I met Igor Mezencev at the IKRA Talks in Moscow last November 2019, at a time when I took travel a little for granted. What I wouldn’t give to be back in Russia right now- -Я скучаю по москве!
A member of the Slow Food Alliance of Chefs who goes by the mantra of “good, clean and fair,” Igor holds a fascination for the food that grows under under his feet and he loves nothing more than to unravel and reimagine ancient recipes and trawl the forests and nether regions of his home country in search of ingredients cultivated in nature by nature. (All images courtesy Dima Bahta)
1. Please describe yourself in 3 words.
Impulsive, obsessed, researcher
2. Tell us about your culinary passions and your foraging expeditions in nature?
I’m from Kharkov, which is in Ukraine. Since childhood, my hobby, life and profession has revolved around cuisine. I am a cook and researcher of national Ukrainian cuisine. In my food journey, that includes my processes and the various restaurants I’ve worked in, I’ve always wanted to understand more about ingredients I was working with. So together with a team of like-minded individuals, I frequently create projects that go into depth about produce like mushrooms, fish, vegetables and roots- the things we see every day in our kitchens but we don’t always exploit to their maximum potential. With TOPOT, we went into the wild with only 4 ingredients-salt, sugar, vinegar and oil-and that put us all to the test. TOPOT is primarily a return to our nomadic roots, a journey, a new experience.
I became interested in where the techniques we work with came to us and the food that grows “under my feet,” and everything that the forests of the regions of my country are rich in. So the new project TOPOT was born – the best chefs from Ukraine went with me to the forest, where we not only tried to survive in wild conditions, but also to prepare high cuisine from the plants around us. It was a real test and a serious challenge. The aim of the project was to show that only real knowledge and experience can help a cook survive in wild conditions and be a true professional in his business.
Also, each participant found new ways to do things: someone made an oven for bread made of clay and stones, someone learned to fish in a mountain river, another made coriander pesto using sea stones. It was very interesting.
3. I believe Ukraine is back in Lockdown, as of today (15 October 2020)?
Yes we are. Quarantine measures have dealt us a serious blow and my cooking team is out of work right now. I stayed home without any support, but tried to use the time for self-development and additional education. Since March, I have been spending time with my family and reading books, something I’ve put off for too long.
Like many, I monitored the situation on social media, but the already small volume of quality content was diluted the wave of digital garbage. So I rallied my chef associates and urged them to say hello in a video on behalf of their restaurant, café or bar. I wanted to draw attention to their businesses and on my social media pages I talked about various related topics. In just a few days we had more than 300,000 views!
5. How (and in what city) did you spend time at home and what inspired, motivated and inspired you?
Like the first round of quarantine, I am at home in Kharkov. I have been studying the diverse, beautiful plants endemic to Ukraine. After this pandemic is nothing but a bad memory, I plan to do a single hike through the country ‘s villages and farms. It will be about a 400 km walk where I will gather food and material I discover on the way and expand on how to use it in the kitchen. It will be another Topot but without products in my backpack, as was the case in the first project, only something that will help me survive. This is where I’ll share about farmers who consistently give us amazing produce, those who may well disappear with the onset of another quarantine. It is what motivates and inspires me.
I live for nature -for me it is everything! When we are completely quarantined the only thing that remains is nature and access to it!
6. What has stood out for you personally and as a chef during this time?
I feel that the world around me has changed and is unlikely to become the same. This applies to absolutely every area, but I am most concerned about service reform. For example, I have information that now restaurants in my city want to reduce the wages of staff (including cooks) until the end of the quarantine. With reduced salaries we will lose good cooks who will need to change course to be able to feed their families. On the other hand, this situation may lead to the dawn of craft and artisanal innovation – like homemade sausages, baking, cheese and much more. But this too can only happen with an energy reserve and a strong financial cushion. So far, no one knows how bad the situation is but I am already gathering the country ‘s chefs for a Zoom conference so that we keep our fingers on the pulse and be ready for any changes.
And farmers have suffered a lot too. So my single hike is even more important so I can connect with them in their various territories. In November I’ll be going with a team of chefs to the farmers to film them and collate content for a book we are putting together.
Follow Igor on Instagram *
Until next time,