From Russia with love of kneidlach and gefilte fish
We meet Arkady Novikov at his first UK restaurant.
He may be about to launch sophisticated Italian and pan-Asian cuisine in London, but it is not a vision of the perfect tiramisu or teriyaki which is misting up Arkady Novikov's eyes when we meet at his Mayfair restaurant.
"Kneidlach," he says, "is what gives me goose bumps. Stuffed chicken neck, matzo brei and other things my grandmother made me. Like gefilte fish - now, I make my own."
Novikov, twinkly-eyed, charming and surprisingly unscary for an oligarch, is the founder of an empire of 50 upmarket restaurants in and around Moscow, employing a huge workforce. He trained as a chef in his native Russia but failed to land a job with McDonald's when the burger chain arrived there, because he mistook it for a fine food restaurant. He killed his interview stone dead, boasting he could cook gourmet French and Italian food.
Instead of flipping patties, he went on to cook gourmet food for the nation's first post-Soviet French restaurants, taking out a loan to open his own. Since revolutionising Moscow's dining scene he has left the kitchen to become a full-time tycoon, his empire spanning dozens of restaurants serving his fellow countrymen and women Italian, Japanese and other sophisticated foreign cuisines.
A favourite Novikov dessert
Novikov has not totally turned his back on the food he grew up with - at least one of his Moscow restaurants serves simple traditional Russian fare, including his beloved gefilte fish. Just don't expect to find any at his London outpost, Novikov's first restaurant outside Moscow, a site of 19,000 square feet, part of which opened last month.
"Russian food is complicated, difficult, heavy," he explains. "You need a special, small kitchen to make it well. And you have to be careful because everyone has their own idea of how a Russian dish should taste. As do Jews - every Jewish mother thinks her own gefilte fish recipe is best, and it can turn very nasty when it becomes a competition.
"Just as it's tough to attempt Jewish food outside the home, it's hard to find a decent Russian restaurant in Moscow, let alone London. I would have been called crazy if I had attempted it. But I might introduce the odd snack - a borscht, some pierogis - in the bar downstairs."
However, although he will not be cooking himself in either the Italian or the Asian room at Novikov on Berkeley Street, he has passed to the chef his own Italian tomato sauce recipe. "I love Italy," he says with real passion. "I spend as much time there as I can, travelling and eating." He has recently bought Versace's old mansion on Lake Como.
So why is Italy not getting the first Novikov outside Russia? "I wouldn't dare try to serve Italian food to the Italians" he confesses.
And why London? "My children are studying here and I have a home here too." His son Nikita, aged 14, and daughter Aleksandra, 20, have picked up at school the English which has so far eluded their father, who speaks through an interpreter.
For a while this phenomenally wealthy jet-setter shrugged off his Jewish background, allowing himself to be baptised when he married his Christian wife, Nadezda. But unexpectedly pulling out his holiday snaps, he explains that Israel, from where he has just returned, has been tugging at his heartstrings and forcing him to reassess his roots.
"I've just come back from hiking five days in the desert - the second time I've done it, and I absolutely love it. Love Tel Aviv too - what terrific restaurants! But Israel has been giving me a strange feeling I can't quite put my finger on - almost like a homeland."