Chef Chat, Part 1: Vladimir Smirnov of Chef Smirnov Catering

Imagine completely starting your life over in a new country where you don't know many people, have no job prospects and don't know the language at all. This is exactly what Vladimir and his wife had to cope with when they left Moscow for America, the "land of opportunity."

They worked their way up from the bottom of the job ladder, taking cleaning jobs for $2 an hour. In time, Smirnov found a job in a restaurant and soon after a position at Rice Epicurean on Bellaire. He learned English from his customers, became more fluent and ended up staying at Rice Epicurean for 12 years, working his way up to a banquet chef position.

Today, Smirnov runs a very successful private catering firm. He takes all types of jobs, but especially serves the needs of the Russian Jewish community that helped him get a leg up when he arrived in the United States. In part one of our Chef Chat with him, he'll describe what it was like to be an immigrant and how he worked his way up.

Come back for part two of our interview tomorrow, when we'll discuss how he struck out on his own and made the dream of owning his own business come true.

Chef Vladimir Smirnov of Chef Smirnov Catering
Chef Vladimir Smirnov of Chef Smirnov Catering
Photo by Phaedra Cook

EOW: Tell us who you are and the name of your company.

VS: My name is Vladimir Smirnov and my company name is Chef Smirnov Catering. People know me by Smirnov, so we decided to call our company Smirnov Catering.

EOW: What kind of catering does your company do?

VS: I'm Jewish and came from Russia. We have a lot of Jewish services. So we provide Jewish neighborhoods and most of our services that we do are for Jewish, but we do pretty much anything for any customer needs. But we do a lot of home cooking and we do a lot of corporate cooking. So, anything related to food, that's what we do.

EOW: I don't think many people in Houston are aware that we have a pretty sizable Russian-Jewish community here. Wouldn't you say that's the case?

VS: It is. It's actually a really large Russian community and it's spread out around Houston, Pearland and Kemah -- they're all over the place. I'm surprised sometimes how many Russians live in Houston.

EOW: Why do you think they decided to come here?

VS: Well, better life and more opportunities. Like my relatives and family, we all came from Moscow, and we're here because there are more opportunities -- more options that we can choose. We can create more. I didn't think I would be able to get to where I am right now there.

A lovely table full of edibles from Chef Smirnov Catering.
A lovely table full of edibles from Chef Smirnov Catering.
Photo by Vladimir Smirnov

EOW: Were you raised in Moscow?

VS: Yes.

EOW: How old were you when you left?

VS: I was 23 years old.

EOW: Besides opportunities here, why did you leave?

VS: We're Jewish refugees. So we were brought here. We were invited by our family, but we were brought here by the Jewish community. They helped and supported us to bring us here.

EOW: So you were able to escape probably a very bad situation.

VS: In my time, which is 20 years ago, I can't really say I was escaping because it wasn't hard to leave. But it was complicated to get papers and make people understand I am leaving the country when I lived there so long. But I can't call it "escape." We're just immigrants.

EOW: It was a choice.

VS: A choice. Yes, absolutely.

EOW: And you came directly to Houston?

VS: Yes. My uncle, Aaron Govshteyn, and his family invited us because they were already here in Houston, and they invited us right to Houston, where we're very happy.

Ceviche and Duck Sliders with Asian Slaw
Ceviche and Duck Sliders with Asian Slaw
Photo by Vladimir Smirnov

EOW: When did you first become interested in cooking?

VS: I can't say exactly the date. I can't say exactly the year, which is interesting because I do a lot of interviews with my chefs or cooks and they told me they were born in the kitchen. I don't remember.

I always liked to eat. Even in my high school back in Russia, I was interested in cooking. And I was cooking little things for me. I watched what my mom and my grandma did, and that's how I began. We all just like to eat good food. That's how I got interested.

EOW: Did you start cooking when you were still in Russia or was that something you started when you came here?

VS: Yes. I joined the culinary school [in Russia] in 1984. At that time, I already been enjoying cooking at home with just little, simple things. But 1984, I joined the [culinary school] for three years. Through that I learned and it gave me that push into the culinary industry.

I worked for the Russian government for several years. I joined the military and then I came back. That was about ten years. I had actually already been cooking before I came to the United States, but when I came [here], I started from scratch. It wasn't even "cooking" when I realized how the chefs cook here in the United States. The only thing I use that I learned from Russia was my love of food, my love to eat and the ability to work very hard. I learned and I'm still learning how to [cook like] that.

EOW: What did you do when you first came here?

VS: When we first arrived, it was interesting because we came with my mother, my sister, my wife, my cousin and we had nothing. We're very limited. We came with $1,000 for my wife and myself. No language, no job, no future opportunities and no friends. It was very hard. We could not communicate [with] people, and we had to survive somehow. So, what we did is we took any job that was possible. We cleaned apartments, we cleaned houses. I understand it's probably everywhere and anybody would have a difficult time when they come to a new country. I still sometimes cannot believe it -- they make that move from one country or another with no backup, because I didn't have any of that backup. No. 1 was language. I'm wasn't just by myself; I came with a family who needed help and support.

No one had a job, no one had experience with the language, no one. It was a tough situation. The Jewish community supported us with that -- gave us some money to pay the rent and a little money to buy food. But we were responsible for getting in, standing up and starting to do something. My wife and I, we started taking any job -- whatever was possible. We were cleaning apartments. We cleaned very strange houses. I got a job in a restaurant. One of our Russian community ladies helped me out. She called them and they hired me, but I was "cleaner boy." So they paid me $2 an hour. That was nothing.

An elegant table setting at an event catered by Chef Smirnov Catering
An elegant table setting at an event catered by Chef Smirnov Catering
Photo by Vladimir Smirnov

EOW: That wasn't even minimum wage.

VS: Yes, but it didn't matter how much as long as I'm there and I'm learning. A lot of Russians were eating there so I started progressing, and I showed them I could cook. That was my first job where I was actually cooking.

EOW: Where was that at?

VS: The restaurant called the Lantern Inn. It's not the same owner anymore. It's on Bellaire and Gessner. There were a lot of Russians that used to go there and there was live music, but that's in the past.

At the same time, the Jewish community helped me to get a job at Rice Epicurean market. That was really my first job when I was hired as a cook.

But, again, no language. It was very hard to communicate, but people were so friendly and understanding, and they helped me from point A through point Z. It was sometimes very hard because I had to come up with new words on my own. They were looking at me and not understanding me because I was mixing all the English and Russian. But every day I had a little book where I wrote the new words. I was trying to learn how to say "potato," how to say "carrots," how to say "pot," how to say "ladle."

There were a lot of fun stories. One of the stories was when I walked in the cooler and saw beer cans hanging in there. I didn't realize that they used it for marinating chicken or brisket. I thought it was for drinking.

I asked the chef what was it for. He said, "To drink!" He was making fun. So I opened one and started drinking. They told me I'm done for today, so they sent me home.

But customers who came to Rice Epicurean were very patient and friendly and they helped me learn English. I'm speaking English right now; this is what I picked up working at Rice talking to my customers and learning day by day how to speak.

Individual Caesar salads in edible bowls by Chef Smirnov Catering
Individual Caesar salads in edible bowls by Chef Smirnov Catering
Photo by Vladimir Smirnov

EOW: Which Rice Epicurean location where you at?

VS: I was at Kirby and Holcombe. Chef Tom Palmer hired me and I stayed by his side to this day. Right now he's working with me here [at my catering company], but I worked for him for 12 years. He taught me everything I could possibly learn. I was like a sponge; everything he did I would just follow. We worked days and nights, but it was a great experience. That's where I realized I wanted to improve myself. From a kitchen cleaner and helper, I grew at Rice Epicurean to the level where I was a banquet chef.

EOW: What year was this approximately when you became a banquet chef?

VS: I think after one year I became a cook. So I got promoted really quick and that was a very high promotion as far as salary and, of course, responsibility. But I always look for the responsibility. I like to do it. I have fun managing, cooking and being a production chef.

I joined Rice here in 1994, I believe, and by 1998 I started doing the banquet, but not as a banquet chef. I was following Chef Tom because he was doing a lot of catering and I was learning there. I think in 1998 was when my title was banquet chef and kitchen manager. From that point to 2007, I was a banquet chef. I did all the events for Rice Epicurean. Well, most of them. I did the big events and helped anybody in the store if they had a grand opening or a lot of orders. Huge holidays were one of the biggest productions we'd have at the store. It's a very Jewish-oriented store at that time. There was a lot of work. It was great and fun work, and like I said, I enjoyed it. I'm grateful I was there and I learned and I made a family.

EOW: How many years were you there?

VS: I believe 12 years.

EOW: Why did you leave?

VS: I just thought it was the time for me to move on. I was kind of feeling strong about doing something on my own. I had interesting ideas in what I wanted to do and how I wanted to do it. I thought that's what it was all about, to have your dream come true.

So I had a dream and wanted to make it happen. I took a chance. That was a second time I took a chance because I left Russia. That was the first time. The second time was when I decided to quit and I open my own [business]. I started actually with the cooking classes. That's how everything started. But then as I realized, it needed to not be cooking classes. It needed to be a catering company.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 to hear the story of how Smirnov was able to start his own catering business.

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