Andrey Dellos: «Life in Russia has never been easy and that's why a friend is a priceless plus»

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Фото: Архивы пресс-служб  

A good artist is rarely friends with money. Andrey Dellos – creator, who became a successful restaurateur, is a rare case. In this dialogue with Antonio Alizzi he talked about whether art can be profitable.

Do you agree that every business incorporates a certain degree of art that impacts the economic results?

The uncertainty of the business is directly proportional to the artistic degree you have in the project: the more art you have, the riskier is your business. In the restaurant business, there is a creative touch from the very beginning and that’s why this type of business is so unstable. Unlike fast food, which is a machine, food is a pure art.

When you imagine a new business, do you do a marketing research?

Never. You should never do marketing researches for a business project where art is the main element.

Which is the dish number one in the world?

Ravioli! Russian, Japanese, Italian… it doesn’t matter. When there is a very important chef that wants to work with me and make a degustation, I say to him «Please, prepare Russian ravioli and I’ll understand your professional level».

You have 4.000 employees how do you lead such a big machine?

Combining creation and organization. It’s the experience that suggests you when to move from one to another in order to lead the group like this. It’s not a quality you were born with. You can develop this skill over the time.

How do you choose your closest collaborators?

I don't choose them, I create them. Rarely you can be lucky enough to find somebody ready however, one day, in France I received a phone call from the General Director of Laduree. He said «I would like to work with you». It was a question of luck for sure. But my colleagues, especially who run this huge machine, they’ve been working for me for minimum 20-25 years. They started like waiters or as artists in my workshop.

And they grew up with you…

Yes, step by step. You recognize the moment when a person is ready to run. To me the most important point in management is to know how to delegate. And we’ve had a significant success in this area. When we made the first opening in New York and then in Paris, my general manager told me that those moments represented a very good cure against the Russian inferiority complex. We had understood and shown how high can be the level of professionalism in Russia.

Russian inferiority complex…

Yes, because we stay here and we believe that somewhere in Europe and in New York there is a miraculous level of preparation. Only when you go there you understand that there are no miracles. I remember when I spent an entire month in my room in Four Seasons in New York looking for an American general manager. Minimum 10 interviews per day, sometimes up to 20. I met, I believe, all the general managers of the United States but eventually I chose a general manager in Paris that had worked with me in Russia.

Why they were not fine?

I know just few people that are proud of their work and know how to delegate, how to create a team. This is something that almost doesn't exist in the world today. Too frequently they said: “I’m able to make everything by myself because only this way you’ll be sure to do good things”. For me this person will never be a good manager. When I consider a new general manager or a general director to work with me, I say openly “if you can’t delegate I don't hire you”.

Do you consider yourself an easy person to deal with?

Unfortunately, no. And moreover, I have friends who are not easy at all, just like me.

Some of your employees have been with you for more than 20 years.

There is a simple explanation: many of these people get a lot of compliments every day for what they do. Showing to somebody that you can make a successful work or be part of a successful work is a driving force. However, you can get a light head from the success and then you have to collect everyone together and explain why it’s necessary to keep improving. 

Can you make an example of how you lead?

From time to time I set a big meeting in Cafe Pushkin to discuss some open issues of the team and weak points that we might have. You know what I see in their eyes? Tears. They almost cry. They are proud of what they do and they blast when they are criticized for their mistakes. Those eyes make me sure that they will fight to make happy every person that will visit this place.

Do you agree that being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art as Andy Warhol said?

It’s a difficult question because when you mention “business”, the mind goes immediately to the role of money and managers in art. I’ve been studying art for all my life, from my first visit to the Pushkin museum when I was 11 and I am extremely disappointed with the role played by money in art during the last 30 years.

What happened in the last 30 years?

Due to my work as an artist and a painter in Paris and due to a creation of the restaurants Turandot and Pushkin, I became an insider. I know all the relevant and globally known designers and we speak like peers. They share with me the rules of the game they play.

They play a game?

Yes, historically designers have always been not sincere: they play games either to prevail or to survive. I’m not against or shocked by that, but what has been happening over the last 30 years is that, although artists and designers keep playing their games, they’ve lost leadership and we live in a time where art is guided by managers. It’s not like during the Renaissance, Baroque or Neoclassical period. Managers nowadays set trends and decide what can be arty and what can’t. In other words, managers assume that they should explain to people what they should like this and why they should dislike that.

Orwell would call it a scary Big Brother…

This is a good observation! We all receive gentle instructions and orders and for the first time in the mankind history, people are being told what kind of decorations they should have in their houses, in their offices, what type of clothes they should wear and so on. Artists - manipulated by managers and their reports - have become part of this machine. The paradox is that we all believe to have more freedom.

And the real artists?

In my opinion we could identify two types of artists: the first type works for rich lux system and its needs and the second type works for ordinary people. And if now in art, which is dedicated for the mass market there are billions and billions, which is quite new to the history; then the first type has always been there over the centuries. Like in Italy in the 14th and following centuries, decorators and creators used to work mostly for rich people, for the aristocracy.

Andrey Dellos: «Life in Russia has never been easy and that's why a friend is a priceless plus»


When does the second type of artists historically appear?

The change was determined by the Second World War. Europe was largely destroyed and a new, affordable and quick style was needed to redo entire cities and a huge number of buildings everywhere. Art Deco would have been extremely expensive for that and hence wasn’t an option. 

Which style has prevailed then?

The famous 60’s has covered the whole world. The decorators at that moment have realized that it would have been much more profitable and easier for them to satisfy the mass, instead of making, for instance, one gilded, sculptured or handy worked chair - that would cost 5.000 dollars - they made the same chair in acrylic with a price of 50 dollars. Businessmen from art took this decision, in order for their profit to be the highest, art had to be oriented on making very simple things that could be loved by masses.

The issue number one in art has always been money.

Yes, throughout the whole human history. We know Renaissance, when a bank family created Renaissance with the name of Medici from Florence. They created Renaissance because they decided to invest their money in art and the result was unbelievable. So, yes, money is the first question in art.

But businessmen never explained to artists what to do like today.

Absolutely. All artists work for money and that’s understandable but money never put them into the main corner. Now, for the first time in history, we even see artist-businessmen like Jeff Koons.

Didn’t Andy Warhol do the same?

The difference was that Warhol, being the first in doing what he did, was a genius. Moved by his wish to be rich and successful he made rather simple but innovative things. In art, the first hand takes all. All the others are simple followers.

We need a new genius to go through the current crisis of artists?

All the decorators, artists, we are all waiting for something similar to the 17th century: Caravaggio appeared and he practically killed the Renaissance art. His genius was epochal that he revolutionized everything: fashion, technology, taste. Genius.

Let’s speak now about art as a form of investment…

Businessmen know that there is a very big risk investing in art. When they decide to do so, they try to minimize the risks by maximizing the revenues and profit. Many bankers, especially some friends of mine in New York, have heavily invested in contemporary art earning unbelievable money. Now some of them are looking at the old art.

Following what happens with the prices on paintings from 16th and 17th centuries in Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions, seems that old art is getting again popular…

The answer is the crisis. It’s much wise to invest money in safe things with limited risks: known names - it can be Warhol or Caravaggio - that are already our Gods. Who is ready to be brave, taking some more risks, chooses new artists and projects.

At the end of 80’s you came to Moscow for a few days but somebody stole your wallet and documents. During those extra days in Russia, you decided to open a restaurant. Is it a good summary of the story?

Yes, I came to Moscow only for 3 days. I called my friends and asked where I could find something to eat, and they said “Go to Irish House”. But on my way, there, I saw a corner shop with Russian chocolate, nostalgia hit me and I lost vigilance. And there my wallet was stolen. In the Soviet Union, there were no thieves on the streets. Welcome to the new Russia! That was the most important change in my life and a few days later I decided to open a restaurant/club in Moscow. And my idea was to open a restaurant for artists, movie and theatre stars, painters, writers… 

Why?

Because I was from that circle. My mother, Russian, was a singer and my father, French, was an architect. If I make restaurants - I thought - they would be extremely artistic. In all the possible aspects: food, service, decorations. The first opening was in 1991.

And the name you chose was “Soho”

Yes, not in the tribute to the homonymous area of London but to the one in New York. I made an exposition there for 2 months, also selling 2 paintings of mine to Michael Jackson. 

New air for Moscow: was it an economically successful artistic project?

I believed that Moscow needed its Soho in the central area and although Soho was made mostly for fun, very soon I realized that it was generating huge money. A big surprise for me.

From “Soho” to “Bochka”.

A totally different story: Bochka should have been the most rustic restaurant in my life in a city that was in love with aristocracy and bourgeois environment. Not because I was in love with rustic style but to react to the new restaurants opened in Moscow in 1993-1994. They had extremely Baroque and Kitsch decorations: columns with plenty of gildings, heavy wood cut, unbelievably kitsch. Russians were tasting freedom in those years and they decided to play the role and even overcome the European aristocracy. “Bochka”, the first professional restaurant that I opened and which exists today, would have gone against the trend. I wanted to play an absolute national game.

The kitchen was Russian?

I thought to make a Russian-Italian restaurant. 50% of the menu Russian, 50% of the menu Italian. I invited a friend from Italy, who was a very good chef to make the Italian part of the menu and then we did the Russian part with a Russian woman, who wasn’t a chef. She was just a woman who could cook well. A genius woman but self-made. So, it was again a big risk, because when people saw this big rustic house, they were paralyzed.

But a miracle happened again.

It was -30 degrees outside and there was a queue of 300 meters… something unbelievable. At that moment, I definitively felt in love with this business.

A true restaurateur is supposed to be successful.

If you are a restaurateur you want success. You dream about success 24/7, you struggle to get the result. I know a lot of workaholics who haven’t achieved anything in this area. They simply don’t dream about it and they don’t become part of their project. I have read a lot of interviews with famous restaurateurs around the world and many of them say “I just work… and well… and this is the result”. I want to kill them as it’s pure lie. All successful restaurateurs, including myself, are extremely narcissistic.

Competitive and narcissistic…

Absolutely. Madly obsessed. We are all mad people, especially the restaurateurs who are ready for serious adventures.

Andrey Dellos: «Life in Russia has never been easy and that's why a friend is a priceless plus»


After that success many businessmen from Europe proposed to you to launch a chain of “Bochka” in Russia, Europe, USA but that you declined because you were afraid to get bored…

Yes, all my life I was guided by the fright to get bored. I’ve preferred to go ahead and make something different, investing immediately all the money I had made into new projects. There are people that invest in cars and houses, I invest only in restaurants and art. Those are my two values and not because I am modest. I’m not modest at all.

One of your most famous projects in the world is Café Pushkin…

When I was 18 I started to work as a guide in Moscow for French people. Every day it was the same story: I went to the airport to meet them and the first question in the car was: “When do we go to the Café Pushkin?”. They all knew “Nathalie”, the famous 1964 song of Gilbert Bécaud, that was saying “On irait au café Pouchkine boire un chocolat”.

(We are going to the Café Pushkin to drink chocolate)

But the Café didn’t exist…

Exactly, there was no Café Pushkin in the Soviet Union, but every day people were asking me the same question. My dream to open Café Pushkin was growing from day to day and once I took the decision to create the Café. On June 4, in 1999, the grand opening took place with Gilbert Bécaud performing the song “Nathalie”. But it was not a simple story. 

In Tverskoy Boulevard, an area of Moscow that played a significant role in the life of Pushkin. What was there before the Café?

Nothing. An empty piece of earth. We built everything from A to Z.

But tell me the story, please…

One day, in the beginning of 1999, the mayor of Moscow visited my Ukrainian restaurant “Shinok” and asked me “What would you like to do now when this restaurant is already successful?”. I told him “I actually have a dream and maybe you’ll help me one day”. I told him about the song “Nathalie” and the Café. The day after, he called me at 7 am “I’ve found a fantastic location for you but I have one small condition”, he said, “You’ll open Café Pushkin for the bicentenary anniversary of Pushkin, next June”. I have rapidly calculated the time left and I answered “No, no, Mr. Luzhkov, there is a misunderstanding. In five months, it’s impossible to recreate a palace of the 19th Century”. He told me “Are you rejecting the number one location in Moscow?”. “No, no” I replied: “I agree with the offer”. And we started to work.

Five crazy months…

Five months of construction and decorations. I believe that I slept for 30 minutes a day but I kept my word and in 5 months we made it. This is my first and last project without changes after the opening.

What is more beautiful in art: an authentic piece but consumed by years or a new piece made with an old style?

Somebody would call a new piece a “fake” but I disagree. Italians produce a lot of things in Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classics styles and they aren’t fake at all, just new things in old style.

What was Andrey Dellos like as a child?

I was born into a very artistic family and all the people who came to our house were artists or KGB agents (smiles). My mother liked successful people in art and almost every day some very successful Russian star was with us.

At 11 years old was your first visit at the Pushkin Museum…

Exactly. My mother found a fantastic teacher for me and he taught me the History of Art, especially the Applied Arts. And then he took me to Pushkin Museum.

Any dream?

My dreams were all and only artistic. I thought I could be a movie maker, a theatrical actor... But my mother noticed that and looking straight into my eye, warned me: “Whether you decide to be a movie maker or an actor I’ll kill you the same night”.

When you were 12, that day in September, something unbelievable happened in your life…

I was the worst in drawing on the planet, unable to see forms, colours, totally blind. Nevertheless, I didn’t want to give up and stubbornly I kept trying all the time but without results. That September day, at the painting lesson at school, we had to draw a still-life. My teacher looked shocked at my drawing and gently nudged me: “Who drew this for you?”. That was a miracle! From one day to another I started to draw better and better. From that moment, I haven’t stopped drawing.

Few years later you left Moscow for Paris. How was the beginning there?

Because of all those studies, very soon II became a real expert in arts and when I went to Paris people looked at me with astonished eyes not being able to understand how a relatively young guy – not graduated in the History of Arts – could debate with them. . I earned big money restoring icons at that time.

Andrey Dellos: «Life in Russia has never been easy and that's why a friend is a priceless plus»


You are not a pure businessman…

I am not a businessman for sure. If I were a businessman I would be much richer than I am because business exists to make profit, to earn other money. But I made a lot of mad things and mistakes from the pure business point of view. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say that I am a bad businessman because I’m still not broke from my mistakes and I know a lot of entrepreneurs who were literally destroyed as they broke traditional business laws.

One day Winston Churchill said that “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”.

I like this expression it fits me perfectly. I opened Café Pushkin in the year of the biggest crisis in Russia. Seeing this palace many people told me “Andrey, you are mad. Well, we know that you are mad but your madness now is a little bit exaggerated, you are going towards an exotic suicide, cause you cannot open one of the most luxury restaurants in the world right now”. But my dream was to open Café Pushkin and I was the happiest person on the Earth.

What is friendship for you?

The fact that I was born in Moscow, even if I am half French, makes me Russian. And when a Russian says “This person is a friend” it’s a serious statement, much more than for Americans and many other Europeans. Life in Russia has never been easy and that's why a friend is a priceless plus. Russians, when the friendship is authentic, would kill themselves for you. On my birthday celebrations, there are around 20 people and half of them are real friends.

How do you identify a real friend?

You cannot consider anybody a close friend if you’ve never had difficulties or troubled moments. You can say that this person is a real friend only if you went through a catastrophe with him. You desperately needed help and found it.

You mentioned dangerous situations in '90s.

I left Russia during the Soviet Union in 1986. When I came back I found myself in a different country with virgin and savage capitalism. The point was that I completely realized it only after the opening of Soho. People were afraid and believed that communists could come back at any moment. And I was not afraid because I wasn’t aware and I invested all the money I had. 

A lot of money?

Not enough. I called the forth richest family in Japan - who was collecting my pictures - and I said «Could you please lend me 400.000 dollars?» They were paralyzed. Only later I’ve learnt that you can’t ask Japanese so straightly. As a result, I got the money, because in their culture saying “no” to friends is not polite.

Did you give them back this money?

With a very good profit. They told me that it was one of their best investments.

But let me come back to the dangerous situations

All the mafiosi groups of Moscow wanted to “provide assistance” to me in my business. When I met the first groups I was so frightened. Several groups came directly to Soho. The situation half a year later was as following: a new group wanted to come in but I had to tell them “No-no, dear, you come at 6 o'clock because I have already scheduled another group before” (laughs). I told myself «If you are afraid, go back to Paris. However, if you want to stay, play the game”. I was not afraid anymore. When you hear ten times a day that your family will be killed you get used to it.

Why didn’t they hurt you?

They understood that if they kill me the business would be over. But in 1995 they disappeared, practically they killed each other. Today I would say that this sense of danger made the story much more interesting. And when people say that mafia plays a big role in Russia today, I disagree. People who survived, like in the United States, are honourable businessmen and don't need to use this kind of instruments.

Andrey, do you cry?

Inside yes, a lot. But I never cry literally. Troubles make me move forward. For instance, managing to cut rock crystal like they were cut in the 18th century. In three months, I generated a big workshop that reached a top quality. I try to use all the time I have to create.

Who is your favourite artist in the history?

Benvenuto Cellini without any doubt. He was a mad and obsessed person even dangerous and he spent his life in danger. He was a big adventurer and when he came to Florence he didn't know how to cast big bronze sculptures. He claimed that he could do it and he unbelievably did it. Many people thought that he was followed by the Devil. I believe that this adventurous man was followed by God. Cellini was really a revolutionary person and his creations were incredibly beautiful.

Your favourite ones?

The “Cellini Salt Cellar” in Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, one of the craziest things that exists in applied art. And “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” in Piazza della Signoria in Florence. 

What do you think about death?

I don't care. The only thing I can say is that I’ve spent a really interesting life because I’m never bored. My life has been full of remarkable turning points. And the fact that I’ve had fun is the most important thing for me.

And about your legacy?

I have a son, a clever boy, who made a decision to be a restaurateur. I am happy with this and if you ask me if he succeeds I’d say yes. Maybe he is not in love with artistic restaurants but it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I hope that fruits of my creation will outlive me. Art experts considered “Turandot” a “second hand” but now things are changing. Like many historicisms of the 19th century in Paris and in Milan are considered valuable expressions of art, I believe that at the end of the 21st or the 22nd century Turandot will also be properly appreciated.

You said that for you is enough when clients say: “The atmosphere in your restaurant is magical”. In your opinion, is there a connection between beauty and magic?

Beauty is magic. For me they are synonyms. There is no beauty without a miracle. And beauty, for me, is not human but God’s production through human hands.

You said several times that you believe in God.

Yes. And I trust him. I follow big ideas or dreams convinced that he will help me. A rational businessman wouldn’t have ever opened and constructed Turandot and its decorations. Following very profound motivations and forces I can feel God in my life and his appreciation for what I do. 

When do you really feel deeply full of joy?

In the phase of creation. The final products give me joy, obviously, but not a complete satisfaction.

What do you think about stress?

I don't struggle against stress because I’m permanently stressed with minimum 4 construction sites at the same site. The construction site is the incarnation of stress. My life will be shorter because of this? Doctors say yes. I don’t care.

It’s interesting for me to know about your diet…

About 40 degustations 2/3 times a week. All the dishes in my restaurants pass my degustation and sometimes to create a new dish it takes several months. For instance, the new salad with crispy duck in Paris, required about 50 degustations.

50 degustations to improve the dish?

50 degustations not to improve the dish but to make it like it must be. A new dish is like a sculpture: you have to remove all the unnecessary marble. The creation of dishes is a great part of my life too. People often say: “You make beautiful decorations in your restaurant but who make you lucky are your chefs”. I’m not lucky with the chefs: I choose them very carefully and behind any dish there is my direct involvement and a lot of work, studies, degustations.

Where do you eat and you are happy?

On the beach of Amalfi! And on the south of Italy, in Sicily. You have the best cuisine in the world with a big choice of products, coming from both: sea and earth.

Are there a couple of leaders in the world with whom you would like to have dinner?

If I could I would like to meet Gandhi and Cellini.

How was this conversation and how did you feel?

Many people ask me about money, investments, success, management theories but we spoke mainly about art today which is the most important thing for me. The majority of your questions were about art and psychology, which are the base of art. And we also have explored feelings, which are another base of art. I like our conversation very much and, I would say, this dialogue wasn’t only interesting itself but very interesting for me personally. And you know what?

What?

Our dialogue brought me back to the most crucial point of my life, an unforgettable evening I have spent here in Moscow, at Turandot restaurant. When I was admitted to the Academy of Art in Russia, I had invited the Academicians for a dinner. There was around 60 of us in total. They arrived at 6pm but we sat down only at 8:30 pm, two and a half hours later.

What did they all do for more than 2 hours?

They attentively studied every interior detail of the restaurant. Many of them were there for the first time: Academicians are not rich and cannot afford go to restaurants. It’s exactly the reason why at the ground floor, here at Pushkin, we have the menu for half price, to let intellectuals and artists come at café Pushkin.

But why were those 2,5 hours so special?

The most beautiful two and a half hours of my life! First of all, when I was a young artist, those Academicians were my Gods and already well-known artists. And when you are with your Gods, who express excitement , you cannot but be happy. Secondly, I could speak about my creations with people who really knew everything about them and the history of art. They were aware and they had understood even the smallest details. When clients say: “There is a good atmosphere and a nice interior here”, I say that this is enough for me and I’m sincere. But talking to people who understand 100% of what you’ve made was a moment of unbelievable and pure happiness. In our conversation, today, I felt similar to that moment.

Andrey Dellos: «Life in Russia has never been easy and that's why a friend is a priceless plus»


Now, if you don’t mind, I’ll give you a piece of paper and a pencil and will ask you to create something that will make our conversation immortal…

Oh, this is a quite unusual and difficult task, but I’ll try!

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