Andrei Nitsenko had a problem: what to do with several tons of beef brisket produced on his family’s cattle ranches in Russia. Prime cuts like ribeyes and tenderloins sell like hot cakes in steak-crazed Russia. But on a beef chart, brisket is located on the lower chest, where meat quality is considered inferior to cuts located higher up on the animal. Andrei needed to find a way to make brisket more valuable than just turning it into ground beef.
The Nitsenko family owns Zarechnoe, one of Russia’s pioneering cattle companies. It launched in 2008, two years ahead of the cattle bonanza that swept the country in 2010. That made the family among the first to be challenged with marketing less glamorous cuts of meat to Russian consumers.
In the U.S., agricultural colleges have entire departments dedicated to solving this problem. Most notably, in 2002, researchers at the University of Nebraska “discovered” a high-quality cut of meat hidden under the shoulder blade, where beef was traditionally turned into ground beef. They dubbed it the flat iron steak. That single cut of meat increased the market value of a beef steer by $50 to $70. Calculated across a rancher’s entire herd, that’s an economic boost in an industry where profits are razor thin.
Still, the flat iron steak needed sold to the public. That’s where an advocacy group called the Beef Checkoff came in. This organization coined the phrase “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.” It stokes consumer demand through TV commercials, radio spots (Sam Elliot’s roll call of steak dishes is mouthwatering), and an interactive website with recipes and how-to videos.
Over time, Americans have changed their taste for subprime cuts of meat. The most well-known example may be in the 1980s, when a steak fajita craze swept the nation, forever elevating skirt steak from “junk” meat status.
Nitsenko was exposed to this U.S. steak culture and its endless marketing possibilities as a child because his father, Sergei, fled the USSR to raise his family in America. But when the Soviet Union collapsed, they felt the pull of the motherland. They moved back, bringing with them their inside-access to the American cattle industry. The family hired a talented cowboy from Nebraska, Erik Burken (the subject of this documentary), to start eight cattle ranches, a feedlot, and a processing plant. Older brother Ilya Nitsenko became the company’s deputy director, while Andrei worked from Moscow on supply-side issues of the business, like what to do with all that brisket.
While pondering this, Andrei Nitsenko remembered eating at Jewish delis in New York City that served out-of-this-world pastrami sandwiches. In pastrami—a recipe made using beef brisket that’s been dry rubbed with spices; brined, aged, smoked, and thinly sliced—Nitsenko was tasting a flavor that hit much closer to home than he realized.
The history of pastrami dates to the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century, and the town of Pastirma, in eastern Turkey. There, horsemen stored tough cuts of sheep or goat meat under their saddles so that over the course of a hard days riding or fighting, they would tenderize and take on the salty flavor of horse sweat. Delish, for sure. When cooks learned to simulate the effect in the kitchen, pastirma was born. (In Turkic, pastirma means “to press.”)
The recipe spread into Eastern Europe where the Jewish community, many of them of Russian descent, adapted the recipe to use beef in order to keep with kosher laws. They, in turn, brought the recipe to America.
Centuries later, Nitsenko had the idea of giving pastrami a roundtrip ticket back to Eurasia. He wanted to open a combination butcher shop, selling prime cuts for customers to take home for grilling, and a deli that put marginal cuts of meat to use in its sandwiches. Nitsenko pitched the concept to Moscow restaurateur Alexander Rappaport, who upped the ante by saying he wanted to tack on a steakhouse, creating a three-tiered restaurant.
They leased a historic mansion located across the street from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, a popular tourist destination in the heart of Moscow. They named the restaurant Voronezh, after the province where the bulk of the Nitsenko cattle were raised.
Today, the restaurant is a uniquely Russian experience. Walking through the door, patrons turn left into the deli and butcher shop, or right to ascend the stairs into the restaurant.
The deli has a hip vibe, fueled by the charismatic presence of Australian chef Sebie Kenyon, a pastrami specialist brought on to create the menu, run the kitchen, and be the restaurant’s overall poster boy. Among his many clever concoctions is the Kastromskoy Sandwich, a riff on the Philly Cheese Steak, which uses its own namesake cheese from the Russian region of Kastroma. On his pastrami sandwiches, shaved layers of brisket are stacked like bricks in the red walls of the Kremlin.
The restaurant’s boldest move is its decor, which can be described as “19th century slaughterhouse.” Industrial lamps hang from meat hooks and chains. Overhead, a backlit stained glass features the pictures of raw steaks circling a heart muscle. The atmosphere appeals to Russians, who have made Voronezh one of Moscow’s hottest new restaurants.
Customers who want a more classy experience climb a staircase shrouded in chains (again with the slaughterhouse motif) into a dining room brimming with antique furniture, mismatched chairs, and chandeliers. The aim of the decor is to inspire a romanticized idea of Russia’s provincial life.
“Voronezh is like an allegory,” Nitsenko says. “There’s a lot of patriotism going on right now. We try to get the homestyle across, with good products like your grandma would grow at her dacha, [plus] Kamchatka crab, herring from the Bering Sea, and oysters from Crimea.”
Make that a Jewish grandma, perhaps, who also owns a cattle ranch.
Ryan Bell is a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan. He reports about food topics for The Plate, and his travel adventures for Voices. You can also follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Storify. His project website is Comrade Cowboys.