Eric le Provos is a French chef who delivers!
By Valeria Cheshko. Photos by Alexei Gorov
Eric le Provos is one of Russia’s most well-known and successful (French) chefs. He was formerly the part-owner and head chef at Carre Blanc, a restaurant patronized by President Putin. Now le Provos has opened a catering business, Cuisine 31. This is no ordinary catering company; it offers gourmet French cuisine delivered to your home, where it can be heated and served, and your friends will never know that you didn’t cook it yourself!
How did it happen that you came to Russia?
When I was young I felt like traveling – I did not feel so comfortable in France, I was somehow disappointed with the French system and felt bored. In 1989 I was in the United States improving a little more my English, and stayed there for a year. I came back to France in order to improve my cooking skills because I was afraid to lose everything I knew. Still, I did not like the French mentality again, and I found it too difficult to stay there. One day I was looking through a newspaper my father bought, and came across an announcement that a restaurant in Moscow is looking for a chef. I got interested. My parents thought it was a good idea for me, who lived in capitalist countries, to experience the other way. I never expected that I would stay so long.
What kept you here?
New challenges, good friends… the restaurant business is like theatre – both are about bringing pleasure to people. I met many interesting people and we created good relationships. Then we started creating together – Actor, le Duc, Viking, my own restaurant Carre Blanc. These were really nice, challenging and motivating opportunities.
Do you intend to stay here long?
I do not know. I always act on impulse and never plan more than ten years in advance.
What do you think about cooking skills in Russia?
In Soviet Russia, cooking was never seen as something fundamental for living. Russians cooked any products, the meaning of “to be cooked” being “well-done,” which gives food a very different taste. Plus, they had the republics, with their local dishes, to marry with their own cooking. So they did not have to think of creation and imagination, and feel love towards the process.
Unfortunately, many Russian chefs, it seems to me, still cook just for the money and the need of doing something; they do not understand as such the art of cooking and are not so much motivated to understand it. They see no difference between a brasserie and a bistro, stolovaya, restaurant and Michelin stars. Cooking demands love, and a good chef feels happy when he sees a good ingredient.
What is the future of Russian cooking?
I would like to do something to develop the art of cooking in this country. There are some very good chefs in Russia, it is just that they are a very small percentage. But I believe in evolution. I am in the process of writing a book about being a small cook, like I used to be, and how one can expand one’s business. One of the problems here is that there is not enough professional investment capital available to an ambitious Russian chef to buy right equipment, upgrade the kitchens, etc.
Cuisine 31 is your latest project, could you tell us something about it?
Cuisine 31 is all about making people’s lives easier, helping them. At first we were planning only to be supplying to restaurants and cafes. I know the kitchens of my friends’ restaurants – they are simply too small. Many have asked me to consult them on how to improve their food and menus, but the size of the kitchens would not allow making any significant improvement. Also, it is tough to work with Russian personnel – they move too much. Good people are hard to find and difficult to keep; and most cafes cannot get a foreign chef. This situation brought me to an idea of Cuisine 31, where I could help the restaurant business by supplying them with good quality food at affordable prices.
“I want to help those who do not want to waste time going to supermarkets, and for whom a party for 5-6 people is too much of a headache.”
At some point you also decided to cater to private people, why?
A good friend of mine gave me the idea. She has a family of five at home and thought it would be great if there would be a company that could provide high-quality food for home. And I thought: why not me? People want to have time for themselves, for their kids, for the family. I want to help those who do not want to waste time going to supermarkets, and for whom a party for 5-6 people is too much of a headache. Cuisine 31 offers everyone an original menu and something fresh every day. But I realize that it is going to take time for some, especially Russians, to understand the service.
Are you planning to expand Cuisine 31?
I would like to expand it, but that is in the future. It has been only two months since we properly started, and we are just beginning to understand all the ins-and-outs – logistics, the delivery process. At the same time I am working on a new menu project. In the future I am thinking about providing a banqueting service.
There is only one way to place an order with Cuisine 31 – by internet. Isn’t it too restrictive?
All the clients I am targeting do have computers, and it makes it much easier and convenient for me. Otherwise it is too much trouble. It took 3-4 months to create the website, and I did testing sessions with friends. We wanted to make it understandable to a layman.
The name Cuisine 31 is very catchy, where does it come from?
Cuisine means kitchen in French, and 31 is the house number of the building in which we are located on Leninsky Prospekt. We wanted to make it simple, and followed the current trend of having both a word and a number in the name.
Your location is very central…
Yes, we were very lucky to find the place, which is not too far away from the centre and has enough floor space. The place is very important – both the location and the interior design. The operations spread across two floors, and I asked a cuisinist – a person whose profession is to build kitchens and restaurants together – to make a suitable architectural design. One can be a good architect but not a good chef, or a good chef but a bad architect. Both are very important for each other when it comes to kitchens and restaurants; the building of bars too.
Does Cuisine 31 have competitors in Moscow?
Not really, may be. Cuisine 31 is catering made differently. There is no display, and people have to order on the internet. Also, unlike in shops where the food is sold ready-made, at Cuisine 31 the dishes are vacuum packed. This means that absolutely everyone can feel like a chef in the comfort and privacy of their own homes.
Have you encountered any problems with Cuisine 31?
One of my friends used to say that life is made to resolve problems. There are problems every day: ensuring the same quality of food for many portions, organizing the logistics, creating a user-friendly website. In particular, one thing is new to me – the certification of food in a business like this. Cuisine 31 is different from restaurants in that we need a certificate for every single dish and food, while restaurants simply get a license for food and drinks in general. Certificates for each dish are not easy to get; plus, it takes time. What makes it even more complicated is that such certification is new also for the authorities, especially that one dish might contain up to 20 different products, some of them completely unknown here. This is why we work with Russian suppliers. This is important because of certificates. Also, vacuum-packed food in Russia is only allowed to be stored for 48 hours, while in France it can be stored 5 days to 2 weeks dependent on the products or dish.
Do you think that bureaucracy in Russia is worse than in France?
It is the same in France. Bureaucracy is bureaucracy, and it is the same all over the world, but I would say that France and Russia should be in pole position.
How then does setting up a business like Cuisine 31 in Russia differ from France?
I did not hear yet about such type of catering business like this in France. In any case, in France it is required to get accreditation and authorization first, while in Russia these go in parallel with the actual establishing of a business.
You are doing business in Russia – a country where the influence of politics in business is a topical issue. What do you think about it?
It does not really matter for my business. People need to be getting pleasure every day the same way. Politics concerns relations between countries, and the only problem it can cause to my business is if we will not be able to import food that we cannot get in Russia. Food products are most important.
And what about President Putin?
Of course I was very honoured that he came to my restaurant Carre Blanc and chose French cuisine.
A final question: You have lived here for so long and experienced so much, what do you like about Russia most?
The zest for life. I am never stuck in a rut here. Many people – more Russians than foreigners – are ready to give an opportunity to someone to provide something new. In other countries it is different – investors (especially banks) are quite scared working with individual people, they trust more in a big company.