In a stately apartment block in central Moscow, 20 strangers shuffle around a communal table as they wait to be seated. The apartment’s interior, warm and inviting, offers a welcome respite to the snow and slush typical in February. Alternate teal and grey walls are covered with vintage frames and artworks. Dried flowers in vintage vases, wooden crates and a white-painted stag’s head — a requisite for any hipster hangout — provide an urban-rustic feel. The table, which runs down the centre of the huge loft-style dining room, is bedecked with gem-coloured glassware, mismatched vintage cutlery and white chinaware. Out of the window guests can gaze upon the Greater Church of the Ascension, a pale yellow and white neoclassical building where the poet Alexander Pushkin married his sweetheart. The supper club scene may now be something of a fixture in cities such as New York and London, but this is Russia’s first.
Stay Hungry, which held its first dinner on 16 December, is the brainchild of three friends: Anna Bichevskaya, 34, Aliona Ermakova, 26, and Liya Mur, 26, who divide their time between the supper club and other projects. Bichevskaya, a ringer for French actress Juliette Binoche, is the co-founder of iknow.travel, a cross between TripAdvisor and Pinterest that provides information for the ever-growing number of Russian globetrotters (Bichevskaya’s husband was responsible for the apartment’s interior design); Ermakova is PR advisor to i-con Food, the parent company to a string of restaurants owned by New Yorker Isaac Correa; and Mur, the most business-minded of the three, runs her own catering company. The trio rent the apartment, formerly a space for hiring evening attire and accessories, for the sole purposes of the supper club. For Mur and Bichevskaya, a keen cook, launching a supper club was a natural extension of their talents. For Ermakova, it was borne out of a desire to meet new people. “I’m an extravert in the highest sense of the word, so I need to talk to as many people as possible during the day,” she says. “Yes I’m into food but I wanted a place where I could bring a lot of people together to communicate and make new connections.”
In this sense, Stay Hungry is unlike most supper clubs. It is not about the food per se nor is it aimed squarely at foodies. While the composition of the menu is important, the supper club’s objective is to introduce like-minded folk to each other. “There is a certain loneliness that comes with living in a big city,” explains Bichevskaya. “Especially in Russia where we don’t know how to communicate.” According to Bichevskaya, Russians suffer from an inability to converse comfortably with strangers, a consequence of the country’s Soviet past when people only spoke freely in the safety of their homes to avoid the risk of being thrown into jail. The phenomenon is known as “kitchen talk”. “When you’ve lived in a totalitarian country, this is what happens,” she says.
Stay Hungry is also an opportunity for wannabe chefs to flaunt their skills with each meal prepared by a different cook. Over time the team will hold monthly networking dinners where potential chefs can mingle with restaurateurs, entrepreneurs and other experts. Taking over the kitchen tonight is 27-year-old Elena Zaeva, who shot to fame on Cooking Battle, a Russian television programme where amateur chefs face off with professionals. In this instance, Zaeva, the amateur, stormed through. With two foreign guests in attendance, she has prepared a lavish Russian menu, opening with a platter of pickled apples, gherkins and tomatoes marinated in garlic, parsley and dill — the perfect accompaniment to the shots of khrenovukha, a horseradish- and honey-infused vodka, that punctuate the evening. To the side is a dish of pickled mushrooms in a sour cream and onion sauce, and bowls of pickled cabbage and onion seasoned with sugar.
"Now people are more open-minded. They’ve started travelling abroad, trying new foods, and more and more places are opening up”
Next up are the mains: a hearty cabbage-and-egg pie, an Olivier salad with sturgeon and caviar, and a pearl barley porridge with porcini mushrooms. All the while, a glistening pumpkin is baking away in a table-top oven at one end of the dining room, its inner cavity stuffed with quails and rice with pine nuts and mint. Just as guests are bursting at the seams, dessert is announced: apple and cowberry pie with a side of artery-clogging vanilla ice-cream. Each dish is washed down with mors, a type of cranberry juice that is lighter and less saccharine than its western counterpart, and the palate-cleansing khrenovukha whose honey-flavoured notes provide a counterpoint to the formidable punch of the horseradish.
While in other cities the advent of the supper club has been attributed to straitened times, in Moscow, it is symptomatic of a shift in attitudes towards home cooking and dining out. In short, it signals the rise of the foodie. “Ten years ago there were only five restaurants and they were very expensive,” says Ermakova. “You’d only go out if it was a special occasion like an anniversary otherwise it was pelmeni and potatoes at home. Only ‘New Russians’ would go out to restaurants and then it wasn’t about food, it was about showing off. Now people are more open-minded. They’ve started travelling abroad, trying new foods, and more and more places are opening up.”
Tapping into this zeitgeist is a wave of new restaurants which prioritise good food above all else. They stand in contrast to the majority of restaurants where the focus is on variety and tome-like menus ensure that no cuisine is left untouched, a tendency that makes for unusual culinary bedfellows such as doner kebab and sushi. Arkady Novikov, the prolific restaurateur and host of Russia’s equivalent of The Apprentice, is the man held responsible for the concept of the multicuisine restaurant. Known as the blini baron, Novikov could just as easily be dubbed the king of bling for his over-the-top restaurants that cater to Moscow’s beautiful set. His empire extends to more than 50 restaurants, mostly places to see and be seen with a few low-budget eateries thrown in for good measure. The names say it all: Vogue Cafe, Tatler Club and GQ Bar.
Eager to distance themselves from the Novikov crowd and ensure they remain “small and special” the team at Stay Hungry has operated a no PR and marketing strategy to date. Despite their best efforts, or perhaps because of their hush-hush strategy, every dinner, for which guests pay 1,500 roubles (£32), has been oversubscribed. Entry is gained via a closed group on Facebook, giving Ermakova, who is in charge of seating arrangements, a tool for matchmaking potential friends. Stay Hungry is more of a space for Muscovites of a certain type (judging by their guests, those in the media and arts spheres), and their friends and their friends’ friends, to get to know each other. “In Moscow, there’s a circle of about 1,000 people where everybody knows each other and they’re friends of Facebook but they’ve never sat opposite each other and had a conversation,” she says. Alexander Pokhavalin, an illustrator for hyperlocal media site The Village who is typical of the kind of guest at Stay Hungry dinners, agrees: "You get to meet people you see at clubs but don't get the chance to speak to.”
Through Facebook, Ermakova exercises that most Russian of policies: face control, a favourite of power-hungry bouncers who gleefully turn away patrons from nightclubs and bars for not exhibiting the right style or attitude. Her decision-making process is not as superficial but it nevertheless does allow her to winnow out unsuitable guests. It also reveals a tension: the team behind Stay Hungry may want to break down barriers to communication but for now it will be among those they feel most comfortable with. “It is a closed group because it’s not a business, it’s a hobby,” says Bichevskaya. “We don’t want to serve certain type of people like the Russian ‘big boss’. We want to enjoy ourselves and have guests that are like us.”
Meanwhile, around the table, it isn’t long before good old-fashioned networking gives way to more modern methods with a flurry of promises from guests to seek each other out on Facebook the next day, all of which are promptly followed up on. One diner is even invited back as a guest chef the following weekend. In fact, so successful are the hosts at making me feel as if I am among friends that I forget to pay for my dinner. Which, I guess, gives me an excuse to meet up with them all again.