How Topot is shaping a new generation of young Ukrainian chefs.
19 May 2021
“We have been walking for almost 100km with extremely heavy bags, spending nights in the forest and getting ingredients from the wild, nevertheless each of us was thinking only about one thing – what to cook.”
When someone asks 33-year-old chef and Kharkiv-native, Igor Mezentzev, what drives young chefs to choose Topot expeditions to the wild and remote areas of Ukraine, he always tells them the same thing: their passion for food. It’s not about the extreme endurance such treks entail. It’s all about the food.
Before venturing into the Carpathian forests on his first Topot trip last autumn, Igor spent his days in traditional kitchens. Still, even in those decidedly less wild environs, he explored more experimental cooking techniques through his project “Food in the Future.”
The central figure in that study was borsch. This iconic red soup is beloved in Ukraine and all across Eastern Europe, and has even been recognized as part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage by the United Nations. During his experiments, he disassembled the dish into twelve main ingredients and studied them in detail using microscopic photography and 3-D printing. This work sparkled a desire to understand the foundations of all modern cooking technologies.
This led him to the concept of cooking in the wild, using techniques such as stone cooking, cooking on an open fire and cooking in a self-made clay oven. And so, Topot was born.
It’s common these days to see Scandinavian chefs foraging for ingredients or tending gardens, religious about local sourcing. But Topot has expanded these dimensions. Well-organised survival-based expeditions, Topot provides young chefs with a test: cook delicious meals whilst revealing their inner-scout. They must do whatever it takes.
We are Topot.
This is where the Topot starts: with empowerment, with a challenge, with hours of exhausting navigation through the Carpathian forest. Cooking a dish in these extreme conditions becomes a revelation of one's inner strength, confidence, and creativity.
For the majority, this is just fuel to keep going.
Each day of Topot challenged the participants’ mindsets. They had to prepare a gourmet dish using edible wild plants never used before, demonstrating that cooking skills can help one survive in the most extreme environments, meanwhile bringing awareness to the richness of local produce often neglected by Ukrainian chefs.
Topot debuted in November, 2019 and by now, Igor has successfully held two Topot expeditions and a special initiative called “Lavka Tradycij”.
The participants form a group of ten young chefs, men and women, who walk long hours, carrying their homes and kitchens in packs that weigh at least twenty five kilograms. They learn to help each other and cook, nonstop, using anything and everything they can find. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are prepared every day according to certain rules. Some staples like flour, salt, and vinegar are allowed, but the rest should be collected in nature or from the local farmers, hunters, or fishermen.
The typical Topot menu looks something like this: amaranth cooked in rainwater and wild raspberries, goby fish with wild pear, sea pesto and mussels, grape snails confit with chili, moose broth with smoked ants and cured egg, local char poke, white mushroom tea, honeynet with wild violets and mint.
Topot through the Eyes of the Young Chefs
For the young chefs on the expedition, the newfound wild kitchen became a creative playground. During their five-day journey, chefs rediscovered the meal according to Topot, losing their fears of the unknown, trusting their feelings, and realizing that only fire and a knife could be enough to prepare gourmet meals.
Vladislav Marchuk, 24, a baker from Kyiv, had never thought of baking bread in the forest before he joined Topot. It took him countless trials during the expedition, adjusting temperatures and reviving his whole-wheat sourdough starter, to bake his first bread in a stone oven that he made himself. As for what’s next, Vladislav jokes that he will attempt to bake a croissant in a stone oven.
Some, like Andrey Petrenko, 25, thoroughly prepared for the “survival menu,” both mentally and physically. But one day he just let the forest guide him. Voila: A filet of char, simply cooked with forest herbs on a stone covered with juniper leaves.
Andrey Severenchuk had already experimented with chicken in clay, using this technique to concentrate the flavors of lamb and pork. This time, he stuffed chicken with buckwheat, mushrooms, and pepperidge berries, and covered it with sorrel leaves and clay. The chicken was then slowly cooked for five hours in ashes.
For Topot’s second edition, Igor shifted the focus to the underwater world.
A new location but the same challenging rules: A hundred-kilometer route along the Black Sea coast to a stop at the Tylihul estuary, the deepest in southern Ukraine. With plenty of flora along the shores, a famous oyster farm, and sixty two species of fish such as sand-smelt, black sea sprat, mullet, gobies, herring, and mackerel, it seemed like a perfect spot. And yet, this sumptuous area is still unexplored by Ukrainian chefs and Igor was ready to take on that challenge
Encouraged by a regional winemaking tradition that goes back at least 6,000 years, Topot residents plucked Cabernet Sauvignon grapes found on the way and made a fermented juice that was kept during the rest of the expedition.
The strikingly beautiful dishes they created were often accomplished spontaneously. A chef from Chernihiv, Zhanna Ogloblya, simply grabbed what she saw as she hiked, noticing snails, wild arugula, rose hips, and horse sorrel root.
Farmers shop “Lavka Tradycij” – Connecting Chefs to Local Food
In between editions of Topot, a new chapter of modern Ukrainian gastronomy is being composed: a return to the roots of Ukrainian cuisine through cooking in the wild. And Igor never misses a chance to push it further.
His latest initiative is a project that connects local artisans and chefs through cooking. The vast majority of chefs in Ukraine still don’t work with local products, Menzentzev says. But he sees this gap as an opportunity to directly introduce products crafted manually and naturally to the professional kitchen.
This idea came to life within the partnership of Slow Food and the shop “Lavka Tradycij” which curated a selection of local artisans. Among them: meat smoked over oak, succades made with traditional recipes, and hand-made cheese.
This initiative was the first of its kind, and it was a success. “First and most importantly, the artisans were able to introduce products that were later used in the kitchen,” Menzentzev says. “This direct network happens all too rarely.”
Nevertheless, he addresses the main issue.
«What chefs are focused on now is the development of Ukrainian cuisine, but there is no unity in achieving it. Everyone is pulling in their own direction. If we were united, we would achieve it faster. Therefore, my project seeks to unite chefs, farmers, and everyone who believes in our gastronomy.»
«Many Ukrainian chefs are inspired by top-ranking and well-renowned European and Asian chefs. However, the majority of these Ukrainian chefs only look at the surface of the work of their role models, without having a proper understanding of the huge amount of work these chefs have done or their philosophy, and why they do things in a certain way.
So, when I work with chefs I try to take them back to the roots of cooking and lead them to think in this way, delving into the core of the concepts. Often, those who follow this path are noticed and invited to cook abroad in prestigious locations. We also lack professional food critics who are able to evaluate our cuisine and chefs’ skills in the proper way. That is also something I am working on currently.»
And that is definitely not it for Topot. The fourth edition is on its way. Whist not many details have been revealed for now, we can be sure to anticipate fire, a tent and a backpack.