Slowing Down for a Bite to Eat
French-American chef Michele Haines is on a tour of Russia spreading the good word about Slow Food.
Published: June 21, 2013 (Issue # 1764)
Allison Geller / spt
Storytelling is an integral part of dining with Chef Michele.
Hailing from Paris-via-Philadelphia, chef Michele Haines stopped by St. Petersburg to both teach and learn from the locals as part of a trip to promote the Slow Food movement in Russia.
Slow Food, a grassroots organization with members in 150 countries, has as its goal “linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to community and the environment.” More of a lifestyle than a campaign, the international movement encourages people to live and eat closer to the earth — a matter of course for some, a revelation for others.
“I became interested in Slow Food from their beginning in 1986, in Bra, Italy,” Haines said. “I believe in good health, in good, fresh, local produce, seasonal meals, organically cultivated if possible, no pesticide or chemicals.”
“I believe in food to be enjoyed in good company or family, taking your time.”
The 71-year-old chef, who has visited as many countries, owns a French bistro, Spring Mill Cafe, outside of Philadelphia. It’s a good thing she has her older son to run the restaurant when she is out of town, as Haines spends much of her time hopping around the globe, working as a personal chef, learning new cuisines and pursuing her Slow Food and charity projects.
Haines spent her days in St. Petersburg going to the market and picking out fresh produce and farmers’ products, eating at both new and well-established restaurants and meeting with Russia’s most precocious chefs and food personalities, such as food writer Maxim Syrnikov. After St. Petersburg, she’ll travel to Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow and Suzdal to lead workshops and demonstrations.
At a Slow Food gathering on Russia Day in the apartment of St. Petersburg Slow Food leader Svetlana Haliavina, friends and Slow Foodies gathered eagerly around the stove to watch Haines prepare an authentic Moroccan couscous and pate de foie gras. A neighbor’s fridge had already been borrowed to make room for the chocolate mousse that Haines had already prepared.
As people milled around, lending a hand to the cooking under the chef’s watchful eye or chatting and drinking wine, a pot of the traditional Russian soup ukha simmered on a burner. Gathering around the stove and then the table, guests took part in the simple essence of Slow Food: Uniting people across cultures through the preparation and enjoyment of a meal.
Slow Food is organized into local chapters, or “convivia,” from the Latin word for a banquet or feast. There are now 14 convivia in Russia.
Haliavina and her friend Elizaveta Palei officially began the St. Petersburg Slow Food convivium in 2011, but the group of like-minded foodies had already begun to form a decade earlier.
“In 2011 we were absolutely certain that a Slow Food convivium already existed in St. Petersburg, given that the craze for local food was at its height. But that turned out not to be the case, and now that the “local” boom has already passed, we keep to our simple, calm and tasty activities.” Haliavina said.
Allison Geller / spt
Chef Haines believes in the merits of taking time to savor a meal.
The group’s activities include taking part in the international, Slow Food Tierra Madre celebration on Dec. 10, when the group hosts a pelmeni-making day. They also act as food vigilantes, discreetly inspecting restaurants and cafes for their cleanliness and quality.
The chapter’s other main initiative is to train psychologists and educators about the need for Slow Food. Children, Haliavina says, are the best hope for a healthy future.
“Teaching them to choose good and tasty food — culture, health and heredity depend on their choice.”
“In the fall we’re starting trainings for adults,” she said. “It turns out there’s more of a need there; not less.”
More than widely publicized events, though, the Slow Food movement is about spreading knowledge of and appreciation for good food. While preparing and enjoying meals from fresh products used to be a part of daily life, it is now something of a rarity.
Haliavina believes Russia has a special need to revive this lost art of healthy living.
“This movement is unique in that it seeks to unite producers and consumers, to support the unique traditions of a particular region, preserving the food culture against globalization,” she said, referring to the long history of Russian cuisine that is slipping by the wayside.
Haines, who used to teach anthropology, knows how important food is to a culture.
“I am a world ambassador of some sort because I believe in sharing. I am a teacher at heart,” Haines said.
To cap off the evening, Chef Michele taught attendees to last week’s Slow Food event to flip their own crepes, which she then drenched with cognac and lit aflame, in the small, cast-iron pan that she brings with her everywhere, along with her brioche mold and decaf coffee.
In September, the chef will travel to Sardinia to learn to make hand-made pasta. In November, she’s off to Costa Rica to cook for friends in a small French bistro. With her energy and love of travel, Haines is the ideal ambassador for Slow Food — with every country, another brioche to bake, another round of chocolate mousse to find room for.