Grand opening of the new Garage Museum of Contemporary Art building – that’s the talk of the town (rather the talk of the entire artistic Russia) for the past moth. Some judge by the press coverage and those in Moscow come to see the fantastic Rem Koolhaas’s building, explore the exhibitions and stay for the delicious signature simple food by the Garage chef Denis Kalmis. Denis has been working at the Garage for 7 years. He created the first world-class museum café in Moscow, published an unusual book of recipes, shedding the light on what famous art-lovers (including Hollywood stars and European it-girls) choose to eat. The new Garage Café is gaining momentum – we meet Denis on the day of the new menu photo-shoot. He is very busy, but we don’t mind at all – all the food photographed goes right to our table. It’s good we missed breakfast! Everything is delicious! Finally Denis gets a break.
Your new menu is fantastic, your signature simple food, yet delicate and refined! But creating it, you probably must consider museum café’s special nature. What are the main challenges of working in a museum café?
I have been working in Garage from day one. I became the chef, when I was just around 22 years old and I had the privilege of creating the place the way I wanted to see it. First of all, in Russia we had a stereotype that a museum café is a place just to get water if you are thirsty and tea if you are cold. Not a place to sit down and discuss the exhibition. So the first challenge was to re-imagine a museum café for Russian audience. Another thing – we are situated in the center of Moscow, we have best-quality food, fabulous design, but we are not a posh restaurant. I want it to be a friendly place, a relaxing place, where everyone feels welcome. I realize that most our guests are the museum visitors. For now only about 20% come to eat and do not go to see the exhibition. About 50% are students and pensioners, who have limited budget and artists, who are yet to become famous and cannot spend much. So we try to keep our prices low. And since we have such diverse guests the friendly vibe is very important: the first thing I tell everyone, who comes to work here is to do the work as if they are doing it at home. Respect everyone as they do at home and be very friendly with the guests. Garage is my second home, no, my first home! I spend here most of my time and I pay very close attention to the atmosphere inside and outside of the kitchen. If I were a chef at a regular restaurant I wouldn’t have this luxury, because the restaurant business is extremely tough and you do your work and rely on other people to create the atmosphere. The fact that I work in a museum, allows me to control everything – from the dish washing to the floor.
The café is very beautiful, the furniture and the crockery is not from the old Garage building, what about the design, did Rem Koolhaas design the café too?
One interesting thing about the furniture! Our new building is a groundbreaking preservation project that has transformed the famous Seasons of the Year (Soviet Modernist restaurant built in 1968), into a contemporary museum. And the new chairs, that are going to be ready very soon, are copies of the original 1960s furniture. We found the original designs a little late and they were not ready for the opening, but they will be here soon. Again talking about the atmosphere. Big 1960s chairs will allow our guests to be more relaxed, we moved the tables a little further from each other, so everyone can talk freely without loud music or vice versa shushing and hushing. And the design – I made the design! About 2 years ago, when Rem Koolhaas just started working on the building I took a pencil and drew how I wanted the café and kitchen area to look like. And now it is just as I wanted! The kitchen is a 250 sq. m dream come true. Coming back to the homely atmosphere – everyone, who works here, cleans the kitchen in some way. That’s why I am never shy about inviting anyone to the kitchen; it is always tidy. I am happy I could make a place comfortable for everyone who works here. It’s another advantage of a museum café. Big space allowed me to separate big backstage area, where the staff can eat and rest. We can go to the kitchen right away! And that’s what we did. Denis continued his thought: When I lived in Chisinau (Moldavia) with my mom and sister, life was not that easy, but a clean and welcoming home was always a priority. That’s how I want my Garage home to be like.
You spend here most of your day, how do you relax?
I tell all of my friends that the best way to relieve stress is to call your bank. Everyone has at least one issue with his or her bank, so just call their hotline and thoroughly explain to them everything in detail. But seriously, I don’t have much time to relax, I go to the gym and box 5 times a week. That’s why everyone who works with me knows that it is better not to talk to me before 10:15 AM. I come to work at 10 AM, but those 15 minutes I can be a bit aggressive – residual effect after boxing. But boxing is the very reason I can easily handle stress the rest of the day.
There are hundreds of people at the openings and thousands during the first days of the exhibition. That’s probably the most stressful time. Do you prepare special menu for the exhibitions?
I like to make things the way I intent them to be, so I don’t change the menu, but when a new exhibition opens we sometimes offer some “inspired by” dishes. For example for the 2011 “Cuba in Revolution” exhibition I added coconut, pineapple and some Cuban-style recipes. For the 2012 “Museum of Everything” opening I offered hotdogs and other kind of food “on the go”, because the exhibition travelled throughout Russia. But every recipe I do, I do it my way.
When you get to travel abroad what museum cafes do you like to visit?
I like the restaurant at Tate modern with the great view of London and the Centre Georges Pompidou restaurant with a view of Paris. I like the idea that after the exhibition you can sit down with a glass of prosecco. Garage, as most Russian museums, didn’t have the license to sell alcohol, but in July we will finally have wine and prosecco on our menu. No hard liquor, just something to relax a little.
I like the restaurant at Tate modern with the great view of London and the Centre Georges Pompidou restaurant with a view of Paris. I like the idea that after the exhibition you can sit down with a glass of prosecco.
During those 7 years that you work at the Garage museum, you were whiteness to hundreds of exhibitions. From Marina Abramovich to John Baldessari, James Turrell, Antony Gormley, Mark Rothko, etc. What is the most significant, the most precious memory connected to Garage?
First that comes to mind is the recent building opening – we had the reception with 1500 guests the first day, a sit-down dinner with 300 guests the second day and a cocktail with a few hundred guests the third day. But the most dazzling memory must be the opening of the 2011 exhibition JAPANCONGO. Artist Carsten Holler’s double take on Jean Pigozzi’s collection of Japanese and Congolese art was juxtaposed to form the exhibition. JAPANCONGO was designed as a corridor with Japan on one side and Congo on the other. Back then I was shy and didn’t like to leave the kitchen even when everything was going as planned, even for a second. But that opening made me get out and stay on the floor for a while. We were ready for a formal cocktail dinner – all guests were wearing evening gowns, everyone was calm and contemplative. And all of a sudden I hear thunderous drumbeat, very loud music and singing as if someone was standing behind my back. I rushed out of the kitchen and saw a fun, very extravagant band that burst into the exhibition space and fascinated the audience. That is one of the precious moments and that’s what the Garage is all about – uncommon, unusual, exciting and getting you to a new level.
Since you are working in an art institution I cannot avoid this question – who are your favorite artists?
I’m not an art expert, but I can tell you what works I would like to have at home. AES+F group is one of my favorites. They focus on computer-based and video art, but they also have drawings and paintings that I would love to have at home. I am in love with Erik Bulatov’s works, he inaugurated the series of the Garage Atrium Commissions with two monumental paintings reminiscent of the 1920s advertising posters. I have a story about how we met. I saw his works in Anton Belov’s (Garage museum director) office, in books and journals, but I didn’t know how did he look like. So when someone introduced me to him during a busy evening in the kitchen, I didn’t understand it was that very Erik Bulatov. Only afterwards did I realize who complimented my work and said so many nice words about my food. Now he became a frequent visitor and I’m always happy to see him.
You must be used to praise from artists and various celebrities, who visit Garage. In your book you have their favorite recipes and great insights. Can you share something with us?
Sure, here you go.
Apple pie for Anton Belov (Garage Museum of Contemporary Art director)
Brown sugar - 140 g
Sea salt - 10 g
33% cream - 180 ml
Lemon zest – 3 lemons
For the dough:
Pizza flour - 500 g
Sugar - 100 g
Butter - 250 g
For the filling:
White raisins - 200 g
Whiskey - 100 ml
Sugar - 20g
Green apples - 1200 g
Brown sugar - 250 g
Cinnamon - 1 stick
Butter - 30g
To make the dough: whisk the eggs with the sugar, add softened butter, flour and stir. The dough is divided into two pieces: set aside a 200 g piece - it will cover the pie. Pave the form with the rest of the dough and store it in the freezer for 10 minutes.
For the filling: mix the raisins with sugar, pour in the whiskey and boil, remove from heat and leave for 2-3 hours for to raisins swollen. Peel the apples, cut them in cubes, add sugar, cinnamon, butter and cook in a roasting pan until the apples are halfway done. Cool the mix, remove the cinnamon stick, add the raisins, strain, but do not pour out the syrup.
Place the form with the dough in a preheated 160 ° C oven for 20 minutes. Grease the surface with an egg. Lay out apples with raisins in the form. Roll out the remaining dough and cover the pie, then grease with an egg, sprinkle with a mix of cane sugar, sea salt and lemon zest (consistency - powder). Bake in the 180 ° C oven for 15 minutes. Serve the cake with custard cream, whipped with 100 ml of syrup left in the pan after cooking apples.
We came to see Denis at the right time – the new menu is amazing. I hope he’ll invite us to the Café during future new menu photo shoots. But even without the photo shoot the Garage café is one of the best places to have a relaxing fine breakfast (until 2 PM for the laziest visitors) and dinner.