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Arkady Novikov: the restaurateur who is turning tables

Arkady Novikov hails from a country where they serve lard on toast. But this week the Russian opens a new restaurant and club in Mayfair. Not bad for a man who couldn’t even get a job in McDonald’s. John Arlidge meets the food tsar 


Who is the most successful restaurateur in London? Gordon Ramsay is off the boil, after financial troubles, a spectacular bust-up with his father-in-law and former business partner, and David Beckham’s decision to pull out of his new venture in Borough. Richard Caring, whose empire includes Scott’s and Le Caprice, has stopped opening new restaurants every five minutes. Keith McNally’s Balthazar has suffered some ho-hum reviews.

I decide to ask the man with the close-cropped salt and pepper hair, sitting at the prime corner table in Novikov in Mayfair, what he thinks. ‘The most successful right now? McDonald’s — and me,’ he grins. The man is Arkady Novikov. It’s his name above the door and on the menus, and right now he’s the hottest thing in the kitchen.

Never heard of him? It’s only a matter of time. The spry, fast-talking 51-year-old has already created one vast food empire in that most unlikely of epicurean locations, Moscow, and is about to create another here in London.

It’s late afternoon on a soggy November Tuesday but Novikov is in his usual high spirits. He flits from table to table, a simmering samovar of energy, sampling dishes, before rushing into the kitchen to tickle the lobsters and crayfish to make sure they are still alive. ‘Wake up, boys! No sleeping!’ he cries. The staff can’t work out whether he is talking to the crustaceans or them — and hard-charging, hard-driving Novikov likes that.

Novikov is London’s most unlikely food success story. Not only does he hail from a country with some of the worst food in the world, but virtually every major restaurateur turned down the chance to open a restaurant in the Berkeley Street site Novikov inhabits because they reckoned it was too big to be profitable.

The 540-seater establishment is, in fact, two restaurants — a Zuma-style Asian upstairs and a classical Italian downstairs — plus a Moscow-meets-Mayfair lounge bar in the basement. The rent is terrifying: £1 million a year. Novikov spent £10 million developing it. Money down the plughole, his rivals said. But then something remarkable happened. It worked.

‘We do 800-900 covers a day with an average check of £80-£100,’ says Novikov. That means the place is taking almost £100,000 every day, £700,000 a week and upwards of £35 million a year. Novikov says up to 30 per cent of that is profit.

What explains the restaurant’s success? ‘I have a good sense of smell, by which I mean instinct. And I work hard,’ he says. ‘But the main reason is London. It’s the United Nations of people and the United Nations of food. I couldn’t do this restaurant anywhere else.’

After starting out big at his eponymous restaurant, Novikov is going small. He has bought a poky old Italian called Dolada in Albemarle Street, a mere blini’s toss from Novikov, and spent £2 million expanding it into a meaty restaurant called Rextail. It opens this week. He has also bought and is opening an even smaller private members’ club called Rififi, just off Berkeley Square. ‘Most people start small, and then go big. I’m doing the opposite. Russians are not like other people,’ he says.

Rextail’s chef is Adrian Martin, who, until recently, ran all the restaurants in Caring’s Birley Group, including Annabel’s, George, Mark’s Club and Harry’s Bar. It’s not designed to be your classic steakhouse, nor classic Mayfair. It’s (relatively) affordable, quirky — there are jaunty fake bull’s heads on the wall, and  the menu features unusual cuts, such as baby goat. ‘It is a little bit eccentric, a little bit fun.’

The same goes for Rififi. Once a place where old men took snuff and then snuffed it, Novikov has redeveloped it as a Pall Mall-style bar — think green Chesterfield sofas — with a very un-Pall Mall dancefloor. Although Rififi will be for members only (subs: £800 a year), it’s so close to Novikov and Rextail that anyone who wants to party when the restaurants shut for the night will find themselves on the guest list. It is licensed until 3am. ‘I want it to feel like an old, but funky, house,’ he says.

Novikov also owns the Brompton Asian Brasserie in Knightsbridge, taking his restaurant and club tally in the capital to four — and counting. ‘I’m looking at new sites,’ he says. He funds his developments with his own money and money from Russian investors, usually on a 50/50 basis. ‘I don’t have money. I need money. I have so many Russian investors. We need English partners, please!’

 Novikov is doing so much business in London that he is now an honorary Londoner. He has a large white-fronted home in Chelsea, where he lives with his wife Nadezhda Advokatova, a redoubtable businesswoman in her own right. She set up Moscow’s leading florist, Studio 55, and has opened a hair salon here, Aldo Coppola on Sloane Avenue.

The couple have two children: Aleksandra, 22, is studying contemporary art and photography at Christie’s in New York and Nikita, 17, is at King’s College School, Wimbledon. When they are not entertaining or eating in Novikov, the couple can be seen in The River Café, C London (formerly Cipriani), Tom Aikens, China Tang at The Dorchester and Racine.

The family spend their holidays in one of the greatest homes in Italy — Villa Fontanelle, the Lake Como retreat that once belonged to the fashion designer Gianni Versace. Novikov bought it for £26 million in 2008. His love affair with Italy is almost as strong as that with London. He also owns a villa in Sardinia. ‘We can see Roman Abramovich’s superyacht from our pool,’ he laughs.

Novikov cheerfully acknowledges that he owes his success in Moscow and London to Russia’s economic boom and the large number of wealthy Russians who live in London and travel here. But that doesn’t mean he approves of the Russian crowd. He winces when I ask whether he has seen the hit Fox TV showMeet the Russians.

‘I find it embarrassing. Who are these girls drinking champagne and carrying crocodile Birkin bags? I think it is not right. It’s like a disease people get when they have money. I don’t want to be associated with this thing.’

But these are the people who come to your restaurants and make them a success, I protest. ‘Da, da,’ he acknowledges, running his fingers over the beads of the jade bracelets he wears wherever he goes. ‘But I try to have the right mix of people in my restaurants and clubs. If there are too many Russians like that, not enough English come. If there are too many English, not enough Russians come. I love Russia but I am not Russian. I am inter-national, like London.’

By rights, none of this should be happening: Novikov owes his empire to a giant cock-up. In 1990, when McDonald’s opened its first burger joint in Moscow, he applied for a job. As a young ex-national serviceman who had studied at catering college and a Moscow economic institute, he was more than qualified. But in those Soviet, pre-internet days he had no idea what McDonald’s was. ‘I saw the advertisement that said “McDonald’s restaurant”. I thought it was a restaurant, not a burger place. I told the interviewer I could cook Italian and French food very well. They never called back,’ he laughs.

Screwing up was the best move he made. He decided to strike out on his own. It was 1992, the Gorbachev era of economic liberalisation, and the young chef persuaded a friend who ran a cargo business to give him $50,000 in return for a 50 per cent share in a new restaurant, called Sirena.

But there were problems with the food: there wasn’t any. Well, no meat anyway. So he decided to make it a fish restaurant. To drum up business, he created what, back in those early days of wild east capitalism, passed for wow-factor design — an aquarium below the see-through floor. It was a hit. So much so that the local mafia visited and tried to strangle him when he refused to hand over the business. But he survived — and thrived.

The more the Russian economy opened up, the more Russians began to make money and the more Westerners with expense accounts began to arrive in Moscow, the more restaurants Novikov opened. Fifty, in fact. He tried everything and almost all of it worked, even a restaurant shaped like the inside of a cheese.

Everyone wanted to eat — or at least be seen — at a Novikov restaurant. He met Vladimir Putin, then head of the FSB (a successor to the KGB), in one of his venues. Later, when Putin became president, Novikov was hired to cook for Kremlin parties. One day, the boss of McDonald’s in Russia walked into one of his bars. Novikov thanked him for not hiring him.

Taking a leaf out of Gordon Ramsay’s book — he calls Ramsay a ‘hero’ even though he recalls the fiery Scot once described his Moscow restaurants as ‘garbage’ — he has appeared as a judge on the Russian version of The Apprentice and MasterChef.

Novikov may be focused on London this month but he has just closed a deal that is close to his heart in Moscow. ‘I’ve just got the franchise to open Krispy Kreme in Moscow,’ he grins. ‘I opened the first the other day. There were 500 people in the queue outside.’ Twenty-three years after flunking his first fast-food job, the food tsar has finally brought a little bit of Main Street to Red Square.

Source: Evening Standard