Mikhail Zrelov, restauranteur

Mikhail Zrelov, 27, sort of “fell into” the restaurant business. If anything, his schooling and first professional experiences seemed to suggest anything but the food service industry.

With secondary school specialties in German and mathematics, Zrelov entered Moscow State University’s Faculty of Computing Mathematics and Cybernetics. During his studies at MGU, he took a year off to go to the US, where he first worked as a courier and clerk in a trading firm at the Chicago Stock Exchange. He then took part in a student exchange program that landed him at Hope College, a liberal arts school with Dutch Reformed roots in Holland, Michigan. There he studied religion and computers while resurrecting his passion for the saxophone.

When he returned to Moscow, Zrelov worked at a bank, in the department of hard currency transactions, then as a trader at the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange (MICEX), and as a bookkeeper in a trading firm. He specialized in writing business plans and securing funding for start-ups in Russia.

Yet, through it all, his passion for jazz —and the saxophone in particular—fed a dream of opening a jazz bar. He realized his dream in early 1998, opening it —amazingly—in the basement  of the Historical Museum in central Moscow. Unfortunately, his jazz bar did not survive the August 1998 financial crisis, so he had to rethink his dream.

Luckily, Zrelov already had a new business idea waiting in the wings: a restaurant that specialized in authentic Russian cuisine with a historic flavor. In fact, the idea thrilled him so much that he himself took the post of restaurant director. The dinners would combine historically authentic meals with short lessons on culinary history. Zrelov defined “historic” to be meals based on dinners and receptions held in Russia from the 18th to early 20th centuries. The Historical Museum’s archives and a partnership with Museum Director Alexander Shkurko and Historian Valery Durov would be an invaluable resource,  untapped during the bland Soviet gastronomical era.

On December 9, 1998, Zrelov’s restaurant, Red Square, 1, opened with a dinner to honor the Cavaliers of St. George. The menu and ceremony of the dinner were meticulously reproduced. Not only did clients sample a dozen dishes prepared according to old recipes, but they also viewed a special Order of St. George, the most prestigious award in the Russian army, given only for outstanding courage in battle.

Today, Zrelov’s restaurant has a complete historical program all year ‘round, where guests can learn — and taste — firsthand what Alexander Pushkin or Nikolai Gogol savored, or what was on the traditional menu for Shrovetide and Easter dinners.

“In fact,” Zrelov said, “we have become a source of reliable information on the gastronomic history of Russia. At that, we don’t consider this information our exclusive property and gladly share it with professionals and connoisseurs of good cuisine. Many Russian restaurants are actually using our resurrected traditional Russian meals in their menus.”

Brass bands have made their appearance at some special meals, and a guitar or balalaika serenades diners at regular meals. But Zrelov’s beloved jazz and his saxophone would be very difficult for Red Square, 1 to justify historically. But given time, Zrelov will surely find a way to pursue that dream in another way on another day.

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