Latin Culinary Genius Takes No Prisoners As He Cooks Up a Unique Menu
Text by John Bonar
Photos by Serge Golovach
Soft spoken and bespectacled Yuri Navarro, who does amazing things with a wok and barbecue at his eponymous restaurant on Schmitovsky proezd, does not look like someone who swapped a Kalshnikov for a wooden spoon. But that’s exactly what Yuri did in 1980. At 18, as a communist guerrilla in his native El Salvador, he was on the wanted list in his native country in Central America. As he tells the tale, rather matter of fact, he and has father were walking along the road in 1979 when they came upon four dead bodies in the road. Beheaded. His father decided enough was enough and while Yuri went into hiding with a friend who was a Colonel in the country’s army, his father obtained visas for Venezuela, across South America on the Atlantic coast, for the whole family and they fled.
“I remember one night my brother and I were home watching a film about Las Vegas on TV, when I heard an army truck on the road outside after curfew,” he told me. “I wonder who’s the lucky one tonight,” I cracked to my brother as I looked through the window. When I saw the truck backing up towards our house, I yelled ‘Get up, it’s time to go! ’”
The pair of youths dived out the back door and started jumping over fences. A few houses away they knocked on a door. “The woman, she knew what was going on and let us in. We didn’t have time to shut the door behind us when we heard soldiers approaching. I lay on the floor with my .357 Magnum in both hands in front of me pointing at the door. Someone looked through the window. He was in uniform, but I recognized him. We had been to school together. His leader shouted, “is anyone there?’ He knew if he said yes, I would have to shoot him, and he called back ‘No, it’s empty! ’ I was so relieved!”
After finding the beheaded corpses Yuri went into hiding for three and a half months before the visas came through. In Venezuela, Yuri began to put his guerrilla past behind him. When the Venezuelan currency collapsed he accepted an invitation from his Mom to move to New York where she lived and he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. Upon graduation in 1983, and finding New York cold and inhospitable, he and his Mom moved to Los Angeles and Yuri began his climb up the culinary ladder of success in the United States. He started at the five star Beverly Hills BelAir hotel as a banquet sou chef. He moved to the Le Beluga as banquet chef and its Russian owner, opened L’Hermitage restaurant and he moved there as executive sou chef. His next move was to be the opening executive sou chef for the St James’ Club on Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills, a grand old building which housed a private club, hotel and restaurant, with members that included Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, and David Bowie. In 1986, after six months he became executive chef of the restaurant and some time later he was sent to the affi liated Club hotels in London, Paris and Antigua to train their chefs on Californian cuisine.
“This was the era of the sun dried tomato and I had to teach them how to cook dishes such as soft shell crab and how to use lots of light greens and herbs in their cooking and presentation,” he recalls.
Returning from Antigua, Yuri decided the time was right for him to open his own restaurant. With a friend he opened the appropriately named “Sun Dried Tomato” on Rodeo Drive and proceeded to cook up a storm. After a year or so a particular customer started coming in day after day and asking for unusual dishes that were not on the menu. Yuri, even then, was anxious to please every customer and kept running to the store to buy ingredients and cooking them up for the demanding client.
“One day he asked to speak to the chef. The waiter told him the chef was the owner and we met. He straight away asked me if I was interested in becoming his partner. He had been testing me to see if I could cook a whole range of dishes he liked, including pelmeni.”
The business was 13 restaurants. And the location? Russia.
“I nearly said no, right then. I had gone to Los Angeles because New York was too cold, never mind Russia,” Yuri recalled.
“I said I would take a look and arrived at Sheremetyevo in October of1994. Everyone was wearing fur hats and big coats. They looked like gangsters. The weather was getting cold. The restaurants this man owned were all in Sheremetyevo over all five floors. Everything from a stolovaya (Russian staff canteen) to upscale restaurants. My first sight, when I walked into the kitchen was a chef cooking over a stove, cigarette in his mouth and swigging from a bottle of wine. It was really disgusting.”
Despite the cold, despite the army of Babushkas seemingly determined to trip up this strange Latin man and despite the language difficulties Yuri stayed. In three months he had built a “monster machine” as he calls it.
“We were getting lots of repeat customers and I even did a New Years Party in 1995 that was overbooked,” he remembers. But in June 1996, “the Mafia took us out. We were just thrown out.”
Yuri sent his resume to a number of Moscow restaurants and hotels including RosInter group’s Santa Fe where he ended up. “It was close to where I lived, and I liked the ambience. It reminded me of home,” he says fondly. His grandmother, who christened him Yuri after Gagarin, the first Cosmonaut whose space flight enthralled the world in the year of Yuri’s birth, must have had a premonition.
Yuri stayed at Santa Fe on Matulinskaya ulitsa between the World Trade Center and ExpoCenter for 12 years, making it virtually his own. He became not only chef but friend; first to Moscow’s wheeling and dealing expat community and then the rapidly emerging middle and upper middle class of Russia.
“I am really grateful to Rostislav (Ordovsky-Tanaevsky Blanco) for giving me the opportunity to run Santa Fe for 12 years,” Yuri says. “It was a happy time in my life.”
But this year it was finally time to move on. Yuri wanted his own restaurant and with the support of a Russian friend they started construction of Navarro’s a stone’s throw from Santa Fe, close to the third ring road and the Moscow City development.
On the 17th of April Yuri opened his doors without fanfare.
“I want to get it right first,” he told me back then. “I want to get the table staff trained; I want the team to be perfect.”
Six months later and we are there. The cozy relaxed lounge bar seats 30, to the left of the entrance is the main 80-seat restaurant and upstairs, together with the large kitchen there is a mezzanine accommodating 40 to 50 people.
The idea is a fusion of Yuri’s native Latin American cuisine with Mediterranean. The emphasis is on seafood and Argentinean beef. Of course, this being Russia, there’s pork and chicken and Yuri has an appetizing array of game on the menu from partridge and duck to venison and wild boar.
Navarro’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and their Navarro’s Breakfast plate has tempted Passport Publisher, John Ortega, to forsake his former breakfast haunts for the convenience of Navarro’s.
Yuri has devised a menu that encompasses Tapas, Sushi, Maki, Ceviche and Seafood, a grill featuring Bream, Sea Bass and Dorado, Tenderloin, Rib Eye and Rump Steaks rounded off with a mouth watering list of deserts. He even has a “History” selection with chicken wings and chips and salsa for those who eschew fusion and want to stay with the tried and tested dishes of yore.
Yuri declined to offer a recipe for Passport Readers. “Everything on our menu needs a professional kitchen and we use special ingredients which you can’t find in supermarkets,” he said apologetically.
Yuri remains remarkably unscathed by the years in Russia but his face lights up when you mention his wife, Natalia Antonova whom he met while he worked at Sheremetyeva. “We have two beautiful kids now,” he reminds me. “Anthony is seven and Agatha Maria is two.” Natalia continues to work with Yuri designing the décor of the restaurant and choosing the furniture which has contributed to creating a special sort of home away from home for visitors along with stressed Moscow executives looking for a place to unwind, relax and enjoy tasty well-prepared food.