DUBAI: Life has a way of taking us places we least expect. Last year, 34-year-old Ukrainian chef Alena Solodovichenko made the move from Moscow to Dubai, where she is currently the executive chef of Sfumato.
It’s a fine-dining venue that bills itself as a gastro atelier of “affordable luxury.” The warm-toned, dimly-lit space, equipped with an open kitchen, sits cozily in the impressive Opus Tower, designed by the famed late Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.
“Maybe for the first time in my life, I feel really proud of myself. It’s the main project of my life,” Solodovichenko tells Arab News. “I couldn’t have dreamed this up. When I entered Opus the first time, I couldn’t believe that I was going to work here. It really means a lot for me.”
Solodovichenko’s story begins in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, where she was born and bred. As a 10-year-old, she made up for her bad school grades by cooking tasty treats for her mother to lighten the mood. Nine years later, she started her career in the pastry section of a local restaurant, working her way up the ladder following her ambition of becoming a chef.
She accomplished that goal at the age of 21. But, in a male-dominated kitchen, there was blood, sweat, and literally, tears. “I was not confident and I thought I was not good enough,” she recalls. With time, she gained confidence, taking on jobs in other Japanese and Ukrainian restaurants. Later, she relocated to Moscow, becoming the executive chef of 20 restaurants. She authored cookery books and was the recipient of GQ Super Woman of the Year Award.
In the UAE, she has a singular vision for Sfumato. The Italian term refers to a renaissance art technique of blending colors to create soft and smooth transitions. With a feminine touch, Solodovichenko transforms humble root vegetables into the heroes of dishes where wagyu and lobster typically reign supreme.
“I don’t want my guest to come back for my fish,” she explains. “I want them to come back for my tomato, my celeriac, and beetroot — and then they can have the octopus.”
In a subtle way, Sfumato partly showcases Ukrainian produce and craftsmanship. Some foods from the chef’s childhood, such as borsch and the vareniki potato dumpling, have a place on her menu. At a time of huge upheaval for her country, the supportive team is doing its part by importing wooden tableware from there, hiring Ukrainian cooks, and implementing an architectural design developed in Ukraine.
“We try to help people as much as possible,” says Solodovichenko.
Here, she discusses finding her strength, respecting fellow chefs, and shares her recipe for roasted vegetables with a fruity touch.
Q: What’s your earliest food memory?
Making vareniki — Ukrainian half-moon dumplings — with my grandmother. We made them all the time, and I still make them at the restaurant.
When you started out as a professional, what was the most common mistake you made?
I think the main mistake was not working with confidence. I was scared all the time because of the men in the kitchen. But I became stronger after that.
What one ingredient can instantly improve any dish?
Of course, it’s salt. It can give taste even when there’s no taste.
Are you a disciplinarian in the kitchen? Do you shout a lot? Or are you more laidback?
For me, discipline is very important in the kitchen. We have rules. If you follow the rules, everything is cool — I can joke with you, help you, and support you. But there are situations in the kitchen when you should shout, especially if you ask for something for more than once. But I don’t get hysterical. (Laughs.)
What customer behavior most annoys you?
Changing the dishes. For example, I create a salad with three ingredients and one of them is smoked pecan nuts. If you don’t eat nuts and I remove it, then it’s no longer ‘my’ salad.
When you go out to eat, do you find yourself critiquing the food?
Yes and no. If I don’t like the dish, I won’t eat it. I never criticize and I’ll never ask the waiters, “Can you have the chef taste the pasta? It’s overcooked.” For me, that’s not OK. In the restaurant world, we chefs should have respect towards each other.
What’s your top tip for amateur chefs?
Work hard, read, and invest a lot into your self-development.
Chef Alena’s roasted vegetables with carrot passion fruit sauce
INGREDIENTS: 300gm pumpkin; 300gm sweet potato; 300gm mini carrots; 5gm sea salt; 20gm olive oil; 500ml fresh carrot juice; 5gm thyme; 50gm sugar; 15gm apple cider vinegar; 200gm passion fruit; 150gm grape seed oil
For the vegetables
1. Preheat the oven to 200 Celsius.
2. Coarsely chop the pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and mini carrots.
3. Place the vegetables on baking paper on a baking tray. Add the sea salt and olive oil to the vegetables.
4. Bake the vegetables until golden brown.
For the sauce
1. Pour the fresh carrot juice into a saucepan. Add the thyme, sugar and apple cider vinegar and mix thoroughly.
2. Simmer over medium heat until around half of the mixture has evaporated (approx. 20 mins).
3. Mix with the pulp of the passion fruit and the grape seed oil. Beat in a blender until it becomes smooth.
4. Pour the sauce over the roasted vegetables and serve hot.