Chef Chat, Part 2: Vladimir Smirnov of Chef Smirnov Catering
Vladimir Smirnov managed to work his way from poor Russian immigrant to a banquet chef position with Rice Epicurean market. After years of work there, he decided it was time to go after the dream of owning his own business. Initially, he thought that would be teaching people how to cook, but what he discovered was that clients were much more interested in him doing the cooking than in doing it themselves.
From that discovery, a catering business was born. Today, Smirnov has his own facility with two kitchens and a large storage area, but with three or four catering gigs a day, he's using every bit of that capacity.
In Part 2 of our Chef Chat with him, learn how he went from a rented kitchen to a larger but dilapidated one that needed a lot of work to the one he has today. We'll also find out what he believes a caterer needs to be most concerned about and the types of catering jobs he does.
Chef Vladimir Smirnov stands in front of a bulletin board filled with thank-you notes from the clients he's served over the years.
Photo by Phaedra Cook
EOW: So, when you struck out on your own, you started teaching cooking classes?
VS: How this idea all comes together, every time I do an event when I was working with Rice [Epicurean] -- catering is [being] social with the customers and clients who come to the line. The people like to talk, and I like to entertain them about the food. They ask me questions -- I tell them what it is and how it's been prepared or show them how we're doing some sauté [at the] station right in front of them. They'd tell me, "You should have your cooking class and teach how to do this and do that." A lot of clients who we did the private parties at home [for], they don't really cook at home. You guide them how to do very simple things, and that's what I started to do.
It started with the Beth Israel Temple with the Sisterhood. We invited members of the Sisterhood to join us and take a class, I would do the potato latkes, matzo balls or baked brie cheese -- something very simple and the ladies can learn how to do it. That's how that idea came and that's [why I thought], "Maybe I should start having lessons." I'd cut fruit and vegetables in my garde manger job, which I [taught] a lot of the students and chefs. That was really popular at the moment. I don't do this anymore because there's no time, but it's very interesting and nice technique for somebody to learn.
EOW: When did you transition from teaching to deciding to open a catering company?
VS: It was interesting. There was not really a transition that happened. It just happened. I was [teaching] when I'd come to a client's house. For example, we'd do a dinner with the participation of the guest. So, I'm coaching and you're cooking for yourself. With those dinners, we started realizing a lot more people are interested in our food and our services. They were less looking forward to having their hands dirty. They wanted me to do all the work.
There are a lot of bar mitzvahs in the community. That started us [doing] bigger events and bigger-scale of the catering, not just ten people in the cooking class. We're talking about hundreds of people. In less than a month, we understood there was just no way we can do cooking classes only.
Beef tenderloin, asparagus and potatoes from Chef Smirnov Catering in Houston.
Photo by Vladimir Smirnov
EOW: Where was your first kitchen?
VS: On Cantrell. There's a Russian community center and banquet hall called Demers Banquet Hall. Svetlana Kislyuk opened that facility and she has a kitchen there. I rented a little space there and that's how I started my cooking days. We had catering maybe once a month, and now we've got maybe three or four a day. That's where it started. So I was there for probably six or seven months. That was my first kitchen.
EOW: Where did you go to after that?
VS: Right before Christmas, [Svetlana] was getting really busy. She mentioned to me that she really needed to use more space. She wanted to know if I could find something else. I was looking around and there's a bridal mall on the feeder road of 610 and Westpark. They used to have a kitchen on the second floor, but it was not used for about ten years and is only 700 square feet. It was a very small room.
The only thing that was there was there was a vent hood. My wife and I had no choice. Christmas and Hanukkah were coming and we needed to get the kitchen running. So we got in there and I built the kitchen in about three weeks. We put all the equipment in there and I did all the plumbing on the second floor and [put in a] walk-in cooler.
I'll never forget that day when my wife and I had toothbrushes and were cleaning the floor. It was really not in a good condition. So, for us to [be able to] call the health department and get an inspection, we spent literally about three days to clean it with toothbrushes. We got it cleaned up. It was perfect. I was there for almost three years.
EOW: You have a really nice facility here in the Belllaire area now. What made you decide that you needed to go ahead and get something bigger?
VS: We had bar mitzvahs which were 200 to 500 people. Triple S Steel, they used to do a Valentine's Party, and that was actually one of the reasons I realized I needed to get a bigger place. Their parties were for 500 to 600 people.
I prepared meals in a kitchen which was only 700 square feet, which included everything: my office, my walk-in cooler, my own kitchen line. It was very, very small. When we did jobs, it wasn't only one job. We'd have three, four or five events that same day, sometime kosher. So we have to kosher half the kitchen.
That was very difficult. It was also difficult for us to prep. It was difficult to store food, and, of course, transportation was very hard. We were on the second floor and had to work with a little elevator. It was very complicated.
I started with $100 and I didn't get any loans. Every thing that was there, we sold it. If I got $100 profit, $80 goes to the business, $20 goes to my family. I didn't get any loans for any equipment. Everything we have here, we purchased as we go.
A landscape of tasty, savory treats by Chef Smirnov Catering.
Photo by Vladimir Smirnov
EOW: For people who may not understand what it takes to prepare a kitchen to make kosher food, can you tell us a little bit about what that involves?
VS: Kosher food is very unique and it's actually very tasty. It requires you have kosher supervision, which is the person from the kosher association. They will come and will explain to you the rules and how to do everything. They will supervise you to make sure that you follow all the kosher rules of the preparation, handling and the storage. You can't mix the dairy, you can't mix the meat, and have to keep everything separate. It is very hard. It can be difficult because you can't do anything on a Saturday after sundown because it's the Shabbat. When the event is on Sunday morning, you can't do any preparation.
To find the kosher products, we're normally go to Belden's because they have the best quality you can get. I trust them and I'm working with the store manager, Darrell. He's always taking care of me. It's a lot of education for me. I never knew things before about kosher cooking. Some of my cooks and chefs still can't figure it out, but it's an interesting learning experience.
EOW: What are some of your favorite dishes to prepare for catering?
VS: It's the most common question for any chef: "What's your favorite food?" I don't know. I enjoy doing everything I possibly can. I enjoy seeing the people eating what I cook. I don't have any special thing. I do like to work with chickens. Everything I do, I have fun doing it.
EOW: What are your most popular requests?
VS: Corned beef, salmon -- everything. My customers know what we can do and how I cook. Sometimes they say, "Vladi, I trust you. Just do whatever you think is going to be best for this particular event."
EOW: What are some important things to think about when you're catering?
VS: Make sure the customer gets what he wants, not what I want to give to him. I want to make sure the customer is happy and deliver more than what we promised to make sure they come back and say, "We want you back." That's the most important thing.
EOW: Is there anything else that you would like for Houston Press readers to know about you, your business or what you do? VS: One important thing is we're here to provide a service. I'm not in competition with anyone in town. If somebody needs some guidance or has questions -- if I can help him with my facility, if I can help him in any way, I am happy to. We do a lot of things last-minute. We do a lot of funeral services, and if people need some help with things, like birthday parties, anything we can do to help, we will do.
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