Discover more from The Cosmopolitan Globalist
Tributes pour in for beloved celebrity chef
Yevgeny Prigozhin, 1961-2023
The culinary world mourns a tragic loss today after the shocking death of celebrity chef Yevgeny Prigozhin. The author of the raucous tell-all memoir, Kremlin Confidential and host of the hit television show, Chopped Up, Mr. Prigozhin was known as a trailblazing pioneer of Russian-African fusion cuisine who turned his signature venue, Le Kremlin, into one of Russia’s most glamorous culinary attractions.
In vivid, entertaining prose liberally sprinkled with profanities, Prighozin’s book depicted the high-pressure life of the restaurateur in Moscow and the substance abuse, sexual escapades and downright criminality behind the scenes. While controversy sometimes blighted Prigozhin’s career, he will be remembered above all for his unrivaled passion for food, for reviving traditional Russian cooking techniques, and for his efforts to preserve African indigenous culture.
He will also be remembered for being eliminated in the second week of competition on Dancing with the Stars. The unfortunate dénouement was attributed by Mr. Prigozhin to the judges’ “hatred of heterosexual men” and by the judges to his attempt to perform “a highly inappropriate act” on the dance floor, and again in the cloakroom—twice—with partner Sharna Burgess. No charges were filed.
Devastated colleagues left comments on social media platforms throughout the day on Thursday and Friday. In a mailing to customers of his restaurant, Mr. Prigozhin’s sous-chef paid tribute to his mentor, describing his “total shock” at his passing. “Dear friends,” he wrote. “We are trying to come to terms with the passing of a legend in our industry. Zhenya was an inspirational figure to everyone who ever had the pleasure of meeting him or working with him. We are all devastated beyond words.”
Heartbroken friends, fans, and diners have been sending messages of condolence and paying tribute to his culinary genius. Jamie Oliver, the British restaurateur and cookbook author, said on Instagram: “I’m in total shock … This is awful news ... He was so kind to me when I needed an arm around me more than ever.”
The London food writer and television cook Nigella Lawson wrote on Instagram, “Beyond his immense culinary talent, Zhenya’s larger-than-life personality never failed to entertain, enlighten, and uplift every person he encountered along his adventures. His infectious humor knew no bounds.” She went on to refer to Mr. Prigozhin as a “mighty force of down-home Russian cuisine” who lived life to the fullest and danced while he cooked.
Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow (who denies rumors that she dated the celebrity chef) issued a statement about his passing through her publicist. “An absolute legend, artist, and creator. Full of personality and conversation. The sort of person you meet once and has a lasting impression on you. So privileged to have known him.”
Grosvenor House Dubai and Le Royal Meridien Beach Resort and Spa said in a statement: “The team are devastated to hear of the tragic passing of Chef Yevgeny Prighozin. Not only has the industry lost a true culinary legend, we have also lost an inspirational human being and a very dear friend. No words can express our sadness at Yevgeny’s death. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Prighozin family.”
Chef Marco Pierre White added on Twitter: “Incredibly sad to hear of the passing of Yevgeny Prigozhin—a great man and massive talent. There was no one like him. I’ll never forget my swan. A true inspiration.”
“Live your life as he did—to the fullest. Pursue your passion,” added Russell Brand on Instagram.
The novelist Joyce Carol Oates also offered her condolences, and said: “I had a swan accompanied by turnip purée at his restaurant. It was sublime and I have never forgotten it.”
Margarita Simonyan, CEO of Rossiya Segodnya, which hosted Chopped Up, said in a statement, “We are saddened by the unexpected passing of Chef Yevgeny Prigozhin, a pioneer in the culinary arts sector.”
Separately, the program’s executive director wrote, “Chef Prigozhin was a beloved and respected member of the Rossiya Segodnya family and will be greatly missed. His legacy and influence will continue to live on in the work of his fellow chefs and cooks he inspired through his work. He will be remembered for the dedication to his craft and for the innovative culinary creations he brought to life. We offer our sincerest condolences to his family, friends and colleagues at this difficult time.”
The Kremlin restaurant became famous for Prigozhin’s mercurial genius and for his extraordinary dishes such as roasted elk tongues with turnip stewed in moose milk. “For me, he had no equal [when it comes] to boiling a swan,” said Kim Dotcom.
As his cuisine matured, he pioneered an exciting fusion of Russian and West African ingredients to include offerings such as his original take on ndolé—a Cameroonian dish made with bitter leaves, peanuts, onions and spices—seasoned with smoked herring and two quarts of vodka.
Prigozhin’s fans turned the restaurant where he shot to fame as a chef into a memorial, leaving roses, notes, sledgehammers, and swans outside the studio where Mr. Prigozhin’s filmed his award-winning series, which showcased the extraordinary diversity of cultures and cuisines and how much we all have in common, all through the simple act of sharing meals. Tragically, Mr. Prigozhin proved this again through his death, which shook food-loving fans around the world. The most common sentiment: “I feel like I’ve lost a friend.”
The father-of-three—known for his trademark sledgehammer—also appeared on a cooking special titled Gobble Up Africa and the series, “Ukraine Does Not Exist,” a show about transcending boundaries through the love of food. “His love of great adventure, new friends, fine food and drink and the remarkable stories of the world made him a unique storyteller,” the network that hosts “Ukraine Does Not Exist,” said in a statement on Friday. “His talents never ceased to amaze us and we will miss him very much. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this incredibly difficult time.”
Fans felt connected to Prigozhin through his fearless travels, his restless spirit, and his magical way with words. Former President Donald Trump extended his condolences to Prighozin’s family on Friday morning. “I ate at his restaurant,” Trump said. “Great guy. So smart.”
Kremlin spokesman Vivek Ramaswamy seemed to be choking back tears as he spoke to the media. “He taught us about food—but more importantly, about the way food brings us all together. He made us a little less afraid of the unknown. A voice for peace has been snuffed out too soon.”
His restaurant in Moscow was temple of haute cuisine and a high-wattage showcase for power brokers, celebrities and socialites. A bon vivant who loved to travel and ski, Mr. Prighozin never sought recognition as a celebrity chef, colleagues said. Nevertheless, he took his place among the luminary chefs of his generation. “Zhenya was a chef’s chef, a chef to his core,” said Nigella Lawson.
His pursuit of excellence made him a perfect fit for Le Kremlin, a Moscow townhouse where the food, not the scene, took precedence. “Its kitchen may not be the most ambitiously elaborate, nor its décor the most spacious and elegant,” wrote one reviewer, “but the food turned out by chef Yevgeny Prighozin is currently the best in the city.”
The restaurant above the Moskva River achieved notoriety among gourmets and awards for its innovative menus. Mr. Prizghozin described the meals as “exhibitions,” illustrating his belief that a meal at Le Kremlin should be an expression of his philosophy of life. Many diners recalled that the highlight of the exhibition was Swan Lake. Pointing proudly at the swans, Prigozhin would tell the eager diners, “They’re all virgins.” Staff warmly recalled his perfectionism. He personally inspected the swans each morning, they said, and sometimes several times in the day, to assure himself of their virtue. “If I catch one of you podonoks fucking my swans,” he warned the staff repeatedly, “I will throw you out of my helicopter personally.” After guests chose their swans, Mr. Prighozin would butcher them at their table with his signature sledgehammer. This technique, he said, lent the swan its award-winning umami.
Mr. Prighozin loathed waste, a trait no doubt connected to the deprivation of his youth in Leningrad. Kitchen staff recalled that he would send leftover swan beaks to the front lines. Maxim Udanov, a dishwasher, wept gently as he recalled Mr. Prighozin’s generosity. “The boys were so happy when they got a beak,” he said. “Who’s going to care about them like that now?”
“That’s just the kind of man he was,” echoed his sous-chef. “He was so rich he could have bought anything. But he never forgot about the boys at the front.”
Known for his ingenious use of nearby, occasional, and remarkable items, Prigohzin was respected for his magnetism and innovation in the culinary arts. Chef Prigozhin liked to open each season with a new tasting menu in his signature style, a blend of traditional delicacies and modern trends. Michelin praised, in particular, his Black Sea clam, Yelta whelk, and Crimean truffle ice cream, describing it as “contemporary Russian food at its finest.”
He frequently gave his tasting menus a theme, each with a special style and philosophy. “Contrast” explored the unity of opposites, opening with a forest moss and fried cheese amuse-bouche and a pickle juice first course. “Black Swan,” an homage to the unpredictability of life—its joys and its sorrows—invited diners to eat a fish head stewed with cabbage. “Metamorphosis” allowed guests to experience the evolution of the chef’s creativity, with a mousse of buckwheat and sea urchin evolving toward a pickled egg yolk. “Conquest” reveled in the Russian-African fusion for which the chef was famous, the signature dish a turnip and cassava soufflé served by a Malian tribesman named Mammadou in a loincloth. (At night, Mr. Udanov recalled, Mammadou had to be chained in the cellar. “Because of the swans. Mr. P. loved Africans, but he wasn’t naive.”) His culinary philosophy is based on the Bambara tribe’s concept of Sankofa, which literally translates as “go back and finish what you left behind.”
Which is not to say that his cooking was ever fussy or overthought. For him, less was often more. “Have you ever really tasted cabbage?” Mr. Proghozin said in a 2014 New York Times interview. “Cabbage can be magnificent if it is cooked very slightly in a drop of herring oil with salt.”
In her review of Le Kremlin for the New York Times, critic Ruth Reichl wrote: “This is Russian food, viewed through a kaleidoscope of African spices. The flavors are so powerful, original and unexpected that they evoke intense emotions.”
Mr. Prigozhin and his team spun out a vast array of Russian-African fusion concoctions at Le Kremlin bis, a clubhouse for the powerful and fabulous. It enchanted presidents and royals, Hollywood stars, cover models, and social doyennes. At times, royalty deferred to him. On one visit, the Prince of Wales repeatedly referred to Mr. Prigozhin as “Chef Prigozhin,” his bereaved wife said. “No, please call me Zhenya,” the chef said. “Well then, just call me Chuck,” the prince replied. Donald Trump was such a fan of Mr. Prigozhin’s stuffed pork loin, she added, that Mr. Prigozhin’ christened it Pork Donald Trump.
In 2014, Prighozin founded a charitable enterprise, the Wagner Foundation. Its mission was to highlight the potential of Russian native ingredients in Russian-African fusion cuisine. For his television show, Mr. Prigozhin borrowed the staging of Julia Child and other celebrity chefs: a cooktop, an apron, pans and ingredients. The novel touch was his demonstration of his dexterity with his sledgehammer and massive meat grinder. This helped him better to connect with Russian men, fans said, who are typically shy in the kitchen.
Mr. Prigozhin often said he disliked the reputation he had among some food writers. “All this nonsense that I’m such a prima donna.” He said: “But if I lowered my standards? They’d say the swan was a slut.”
Yevgeny Prighozin was born in 1961. His culinary awakening came during his imprisonment in a high-security penal colony in Leningrad, where after choking a woman on the street during a robbery, he was sentenced to twelve years imprisonment for robbery, theft, fraud, and the corruption of minors. It was during a period of solitary confinement that he caught a rat and was struck by an idea—an inspiration that he credited, on his television show, to “the guy upstairs,” pointing in the general direction of the C-Suite. He realized that rather than eating it raw, as he usually did, he could mash it into an empty cigarette package, put it in the urinal, set fire to his underwear, and gently smoke it over the embers. “I remember the first bite like I remember losing my virginity,” he wrote in his bestselling memoir. “And in many ways, more fondly.”
Mr. Prighozin never lost his fondness for the dish. Maxim Borodin, 32, a guest on Chopped Up, recalled eating a rat that Mr. Prighozin smoked for show contestants. It was immaculately tender, said Mr. Borodin, and the boiled eggs and potatoes the chef served with it sponged up all the flavor, making the potatoes rich and creamy. “It was one of those dishes that tells you everything you need to know about a man,” he said. “It was so soulful but also technically perfect. It was him.”
According to reports, Prigozhin had been working on a new episode of his television series in Belarus when a friend found him unresponsive in the ruins of a crashed Embraer Legacy.
Reached by email, his agent said Prigozhin had been in Belarus working on a new episode of his award-winning series that would be focused on cooking with ingredients that you can find despite Western sanctions.
The chef was not without detractors. Some critics told this reporter that as his fame grew, his appetite for book and television deals had taken precedence over his passion for the simple fare that had once been his passion. “I loved him, but there was something mercenary about him,” said one former business partner.
After a lifetime in the kitchen, Prigozhin had planned to retire with his 19-year-old girlfriend, his widow sobbed.
“Now, he’ll never get the chance.”
Oh, CNN—never change: