Lviv restaurateur Mark Zarkhin is one of West Ukraine’s leading gourmets and as General Director of Fast Food Systems oversees one of the largest dining out empires in the country which includes sophisticated Lviv venue Darwin and the hugely successful Celentano pizzeria chain.
How did you begin your career in the Ukrainian restaurant business?
The starting point for me was my lifelong interest in tasty food. I simply enjoy good cuisine. When I was an undergraduate student I used to manage a coffee club at the Lviv Polytechnic Institute, which soon became quite a popular place among Lvivites. That coffee club proved to be the initial venture of my career and it was around this time that I started visiting Germany and spending time there. While in Germany I had a great chance to see first-hand how gastronomy functions on the truly European level and to appreciate how much standards differ from those in our reality. Every item, starting from the selection of dishes on offer and including the way that service personnel interacted with customers, was a valuable insight. One real discovery I remember was the realisation that in Europe most people tend to prefer dry wines from world-famous vineyards rather than the sweet wines we were used to sampling with our meals. I also became familiar with Italian culinary traditions and came to appreciate that in Italian culture a tasty dinner can be revered in almost religious terms. For my Italian acquaintances it’s an important part of the national lifestyle and is considered one of their most celebrated art forms. They consider a cook to be an artist who creates masterpieces. My travels and experiences abroad helped me to gain a working knowledge of the international restaurant business and convinced me to pursue this profession in Lviv. However, my very first restaurant, which I opened together with my business partner back in 1996, was not a success. We refused to be put off by this initial setback, opening the first Celentano pizzeria in 1998. Today our network of pizzerias totals 170 restaurants.
Where did the idea for your most famous venue Darwin originally came from?
We were looking to create something that was new and high class with style and taste. As we were planning to open a restaurant in a bookstore and had selected a cozy reading room interior design style the idea came to us that the name should reflect Victorian style notions of sophisticated dining. The name Darwin just popped up by itself as we discussed the things most often associated with academic libraries and classical science.
What are the main differences in the restaurant culture you are likely to encounter in Lviv and other Ukrainian cities?
In my opinion most venues in Kyiv focus their attention on the interior. While these interiors are often very rich and expensive, they can sometimes overshadow the cuisine. In the classical European tradition the roles of the dining environment and the food itself are reversed. Both service standards and the quality of the food on offer are considered more important. Lviv today is somewhere in between these two traditions.
How difficult is it to keep your menus fresh and appealing?
First of all, I would like to stress that our chefs put a huge amount of thought and effort into the dishes they create and offer guests. It might sometimes seem that the creation of a new dish is not such a big deal, but trust me, to maintain the high quality standards we have set for ourselves across our entire menu is a huge responsibility. When opening a new restaurant I always aim to strike a harmonious combination of tastes. One of the main concepts governing the growth and development of our network of restaurants is to encourage customers to choose wine over beer. This can sometimes seem revolutionary in Lviv but we are seeing progress step by step.
Does your staff ever get asked for anything unusual?
I can remember some guests who asked for the most expensive wine on the menu, and once they had finished the bottle they proceeded to order a bottle of vodka! Apparently they considered this to be quite normal, but I preferred to view this mixture of tastes with a hint of irony.
What makes dining out in Lviv unique?
Lvivites are lucky that they have such a wonderful city. For Lviv citizens it’s a matter of honour to take their guests for a walk around the city. Only once they have shown visitors something of the city’s beautiful architecture can thoughts turn to dining. This experience should add to their sense of wonder at our city. It is quite common nowadays for visiting VIPs to dine at Darwin once their mini-tour of the city is complete!
When friends visit you in Lviv what parts of the city do you like to show them first of all?
In first place is Rynok Square, which is a stunning introduction into Lviv’s historic charm. In recent years the nightlife of Lviv has also become lively and more interesting. Naturally, I’d show any guests my own restaurants and explain how I developed the concepts behind each one.
As a successful businessman you have often been presented with the opportunity of moving abroad or relocated to the country’s capital city. What keeps you in Lviv?
As a native Lvivite I find life in Kyiv too complicated. There are lots of business opportunities in the capital but I find that the mentality of Kyivites differs completely from that which you’ll encounter here in Lviv. Frankly speaking, Lviv suites me on every level – this city is more relaxed and people are more respectful of one another. There is no big hurry here. I often get the impression that the citizens of Lviv are living their lives for themselves. They enjoy life and aim to get the most out of it – they have what you could call a European attitude to both work and leisure.
Do you think Lviv is satisfying the increasingly high demands placed on it by the growth of the tourism industry?
As far as I know most foreign tourists who come to Lviv are not expecting to encounter the kind of high quality service and delicious cuisine which they often find in Lviv’s restaurants. I’ve heard that opinion voiced on many occasions. Lviv has huge potential and at present tourism- related trade is probably only developed to around 10% of the city’s potential! We should focus more on developing Lviv’s infrastructure and support the restaurant business because this will automatically make the city more attractive to tourists.
What are your future plans?
At the moment we are looking to develop the Celentano and Potato House restaurant networks as well as build on the success of the network of Jappi Japanese restaurants. At present the membership of our Egoist loyalty programme stands at over 1 million customers, making it the largest programme in the country. New projects will include restaurants with their own breweries. We plan to open Lviv-style restaurants all over Ukraine which will be called “Kumpel” venues (Kumpel is an old Lviv slang word which means a pal or buddy). For Lviv we plan two
Kumpel venues. Another project currently in the pipeline is a Ukrainian cuisine restaurant called “Golodny Mykola” which will have a Halychian, rustic-style interior with the main menu accent on meat dishes. These is room for more Ukrainian-themed restaurants in Ukraine: according to industry statistics at the moment a Japanese restaurant opens in Ukraine every month whereas a new Ukrainian cuisine restaurant only opens once every three months.