
    Another group of recipes tries to build on top of this base to create more modern, novel, and elaborate dishes. Many people would discard them as not representative of the Eastern Bloc at all. I, on the other hand, make the argument that if a dish uses ingredients and methods found in a given country, no matter how obscure, then it’s as reflective of that country as it gets. To deny this argument is as ludicrous as complaining that such-and-such Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris doesn’t serve French cuisine because they don’t feature cassoulet, camembert, or frogs’ legs on their menu.
    Still other posts have me making my building blocks from scratch — cheese, preserves, bread — simply because reconstruction often starts at the atomic level, so to speak. This is also how I became interested in hunting and fishing. I am far from being a textbook hipster type, but I do agree with some locavore ideas about knowing where your meat comes from.

I may not follow any rigorous order in my posts, instead going back and forth between countries, post categories, and recipe complexity. It all depends on my inspiration of the moment. But hopefully, after a few years of writing, the big picture will start to make sense.

46 thoughts on “About

  1. Hi Florian!

    Easter holidays me and my family will spend in New York City.
    Which georgian food restaurant you can recommend?

    Salut to you and your family!

    George

    • Hi George, there are very few Georgian restaurants in New York, and none that I would really recommend. You’d probably have a better time at Baku Palace, which serves American / Azeri cuisine. There is, however, a good Georgian bakery that makes fresh khachapuri, at 265 Neptune Ave in Brooklyn. Enjoy your stay!

  2. Super Blog Florian!! Je vais peut-être enfin apprendre quelques petits trucs pour nourrir mon monde…
    Bises

    • Thanks Katrina! I’m glad you found me. By the way I’ve tried to add your blog to my Google Reader, but you don’t seem to have a working RSS feed…

  3. Hi Floran,

    Thank you for writing about Georgian cuisine. I was born in georgia but immigrated when I was 7, so although I grew up with my mothers cooking it’s nice to have a written description in english of the recipes. I’m going to try to make my own churchkhela. Wish me luck :)

  4. Hi there,
    I like your blog, found it when searching for some food tips for St Petersburg. Although you have a mistake there – Czech Republic isn’t in eastern Europe.

  5. Hello, My name is Magdalena and I write a food blog in English about Polish cuisine: tastycolours.blogpost and the second one dozartadegustuje.wordpress.com (the last one is in Polish). And you know, I believe that Poland is in Central Europe although it is true that it was a part of the Eastern Bloc. I will be coming back to you blog, as the Eastern (Central ) European cuisine ii my passion. I invite you to subscribe to me blog in feedburner at tastycolours.blogspot.com. Stray tuned.

  6. Love this! Thanks for this contribution. I lived in Moscow and Kiev in 1998-1999 and so love revisiting these recipes!! My roommate and I took some Georgian language classes just because we loved the food and wine so much.

    • Georgian language classes, how brave of you! That’s something I’d like to do someday, but so far I’ve only learnt the alphabet before going there (and of course I forgot it as soon as I got home).

  7. Dear Florian,
    A while back you visited Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden for our Czech and Slovak festival. I just wanted to let you know that coming up in Feb. we have our annual “Porkfest”. Here is the info on the event in case you would be interested.
    – authentic, traditional Czech & Slovak porkfest menu in an intimate and cozy restaurant setting with the live sounds of Eastern European folk music (Saturday 6pm) where the fiddles are fast and dancing comes easy.

    Date: Friday, Feb 8th …. 5-11 pm
    Saturday, Feb. 9th … noon-10 pm
    Sunday, Feb. 10 …. Noon-10 pm

    Location: Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden
    29-19 24th ave, Astoria, ny 11102

    For additional info please visit our website
    http://www.bohemianhall .com

  8. I was wondering if you could help, I want to make a georgian dish for my russian class; but I don’t know how to cook very well. (cookies from the tube, instant mashed potatoes in my shephard’s pie. various other culinary crimes.)
    Are there any simple recipes on your site that you can recommend? ones that keep well at room temp or can be served cold?

  9. I have a question…I was watching a television program about native culture in which they served a salmon egg jelly. It was made with sugar so I am thinking it was a bit sweet, but not sure how sweet. It was just beautiful and simply spread on a piece of bread. I have searched for a recipe and have been unsuccessful. Have you ever come across anything like this and would you know how to prepare it? I am blessed to live in the Pacific Northwest and have a husband who loves to fish. We try not to waste any part of them, making fish stock, smoking, canning…you name it, but I am itching to try something unique and new.

    • Hi Robin,
      I have to say I’ve never heard of this… I could imagine passing salmon roe though a sieve, and mixing the resulting liquid with a warm syrup made with water, sugar and agar agar.

  10. Hey Florian,

    I just went out with a few friends last night (one from Ukraine, the other from Moldova) and had a smattering of cuisine from Eastern Europe. As a result, I was looking for some good blogs today and stumbled upon yours! It is really exciting to read, you are clearly very passionate and knowledgeable about food. Thanks for all of the work on the blog, I’m certainly going to be reading and trying out some of your recipes. If you ever have time, might I suggest you index your recipes by title. The format know requires me to go through all of your posts-which is fine-but might become more tedious as you keep writing. Just a thought, cheers!

    Mike

      • You’re quite welcome! I really enjoy your site – I actually became a fan of Eastern European food only over the last few years – I’ve written a little bit about some of my visits on the Food Adventures tab of my site. Harcho soup is one of my all time favorite foods. Cheers and keep up the good work.

  11. I just found your blog and I LOVE it!!! I married a Russian and have been trying to replicate his Soviet “madeleines” for nearly 20 years now. I have come up with many of my own interpretations, some more successful than others. You have hit the nail on the head here.

  12. Hi Florian, I’m from California, though my dad was German and grew up in Prague…I stumbled onto your truly spectacular blog somehow via David Lebovitz. You’re not only putting out pictures with recipes, you actually give historical insight which make for a great read. Keep up the good work!!!

  13. Hi, Florian. I stumbled on your awesome and informative blog. I really enjoyed every post I’ve read today. Keep up the good work! You are an interesting individual. What languages do you speak? You have a Romanian name, you understand Perestroika and Russian cuisine, then France :) I speak Russian and Romanian and I miss Eastern European food A LOT! ON a recent trip to Prague and my birth country I gained 10 lbs, ouch! Great blog!

    • Hi seasonsmom7, glad you like the blog. I speak French, English, and Russian. I’ve studied a bunch of other languages too, but I wouldn’t claim I speak them.

  14. Hi Florian. I stumbled upon your blog… you obviously have passion for cooking. Great!
    Please proceed with caution when you speak on culture and cuisine of others. I am originally from Ukraine. You must not know people who cook real food at home, or you would not be using terms like bastardized and what have you… Restaurants rarely do justice to a culture’s unique cuisine and soul. Sincerely, home cook.

    • Hi Sveta,
      Thanks for your comment! I agree that anywhere in the world, food cooked at home can differ from restaurant food. I have eaten at people’s homes regularly during my trips to former-Soviet countries in the past 25 years, and I imagine they cooked “real food”. Regardless, I still claim that in most large cities (and that includes Moscow and Kiev), some restaurants are the best examples of a culture’s cuisine. I hope you’ll agree: the best restaurants of the world are the ones that offer either innovation, or exemplary versions of traditional food. As for the word “bastardized”, if you look again at my post, I don’t apply it to home cooking, but to the policies of a regime that obviously placed food very low in its list of priorities.

  15. Hi Florian,
    I was so happy to come across your blog. I recently moved to Krakow, Poland and am discovering the unique flavors, dishes, and ingredients used in Eastern Bloc cuisine. I like the way you celebrate an often-not celebrated branch of cuisine. I was pleased to see that you mentioned Atelier Amaro in your intro. My husband and I recently ate there and it remains one of the best meals we’ve ever had. My blog is not nearly as professional as your’s, but I did write about this experience here (http://jedidiah-arlene.tumblr.com/post/77707359512/the-best-meal-i-ever-had-i-exaggerate-a-lot-when). I look forward to reading more about your food adventures. If you ever swing through Krakow – we’ll show you what is best to eat around here.

  16. Hello, Florian :)
    I’ve just randomly came across to your blog and I am already fascinated by its content and your knowledge! I drew up in one of Soviet Bloc’s country but I wish to know about Russian food history as much as you know! I look forward to getting to know you better!

  17. This is really an amazing blog! You have a great straight forward approach to your topic without missing a single piece of humour. As I am travelling from time to time in Central Europe I can see that there is still quite some room for improvement on the culinary side. Making what they do right now just better will not be sufficient enough.
    I appreciate that you travel to countries off the beaten track and share your experiences. I believe I might never visit them but they are an incentive to travel at least the deep country side in Central Europe, especially Romania.
    What I am wondering about is the quality of the vegetables and fruit in the Eastern European countries you visited. Do they still have a “real” taste. I am still dreaming of the apples I had 20 years ago in the Tarsus mountains in Turkey. Never ate anything as good again. Is this similar in Armenia, Georgia etc.?
    Anyway, merci beaucoup et bonne chance avec vos grands efforts.

    • Hi Askan, glad you like the blog! As for the taste of fresh produce in the countries I visited, as everywhere else, it depends where you get them from. From what I recall, most of the fruits and vegetables I ate in the Caucasus tasted delicious, but then I remember stopping once to buy some from a roadside vendor, and the plums and peaches were disappointing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s