Russian soup for the soul: how cook helped me love again | Boris Fishman

October 26, 2016

Novelist Boris Fishman shunned his heritage until a fiery internship in the kitchen of a New York restaurant

In 2014, a Russian restaurant named Moscow5 7 opened near my apartment on New Yorks Lower East Side. Manhattan was full of Russian restaurants, both classics such as Samovar and parvenus such as Mari Vanna; but the main distinction, as I find it, was in their flavour of poshlost kitschy nostalgia and arriviste vulgarity, respectively. And now places like these had set up shop on my walking to the subway. I started taking the other side of the street.

I had grown up going to Russian restaurants. In 1988, when I was nine, my family immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where the Italians were slowly giving way to Chinese and Russians. My only wish was to transform myself from Boris to Bobby and shed every sign of my heritage, but I was too young to say no when my family packed off to places like the National Restaurant in Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn, for somebodys birthday.( Somebody had a birthday all the time .) There, seated at dinner tables worthy of Rabelais, we gorged on fried potatoes with morels, sturgeon, quail and duck liver, and watched elaborate floor show dancing daughters, attires, smoking stunned by the food and the spectacle. Id had enough for a lifetime.

By the end of high school, I was passing well enough that I was ripe for reclamation: a high school read of Ivan Turgenevs Fathers And Sons hacked down my little Berlin wall, leading to a Russian literature major at university and a journalism career that never strayed far from Russians, whether there or in the Russian diaspora. My poor Jewish parents, abused by the Soviets into contempt for that place and those people, wished I hadnt been so quick to shed my self-loathing, but they maintained going to the National, and I stopped. I stopped watching them, too. Otherwise, how was I to save myself from their trauma?

One rainy late springtime Sunday night in 2015, a friend and I built our route through three rounds of cocktails in a neighbourhood bar and, gin in my head, I forgot to cross to the right side of Delancey Street when we strolled past Moscow5 7. My friend was a Russian non-Russian like me, and we likely supposed the same thing: whatever affectation wed find at Moscow5 7 would at least share nothing with the studied scruffiness of a Lower East Side cocktail den circa 2015. Also, Russian food soaks up booze really well.

It was beautiful inside. Blood-red walls, soft illuminate, decorative chaos: pressed-tin ceiling, blocks of mirrors, photographs hung up with clothes pegs. And the menu was both familiar and not: blinis, but also cucumber and pomegranate salad; borscht, but also pistachio and fenugreek shrimp. The restaurant felt like nothing but itself, an elusive commodity in the city that has everything. To reach our banquette, we had to squeeze past a woman belting Little Girl Blue with the aid of a small band; when she finished, she strolled up to us and introduced herself Ellen Kaye, one of the owners. Her parents had operated the Russian Tea Room on 57 th Street, hence Moscow5 7. Then she took a swig of honey and returned to the mic. It was everything Id always wished to find in a Russian restaurant: warmth rather than pomp. I started walking on the Moscow5 7 side of the street.

That spring, I was disoriented. The previous year, after years of rejection, I had published my first fiction to all the reception a first-time novelist dreamings of. So much so that I went on a read tour that mortals like me must leave to the Coldplays of the world: nine months and more than 100 appearances. Saying the same thing every night while attempting to seem sincere had built me feel like a sociopath. I was once a social animal but trying to engage with readers had drained any passion for human contact from me. In the middle of it all, a woman I loved left me. So, during my last months of readings, Id sit against the wall of my hotel room for hours before rising got to go and on autopilot talk, induce gags, and ask and answer questions for three hours.

I was desperate to shut off my brain, but I could barely leave my bed. One night at Moscow5 7( one of the few places I could stand to be done in order to ), I joked to Ellen and Seth Goldman, one of her business partners( two of the few people I could stand to watch ), that Id always wanted to work as a waiter, perhaps because, food having been scarce in the Soviet Union, for many Russians the prospect of serving it to another can be almost erotically fulfilling.( My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who feed potato peels as she conceals out with guerrilla fighters in the Belarus forests, would move her mouth along with mine as she watched me eat .) Plus, I was good with people or so I had once supposed. Maybe Ellen and Seth would let me serve food now and then? Id do it for free. Serve? he said. You dont wishes to intern in the kitchen?

After a day of writing, my intellect was depleted but my body was restless. After a kitchen switching, my body was wasted, but my intellect felt still. Photograph: Christopher Lane for the Guardian

They offered what I needed without asking whether I could boil an egg. I said yes before dread could get in the way. I knew how to boil an egg, and more: I was a decent home cook. All the same, my heart was leaden with dread as I strolled up Delancey for my first change the next day. In the kitchen, I discovered a trio of recent arrivals from Russia and Ukraine Sasha( cold station ), Misha( hot station ), Nikita( head cook) all very puzzled why someone would work in a kitchen for free. I was a writer, theyd hear was I writing a volume? No, I said, but also didnt explain: they didnt seem like people who would understand about too many readings and a broken heart. A practical person a Russian person would have been smart enough to pretend he was writing a book.

Id read enough Anthony Bourdain and Bill Buford to know that a new body in a kitchen is welcomed by flame: youre abused and, if you last, you are family. I had dreaded, but expected, the abuse. What I didnt expect was that being The Writer would render me ineligible for it, and its rewards. I was steered clear of, even that without hostility. A kitchen is a place of great, joyous detest. Hate for the owners, who dont understand what the cooks need. Hate for the servers, who always show up at the wrong day. Hate for the diners, who have the temerity to actually order.( The most unprintable language issued every time the order machine whirred with a new one .) And detest for one another for Sasha, who wore Capri pants and listened to funny music; for Misha, who seemed maniacally focused when it was busy and simply uptight the rest of the time; for Nikita, who failed to understand how lucky he was to have the sous chefs he did. Merely I wasnt worth hating.

And then I understood that I was given a wide berth not because I was The Writer, but because I was a Russian who had become an American. There was nothing we could understand about one another. So I employed the authority vested in me by the United States of America. One afternoon, Nikita hollered at Sasha to get him peppers from the downstairs walk-in, even though Sasha had his wrists deep in herring under a fur coat, a Soviet classic( layers of chopped herring, roasted beets, cold potatoes, carrots and mayonnaise, dusted with grated hard-boiled egg ), and I was standing next to him with nothing to do. I will get the peppers, I said loudly. No one said anything, or perhaps I ran off before anyone could.

Things changed a little after that. When the machine spat out potato pancakes , now it was I who was asked to go downstairs: two potatoes, one onion, one egg. I grated and mixed them before handing the batter to Sasha, and I shredded my knuckles on the grater because I was trying too hard. But next time Sasha didnt have to ask, and I didnt rip up my knuckles. After days of dicing mushrooms and onions for the chopped liver and prepping shish kebab skewers, I was allowed to construct my own borscht, blinis and honey cake.

Cooking food in a restaurant is not that different from cooking at home, except for the velocity with which you must do it while minding a slew of other time-sensitive tasks, all in a very small, very hot kitchen. But this was my salvation. From 2pm to midnight, my brain powered down to survival mode. After a day of writing, my intellect was depleted but my body was restless, a nervous energy that I tried to garbage through exercise. After a kitchen switching, a pound of water weight having left me in the heat “were in” entering high summer my body was wasted, but my intellect felt still.

Soon, I graduated to cooking the family snacks for the staff at nights end: a lovely and accurate word for people who were swearing at one another just moments ago, but who also shared an intimate duty. In my family, created voices didnt mean crisis; they meant people cared. The confused horror of many ex-girlfriends at the ease with which I passed from peace to war to peace again became more understandable.

I began to join the family in other routes: Nikita asked me to rewrite the menu; Sasha asked me to find him a bride. The restaurant didnt have a gas connection, and the improvisation this required symbolised its spirit of chaos and vibrancy. In other terms: home. By late summer, I couldnt wait for my changes, for the three musketeers in the kitchen and their raw, molecular acquaintance. I was sleeping full nights, profoundly. But I wasnt returning to my previous garrulousness; rather, I was coming to understand it as the performativeness of an immigrant who was still trying to impress.

I began to feel desire again: for writing, for food, even family. I was realising that, years before, I had readmitted only the high end of my heritage and held my nose at the remainder that is, the people themselves; the breach, crazy people. Maybe that could have worked, were I not actually still so much like them. Meanwhile, my resistance had overshadowed how much I loved my origins. I felt pride rather than disgrace driving through south Brooklyn.

The restaurant bequeathed one last gift before I left. One evening, after finishing her situated, the beautiful young lady who sang on Thursday nights asked if I had a cigarette. I burst through the kitchen doorways, nearly knocking Misha into the deep-fryer, and yelled to Nikita, always good for a pack of Parliaments. He handed me two along with some wisecrack. She and I smoked them outside, continuing our conversation at the bar. Which continued, and continued. Moscow5 7 closed last autumn because of the gas issue but, a year later, she and I are still cooking together.

Boris Fishmans borscht

Borscht. Photograph: Alamy

I developed this recipe with Oksana Zagriychuk, a Ukrainian who appeared after my grandfather and returned home earlier this year. She was all but a member of the family; as for her cook, we are discussing it to this day. When it comes to borscht, her golden rule is: the beet must not lose its colour. And if you can wait, borscht is better on the second day.

3 medium beets
3 litres water or stock
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 medium parsnip, peeled and cut into discs, the larger slicings halved
1 jalapeo, deseeded and diced small
cabbage head, chopped roughly
1 tbsp salt
1 medium or large onion, peeled and cubed
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
Cooking petroleum
1 tbsp tomato paste
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
Coriander, to taste
Curry powder, to taste
2 tbsp vinegar( optional )
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch dill, fresh or frozen

The day before, boil three medium beets, skin on, until fully cooked 40 -7 5 minutes, depending on size and age. Stick a knife into a beet to check doneness; its ready if the knife goes in smoothly. Leave the skin on and refrigerate( this helps the beet keep its colour when its cooking the next day ).

Bring the liquid to a boil, then lower to medium and put on a lid somewhat ajar. Add the potatoes, parsnip, jalapeo, cabbage and a tablespoon of salt. The soup remains at medium heat, lid somewhat off.

While the vegetables are cooking( one hour ), encompassed the base of a frying pan generously with petroleum, and saute the onions on medium heat until golden brown. Add the carrots and saute until fully cooked. Add a heaped tablespoon of tomato paste, then crush two of the garlic cloves and add.

Skin the beets( if you run them under water, the scalp should come off in your fingers ), then dice into relatively small pieces.

After the soup has been going for an hour, add the spices( adding them towards the end helps them keep their flavour ): curry and coriander are just suggestions use the spices you like. Add the onion/ carrot/ tomato paste/ garlic mixture to the soup, de-glaze the frying pan with a little water or stock, and add that to the soup, too.

Add the remaining half-tablespoon of salt and the diced beets, and turn the heat to low. Check the taste. Does the soup require salt, or a bit more acid? To give it more of the latter, you can add a bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, or vinegar, or the brine of pickled cabbage.

Add the sugar, a generous helping of the dill and the remaining two cleaves of garlic, crushed. Savour again. At this stage, the soup can use a bit more salt, even if it doesnt seem to need it the second day, borscht always savor like it needs salt. Turn the heat to high; at the first sign of boiling, turn it off, or the beets will start to lose colour. Leave for the next day. Reheat only serving portions , not the entire pot, because extended boiling will blanch the beets.

Boris Fishmans new fiction, Dont Let My Baby Do Rodeo, is published by One/ Pushkin Press at 12.99. To order a copy for 10.65, go to or call 0330 333 6846.

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