Last winter, it looked like 2020 was going to be Matilda Shnurova’s year. Shnurova, the financial backer and front-of-house face of CoCoCo in St. Petersburg, was getting more and more accolades for her restaurant, which is credited as pioneering a Slow Food way of thinking in Russian cuisine. Russia was preparing to issue electronic visas to European travelers, which would have brought in the gastronaut set, while events like football championships and economic summits were going to bring all kinds of visitors to the city.
And so she started working on three new restaurants. CoCoCo is splitting into two new restaurants on New Holland Island, the high-end CoCoCouture and more casual CoCoCo Bistro. And the old CoCoCo space is now Bio My Bio, a Slow Food restaurant that avoids sugar, gluten and lactose, something that she says is notably absent in Russia’s restaurant scene.
But then 2020 turned out to be 2020.
She was past the point of no return with all three of the projects—two were set to open in April and one in May—when the virus arrived and forced us all inside. But Shnurova had faced challenges before. She had studied biochemistry but found that incompatible with being half of one of Russia’s most glamorous couples. And so she rekindled her childhood love for cooking and became a restaurant entrepreneur.
“When I opened CoCoCo [with chef Igor Grishechkin] eight years ago, people didn’t eat local ingredients,” she recalls. “This was before sanctions. All the chefs used ingredients from Italy or France. You could find really good food but with European ingredients. When I opened I wanted the challenge of local ingredients. It would be unique. I knew about Scandinavian cuisine, this trend in the world. I thought, wow, there are no restaurants like this.
“I had a lot of conversations with restaurant owners. Everyone said it was a crazy idea, that people want to eat European ingredients. But I opened in 2012 with only local ingredients. I think in one or two years many restaurants in Moscow and St. Petersburg will be open with this concept.”
And so this year, her crazy-sounding idea has been going ahead with three restaurants a planned. Asked if she would adapt her concepts for a near future without tourists, she doesn’t hesitate.
“I’m still staying with my original plans,” she says. “At Bistro [which opened in July] things are not bad. It’s very understandable food. It’s a bistro. We serve comfort food like burgers and pizzas, and people love it. It’s in the park on New Holland Island and people go there to walk. There are only 42 seats now, so we are are full and feel comfortable.”
It’s more difficult, she admits at Bio My Bio, which opened in August. “It’s a big restaurant. We have 70 seats with social distancing, and it’s difficult to push a new restaurant when we can’t invite international journalists or host parties or wine dinners.”
Her biggest best, CoCoCouture, is opening next week as an evolution of the lavish, high concept restaurant that CoCoCo used to be. It will be a place with complex, visually evocative dishes such as a Fabergé egg created out of white chocolate with caviar, hollandaise and gold that recalls the famous Easter jewel that Tsar Alexander III gave to Empress Maria Feodorovna each year. Or a stunning crème brûlée that takes the form of a cameo.
Shnurova is realistic about the challenges ahead for a restaurant that would normally draw food lovers and World’s 50 Best chasers (CoCoCo was on the extended list) from around the world. “We can’t solve this situation,” she says. “We just have to wait.”
But she has managed to keep most of her staff (except some who left for personal reasons) and maintain enthusiasm for the projects. “I’m a very optimistic person,” she says. “It’s my nature. I felt a lot of support from my team. I cut 20% of their salary but they supported me and I supported them. We tried to be optimistic. The moment that we are going to open the project gave us a positive state of mind.
“If we had opened it and then had quarantine and then opened it again it wouldn’t have been the same. But we had the excitement about the opening. We were going to open something new. We worked on design and service and plates and tastes. We started Bio My Bio with delivery. We decided not to wait. We were sure that during quarantine it would be successful.
“In spite of everything, I opened my restaurants. I’m going to open the third one. I see that it will be an extremely difficult winter. Covid numbers are going up. I don’t know. Maybe it will be gone in April. For now, we have to stay like this. I think of my colleagues everywhere in the world. I know how difficult it is to go through this time. But I’m still positive and believe that people will understand and go in the spring and make it profitable.”