Arkady Novikov is the biggest restaurateur in Russia. Now he’s bringing a tasty slice of eastern promise to the West End, says John Arlidge
FEW GLOBAL RESTAURATEURS still cook for a living — just ask Wolfgang Puck. Arkady Novikov is not like most global restaurateurs. It is 9.30pm in Bolshoi, the best restaurant in Moscow, which Novikov, conveniently, owns, and after a day on the road touring the other few dozen restaurants he owns in the Russian capital, Novikov is enjoying a glass of Ruinart blanc de blancs and dinner with friends. One of his guests orders steak tartare, one of Novikov’s favourite dishes, and faster than you can say ‘spicy or mild’ he jumps up and takes control, mixing the raw meat and egg and adding the capers, Worcester sauce and Tabasco. He serves the guest himself before returning to his seat.
Diners in Russia have got used to seeing a trim figure, with close-cropped salt ’n’ pepper hair, stubble, pressed jeans, crisp white shirt and navy blazer, turning up in unlikely places, doing unlikely things — mixing steak here, singing karaoke in a late-night joint there, stepping out of his giant Cadillac Escalade SUV carrying fresh tomatoes from his farm just outside the Russian capital. Novikov does things his way. It’s the only way he’s ever known and it’s served him very well. He is now Russia’s leading restaurateur.
The 48-year-old has opened more than 100 restaurants in Moscow, ranging from French and Italian to Japanese, Chinese and traditional Russian, Georgian and Uzbek. He has opened a chain of snack bars and food stores and played the Donald Trump/Alan Sugar role in The Candidate, the Russian version of The Apprentice. Overall, he employs 7,000 people and is worth around $300 million.
But that’s not enough. He wants to go one better, to do something no Russian has ever dared attempt: become a global restaurateur. Next month he will open Novikov London, just off Berkeley Square. With 400 seats, the 18,000sq ft site is the biggest restaurant to open in the capital since the credit crunch. Other restaurateurs turned down the site, even big players such as Cipriani. It was too big to work, they said. But Novikov thinks he can prove them wrong. It would be unwise to bet against him — proving people wrong is what he does.
Novikov should not be a restaurateur at all, let alone a global one. Growing up, his grandmother used to shoo him out of the kitchen in the tiny flat the family shared, telling him cooking was ‘women’s work’. He never ate out as a child. When he got his big break, he flunked it. McDonald’s opened its first burger joint in Moscow 21 years ago and Novikov applied for a job. In those Soviet, pre-internet days he had no idea what McDonald’s was and said all the wrong things. ‘The advertisement said “McDonald’s restaurant”, so I thought it was a restaurant, not a burger place. I told the interviewer to hire me because I wanted to cook Italian and French food. They never called back,’ he recalls.
McDonald’s loss was Novikov’s and Moscow’s gain. It was the Gorbachev era and Novikov, who had eked out a living in Soviet restaurants after finishing his national service — finally making it to head of soup at a down-at-heel joint called Olimpiisky Ogni (Olympic Lights) — decided to take advantage of economic liberalisation. In 1992, he persuaded a friend who ran a cargo business to give him $50,000 in return for a 50 per cent share in a new restaurant, called Sirena. With so many restaurants serving heavy, meaty dishes, Novikov reckoned fish would be popular with both Muscovites and Westerners, who were beginning to arrive in large numbers.
To drum up business, he created what, back in those early days of Wild East capitalism, passed for ‘wow factor’ design — aquarium walls and aquarium floors. It was a hit. So much so that the local mafia visited and tried to strangle him when he refused to hand over the business. He survived — and thrived. ‘What happened is funny — funny now, but I can tell you it was not funny at the time,’ he recalls.
His formula was simple. The more the Russian economy opened up, the more he would bring new food, design and Western-style service: ‘I brought the West to the East.’ Crucially, he realised that to Russia’s new leisure classes, the scene and the atmosphere — what Russians call tusovka — were far more important than the food. ‘In Russia, it is scene first, atmosphere second, food third,’ he says. Nor did they mind paying big bills. There are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city, Forbes magazine’s rich list revealed in the spring.
Everyone wanted to eat — or at least be seen — at a Novikov restaurant. It was there that he met Vladimir Putin, then head of the FSB (successor to the KGB). Later, when Putin became Russian president, Novikov was hired to cook for Kremlin parties. He has created banquets for Jacques Chirac and Bill Clinton. One day, McDonald’s boss in Russia walked into one of his bars. Novikov thanked him for not hiring him.
NOW NOVIKOV IS hiring in London, where he lives for 90 days a year in Knightsbridge with his wife, Nadezhda Advokatova, who owns the largest florist’s business in Moscow and runs a hair salon in Sloane Avenue in London. When the Novikovs and their two children are not in London or Moscow, they holiday at Villa Fontanelle, the £26 million Lake Como retreat that once belonged to Gianni Versace. Novikov bought it three years ago and is now doing it up. The family also owns a villa in Sardinia next to the one owned by Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend Dasha Zhukova. ‘We can see Roman Abramovich’s yacht from our pool,’ he laughs.
Novikov London will be two restaurants, one classic Italian complete with vaulted glass roof, one hi-tech, buzzy modern Asian. There will also be a large lounge bar serving Russian dishes, such as caviar and Stroganoff. Dancing on the tables will be encouraged. Novikov is, of course, not the first Russian in possession of a fortune to open a restaurant in the capital. Evgeny Lebedev, son of Alexander, owner of the London Evening Standard and The Independent, has opened Sake No Hana Japanese restaurant, while businessman Leonid Shutov has launched Bob Bob Ricard. Neither Lebedev nor Shutov has had an easy time. Novikov thinks his track record in food — neither Lebedev nor Shutov are restaurateurs but have merely invested in the restaurants — will ensure success.
With £8 million already sunk into the project and rental payments of £1 million a year, Novikov has a lot at stake — and not just money. Novikov London is about pride, about showing that if a food fella can make it in Moscow, he can make it anywhere.
‘Moscow may be about the buzz. This is London, the most demanding restaurant market in the world. This is all about the food.’ He pauses to watch the guest at Bolshoi enjoying his steak tartare. ‘It’s about taste.’