U.S. Embassy chef cooked her way from Michigan to Moscow

After eight years in the Russian capital, Michelle Michalenko admits to using dill, but calls it "complex, demanding, and opinionated."

Michelle Michalenko: "Beyond the traffic madness, Moscow is an amazing city to live in and explore." Source: Personal archive

U.S. Embassy chef Michelle Michalenko gave RBTH tips on sourcing the best ingredients in Moscow, being a vegetarian in Russia, and the top American foods Russians should know.

RBTH: How long have you lived in Moscow? Where in the U.S. did you grow up?

Michelle Michalenko: I've been in Moscow eight years as of January 2014.  

I was born in Florida and soon after moved to Kentucky. Then Michigan, California, Texas, Ohio, Chicago and then Moscow. Moving often, for my father's job, seemed normal and always involved new adventures.  

I'm fortunate to have lived in so many interesting places and experienced their food and cultures. Summers involved road trips back to Michigan to see my grandparents and cousins. And pick blueberries!

RBTH: How did you get your position as the embassy chef?

M.M.: My previous DCM [deputy chief of mission] saw an ad in The Moscow Times. It was my Moscow dream job. Considering the strong competition, I was fortunate to apply  the next day, interview several times, and was then asked to begin work within days. 

RBTH: Do you have some Russian heritage? Which is the origin of your surname?

M.M.: My last name is Ukrainian from Dedushka [grandfather] Michalenko who was born on the way to the U.S. in 1900 and grew up in South Dakota. I have very little information on where his parents came from.

RBTH: Describe your typical work day.

M.M.: If there isn’t a luncheon event, I review my day, check on paperwork and emails, organize staff priorities and update the event calendar. If there is a lunch, I go directly into the kitchen. Afternoons are spent preparing for events, recipe testing, or planning menus for upcoming events.

RBTH: Do you mostly prepare American dishes or do you also cook French, Italian and, for example, Russian meals?

M.M.: My training at Le Cordon Bleu was classical French cuisine. My love of travel and exploring new foods brought Asian, Indian, Moroccan, Italian, and now Russian into my repertoire. Formal dinners are planned around food preferences of the guests and what is in season with a focus on American dishes.  

RBTH: Where do you get your ingredients?

M.M.: Metro [German chain Metro Cash and Carry], Dorogomilovsky [a large local market], the embassy commissary, and other specialty stores. Hard-to-source ingredients for pastries are ordered from the U.S.

RBTH: I know you are vegetarian, is it hard for you to be vegetarian in Russia? Do you get questions from Russians about this lifestyle?

M.M.: Yes, I was raised a vegetarian, but by the time I was 15, I started eating everything. Today, I am a dedicated Omnivore.

Many friends and family prefer vegan or vegetarian menus which I love creating. For work events, I always offer a vegetarian option for guests.

Being a vegetarian is not complicated if you understand and follow the basic food guidelines while eating a balanced diet. Moscow has lots of food choices and more arrive often. Fresh Restaurant was a great addition for Moscow’s health conscious eaters.

RBTH: What’s your favorite Russian food?

M.M.: Blini, buckwheat with onions and mushrooms, Babushka's Olivier salad and Apple Sharlotkapirozhki with cabbage or mushroom filling, syrinki, pelmeni, and fresh kvas.

RBTH: Do you hate dill as much as many foreigners in Russia do? Why do you think foreigners find it weird?

M.M.: Borrowing from Niki Segnit, dill is complex, demanding, and opinionated. I like dill best when it is used in balance with the main ingredient: mushrooms, potatoes, beef, beets, and fish. Dill has a strong sour and grassy flavor that isn't for everyone.

RBTH: Besides hamburgers, what other typically American foods should Russians know?

M.M.: Real Southern barbecue, corn bread (northern and southern varieties), shrimp gumbo, Tex-Mex, fish tacos, warm apple fritters with a cup of warm cider, clam chowder, lobster rolls, my version of macaroni and cheese and my brownies with Maker's Mark ice cream and salted caramel sauce, warm chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, an aged steak in Chicago, wine tastings at a Napa vineyard, wild Michigan huckleberries, breakfast at a dinner along highway 66, a Chicago deep-dish pizza at 2am, and Sunday lunch at Publican in Chicago. The list could continue if you have room….

RBTH: Do you go to American restaurants in Moscow? Which are your favorites?

M.M.: I explore food in Moscow. Not focused on one specific cuisine but follow what is new and interesting. [the website] The Village is full of ideas and I follow several Moscow foodies who Instagram their newest finds. My favorite restaurant is Delicatessen with Chef Ivan Shishkin. He feeds my food soul and I love the people who work there and make it special. If I'm craving American food, I invite friends over and cook. 

RBTH: Why do you think Russians like American chain restaurants so much? There is a certain boom in Moscow right now with the arrival of Shake Shack and Krispy Kreme, in addition to the established chains like McDonalds, Subway and Burger King.

M.M.: An interesting question and one that I ask my friends, even strangers! My working theory is that American chain restaurants are new, interesting, easily accessible, and fit even a student’s budget. Shake Shack has great customer service and consistent food quality plus root beer! Fast food isn't my thing and I don't eat it often.

RBTH: What do you like and dislike about Moscow?

M.M.: The traffic in Moscow is very frustrating. While I have a car, I avoid driving. Going to dacha is the exception and then I listen to audible books to pass the long hours in traffic. Babushka prefers country music when we’re stuck in traffic.  

Beyond the traffic madness, Moscow is an amazing city to live in and explore. Friends make weekend walk-abouts an interesting part of our together time. There are so many interesting facts to learn about the city and building.

RBTH: What do you do in your spare time?

M.M.: When it’s warm, I like to spend time at Babushka’s dacha sitting in the sun or working in the garden.

Walking with my dog, Mika. Exploring Moscow and the surrounding regions, cooking and researching new recipes, and travel when I can. 

RBTH: Have you traveled much in Russia? What are your favorite places?

M.M.: Yes, I have. In April 2011, I took the Trans-Siberian from Moscow to Lake Baikal and then Ulan-Ude with friends. We finished in Beijing traveling on the Trans-Mongolian.

Other weekend trips around the Moscow regions and St. Petersburg are perfect for when I have a long weekend off. When my sister still lived in Moscow, we spent weekends together and often explored outside of Moscow. 

Read more: Cola or Nikola: Foreign food on the Russian table>>>

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