Svetlana Mahat, the Black Duck restaurant: «All the magic in the kitchen happens on an intuitive level»
Restaurant-keeper, gastronomic expert and founder of the Black Duck restaurant chain Svetlana Mahat talks about healthy diet, business and hospitality secrets A bonus — a special recipe for duck with cranberry sauce for your new year's table.
Interview: Tahmina Kibirova
Photo: Darkhan Zhagiparov
— Svetlana, how did you come to a healthy diet?
— I have been allergic since my early childhood. I was treated, we excluded dairy products, eggs and fish, which I was particularly allergic to from the list of things I eat. Everyone thought I was gaining weight but that was from edema disease. As an adult, I realized that only I can help myself, and began to analyze the impact of food on the human body. Wheat gluten, for instance. In the modern food industry, it undergoes a powerful chemical treatment, and the body does not accept it — hence the allergic reaction. I haven't eaten food containing gluten for more than two years. I used to get sick a lot, but now I feel great.
— I remember a quote from an old comedy film: «Salt is white poison, sugar is sweet poison, and bread is just poison!»
— Sugar was introduced to the food industry at some point as a preservative for preparations for the winter, like citric acid or vinegar. In small quantities, these products are not harmful, but abusing them causes serious health problems. in the past, for sweetness, honey and plants were added to dishes — stevia, licorice. Compote can be sweet in itself due to the fruit containing natural sucrose, fructose and glucose.
— It is useless to work out in the gym and whiten your face if you clog the body with toxins and do not enrich it with a variety of healthy products. «We are what we eat.»
— Yes, like a flower that we water and fertilize. This is important for health and, as a result, for beauty. What is interesting is that the higher quality food, the smaller market basket of consumer goods. Healthy products in a small amount can provide the human body with full-fledged nutrients and are full of energy. «Here comes the choo-choo train!», «Have yourself some chocolate», «Have a little drops» is a pernicious habit «to eat» and «to drink» everything in a row. It is important to approach nutrition with an open mind, to understand what food is good and what is bad. As communication between people can be neutral, or toxic, or beneficial.
— And you came up with the idea of creating your own institution on your way to a healthy lifestyle?
— We already had a restaurant at that time. I have never had much commercial excitement, I do my business for the soul. I always liked to cook, bake pies, and I came to the restaurant business as an amateur, because I have a degree of an economist. In 1999, my family and I moved to Astana, when I was a student. After graduating I worked in advertising and organized exhibitions for my sister — artist Leila Mahat. At that moment, the idea of creating a fund to support children's creativity and cultural heritage of Kazakhstan «Baita» was born, we named it in honor of my grandfather Baituya-ata. And we opened our first Black Duck restaurant in partnership 6 years ago in RIXOS Khan Shatyr Residences.
Most importantly, in all my endeavors, I have always been supported by my boyfriend, who is now my husband. This is our trick — to hint to each other about the freshness of the relationship (smiles). You know, when two people look in the same direction — it's true love! I am valued as a woman, as a friend, and as a partner. When I studied the psychological aspects of motivation, I analyzed myself and realized that I am certainly a happy woman. I was very lucky, because in our relationship, all the achievements were in defiance of something, but for the sake of each other's happiness. The same is in work: he is always there, supervising me, sharing experiences, teaching and learning with me.
— And why did you go with Black Duck?
— Ducks create a couple once and for all. In Japanese traditional culture, a young spouse brings a duck to the wedding ceremony. We decided to create a family restaurant. And the place where we opened it was rich with lakes with ducks. We thought it was a good sign for us. I'm very good at cooking duck myself. I remember friends saying that if our restaurant had a duck as good as we do it at home, we would be successful. By the way, we came up with a duck cutlet for our signature Black Duck Burger, and the burgers of our city picked up this idea.
— So, you have learned to develop your business from your own experience?
- Yes, I began to be interested in cooking at the age of twelve. I often watched the TV show called «Smak» and we always had a lot of books with recipes at home. I have a friend who is a beautician, her favorite book was «Five minutes of beauty and health», and I had — «Potato Dishes». And I really liked the book by Nikolai Nosov «The adventures of Mr Know-Nothing». Especially the most vivid scene for me is the one on the moon, when Ponchik found salt on the shore of the lake and took it with him. No one knew what it was, and the food on the moon was tasteless. Ponchik gave everyone a little salt for a bun or something else in return. Then the government legalized the salt and took the business away from him. I was then about eight years old, I was worried for a long time for this enterprising hero, how did he stay with nothing? And I came up with different scenarios for the development of events, if he continued his work (laughs). I think this is an indicator that I already had a train of thought as an entrepreneur.
Starting out in business, I consulted with my older sister and her husband, who works at the Embassy, and Embassies give high-level entertainment evenings. Also, my experience with the Foundation helped me a lot — I learned how to collect useful information bit by bit, build communications. These are valuable practical skills that you will not find on the Internet or in theoretical classes. In addition, I have a good management base from the Economics faculty. Together with our chef we learned how everything works in the kitchen. In fact, it is the same principle as it is at home — think through the ergonomics of the space, the plan of cooking blanks, dishes.
- So your first job in life was a kind of experiment at first?
- You could say that. My mother is a chemist, my father is a jeweler, he had his own laboratory, my daughter is studying to be a biotechnologist, so we all love experiments. My first experiment was with meat marinated under vacuum. I did it intuitively, decided to try it out. And only then did I see that it was a whole technology — sous-vide.
- What was the point of the experiment?
— We had a VacSy machine. I assumed that if you cover the meat with salt and remove the air, the salt will penetrate deeper into the meat. So I vacuumed the meat with salt, honey and spices. It turned out very good. My daughter is well versed in herbs, seasonings, studied Indian culture, and is now interested in cooking Japanese dishes. And our family loves various spices. For me, the norm is to tie a knot of cumin, coriander and leave it to cook with meat for beshbarmak. Horsemeat becomes spicy, with a special taste and aroma. I remember when my grandmother made tomato juice, she always added one or two clove buds. These are the gifts of nature, which not only give the taste of the dish, but also benefit the body. All the magic in the kitchen happens on an intuitive level
- I see you as a stylist who complements the image with a piquant detail…
— And the restaurant is a single image that a person perceives together. Everything here should be at a high level — the kitchen, servicing, interior. If something is not working out, the project will not be successful.
— Is cooking a creative profession or a routine?
— There are marathon runners and there are sprinters. Those who cook at home are sprinters, and marathon runners work in restaurants. You will need endurance, high stress resistance, because the cook prepares a dish with his own hands every time, while you need to maintain standards.
— What if we replace the cook with a robot? It makes it easier to maintain standards…
- That will happen once we stop enjoying food. On the one hand, now consumption will become automatic. On the other hand, food is energy. This is a confrontation between «important» and «not important». You can make coffee in the turk, or you can press the button on the machine — for someone it does not matter, but not for me. As a result, the automation of the process will work to the detriment of human nature and health.
— You're a risk taker, aren't you?"
— If I have an idea that has a future potential — I will try to do it, I will risk it. The restaurant business is a constantly changing process. We listen to the audience, read literature, look at the experience of other countries and, at the same time, look for new things, create something of our own, set trends. In our restaurant, all were formed evolutionary. The main thing that I realized — you need to live not only today, you need to look forward, predict, analyze what is happening around, and constantly move, develop.
— Speaking of trends. Retail is going online, and more people are ordering food to be delivered to their homes. Will guests come to restaurants in the next 10 to 20 years?
— You don't come to a restaurant for something simple that you can arrange at home in a hurry. People come to us for something special in the menu and for the atmosphere. Everything plays a role here — the music, interior design, tastes, smells, cozy atmosphere, attention of the staff. The world is speeding up, those who live in big cities have less time for household chores, and semi-finished products and custom food become the norm. So in 20 or even 50 years, people will come to our restaurants for something vivid. I think it will be a new higher-quality level of culture — a family lunch or dinner in a good restaurant.
— Another modern trend is that almost every day we see new coffee shops and restaurants appear, as if it is so easy to open the door and let guests in
— About 10 years ago, we were in New York. There were 30 restaurants launched in one day, and the same number was closed daily too. Many people aspire to the restaurant business, believing that it is prestigious and it is easy money. No one counts the cost of running a restaurant, salaries, staff meals, laundry, ironing, transportation, utility costs, expensive equipment like cars instantly falls in price as soon as it was purchased, and also development. This is an ill-conceived plan, high expectations, lack of experience, intuition, management skills.
— At what stage of development is the food industry in Kazakhstan today?
— The industry is there, and I like that now even the traditional national cuisine is approached from the neoclassical side. They use modern cooking methods, using local ingredients that our land gives us. I take my hat off to those who are moving in this direction.
— It is felt that domestic manufacturers are also reaching a new level, supplying the market with more and more high-quality products…
— Yes, we work mainly with local manufacturers and are satisfied with the quality. These are good farms that have their own projects too and are engaged in cattle and feed production. Vegetables, partly fruits, especially apples in season, eggs, chicken, duck, goose — this is a local economy from Akmola region. Fresh ecologically clean greens are supplied to us by the Green Eco company from Almaty. From abroad, we buy only exotic products, as well as milk and cream, which are better suited for making coffee.
— What are the pros and cons for our entrepreneurs who work in the restaurant business in Kazakhstan?
— Kazakhstan has a favorable climate for business development, there is competition, the market is developing. The only negative thing is the low percentage of tourist flow. We have our own regular audience, we really appreciate it, but we would like to receive more new guests.
— What would you surprise your new guest with? Will you share your signature recipe for the new year's table?
— I will be happy to share a homemade recipe. Cover the whole round of a duck or goose with a marinade of honey, mustard and salt and leave for a day in the refrigerator. Prepare the filling: prunes, apples and any nuts chop into small pieces, mix and lay inside the whole round. Lay the duck back down, close the hole with a whole apple. Then wrap the carcass with foil or parchment, make a small dome on top. Meat will be juicy this way. Put in the oven, preheated to 180 degrees for an hour and a half. If you want a delicious crust, then at the end of cooking, the duck must be unfolded so that it is baked. As a result, the meat and garnish will immediately be ready. The sauce can be cooked in meat broth-add a slightly diluted starch, salt, spices, cherry or cranberry jam or fresh berries.
— Well, since we are about to have a New Year and a festive feast — what wine is best served with duck in honey with cranberry sauce?
- Chilean dry red is the perfect one! If you choose from sparkling wines, Prosecco bianco is going to be the best suited. At the end of our conversation I would like to wish the readers of MEGAzine not to be lazy and to sum up the results of the outgoing year: it doesn't matter what sign it leaves with, plus or minus, because I'm sure that any minus can be converted into a plus! Thank yourself for all your actions and inactions, overcoming something and relaxing in time, and on the eve of the New Year — make a plan of desires and accomplishments, be sure to dream about the impossible and make it all at midnight on December 31! Be happy, warm and radiant for your whole world, reflect and get absorbed in it, fill it with love and happiness!