As a young boy, Igor Ovchinnikov, now 35, read lots of travel books and dreamed of becoming a train engineer. But his dream was dashed in 8th grade. The medical commission of the technical school for engineers turned him down because of the lingering affects of a bad case of bronchitis he contracted at age three.
Young Igor, thankfully, had another passion: cooking. He discovered a knack for the art from the time he started heating up meals for his sister when his parents were not at home. Soon he graduated to making dishes of his own and, when his train driver dreams went up in smoke, he visited a cooking school.
The “beautiful photos of dressed up waiters,” caught his imagination and he decided to pursue his culinary interest as “a waiter with knowledge of a foreign language” (in his case English).
A son of technical intelligentsia, Igor knew that the waiting profession was frowned upon in Soviet society, so he didn’t tell anyone about his career choice until the last possible moment. His parents had a hard time with his decision, but Igor was adamant; electronics or metalwork did not interest him.
Moreover, many of Ovchinnikov’s friends at school followed his career choice because they were not interested in the institute which their parents were pushing them into. “As a result,” Ovchinnikov recalled, “my friends’ parents gave me a hard time for “corrupting their progeny,” distracting their attention from the “right profession.”
In 1984 Ovchinnikov graduated from his technical college with special honors. ”While I was still studying,” he proudly recalls, “I got a position as an intern at the National Hotel. There, very accomplished elder masters taught me the ins and outs of a profession which I had come to love.”
After graduation, Ovchinnikov took a position at the National, but also continued his studies by correspondence: learning the economics of catering at the Institute of Soviet Trade. His studies and work were interrupted by two years of military service, where he was a driver and, for three months, an army cook.
In 1988, Ovchinnikov was selected as maitre d’hotel on the Soviet National Team in the International Youth Contest of Culinary Service, held at Moscow’s Cosmos Hotel. “We won third place in tough competition with foreign participants,” he said.
Soon thereafter, the National closed for a long renovation and Ovchinnikov worked until 1993 at the newly remodeled Savoy Hotel, first as a waiter, then as barman and maitre d’hotel, then as senior administrator in the first Moscow restaurant with an onsite brewery. He continued to accumulate knowledge and expertise such that he soon felt ready to start a restaurant on his own.
“Sudar” opened on Zubovsky proyezd in 1996. In 1998, he split with his partners in that venture, taking the restaurant’s name and moving it to Kutuzovsky avenue.
Ovchinnikov has survived the difficulties of running a restaurant in Russia because of his hands-on approach to management. He personally oversees everything from food selection, interaction with suppliers, marketing and customer service. “Sudar is my face,” he says. “I can’t entrust anyone else with what has become a part of my life. I can charge some one with something, but I must verify what they have done.”
At first, Ovchinnikov positioned Sudar as a traditional Russian restaurant with decor a la Russian a izba. But he quickly realized there were too many country-style Russian restaurants. “So we climbed one step higher,” he said, “and took the niche of Russian gastronomic cuisine, more refined and sophisticated ...
Ovchinnikov recently won a tender to place a new restaurant on the second floor of Domodedova’s new international terminal. To be called “Dirizhabl” (“Dirigible”), the restaurant will offer a mixture of Russian and European cuisine, gravitating to toward “fast food”. But he is quick to point out that this means not hamburgers, but a classic range of kulebyakas, hot sturgeon and salads. “It’s like a Russian-style IKEA, only in the restaurant business.”
Ovchinnikov singles out “the Russian mentality” as the most prevalant cause of difficulties for his business. “Some people who work with you don’t think down the road,” he explains. “They often can’t solve their personal problems in the time designated for it—weekends. Plus, at times waiters are eyeing more luxurious and higher-paying places, without realizing that one must work much harder for a higher pay.”
Ovchinnikov’s passion leaves little time for favorite pastimes (“occasional jogging and nordic skiing”). “When I have a free day, it’s usually a Saturday or a Sunday,” he said, “but I never rest for a month or even a full week. And even on a day off, or on a business trip, I always try to raise my professional level, so as not to lag behind changes in life. Because some take their work as a chore, but for me it’s my life.”
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