Chef Sasha Felikson thinks that borscht is going to be the next big thing in food. He speaks with such exuberance and passion that it’s impossible to disagree. Felikson is the executive chef at Doi Moi on 14th Street, Northwest.
While the cuisine at Doi Moi is Asian inspired, Felikson is Ukrainian. He was born in 1987 in Kiev to Ukrainian Jewish parents. Felikson’s family left to escape religious persecution, with the support of the Jewish Federation. They lived for a short time in Italy, Boston and eventually settled in Rockville, Maryland.
Felikson’s passion for cooking was stirred at an early age. In Kiev he lived in a crowded apartment with his parents, all four grandparents, an aunt and more. There was no money to go out, and there weren’t many restaurants, so cooking was a necessity. “Everyone in Communist Russia cooked,” he says.
His Eastern European influences are deep-rooted, and he infuses them into the food at Doi Moi. “It’s just natural. Whenever I cook, those things innately just come out of me. I believe that cooking should be looked at as a hearty thing, as a homey thing, something that touches your soul, and the way a chef can do that is through the food and through the plate. So for me, cabbage, potatoes, beets, strawberries and cherries—these things speak through me much more so than ingredients like foie gras and Wagyu beef.”
The chef’s ultimate ambition is to own a restaurant with an Eastern European focus. Borscht will play a central role. He loves the vegetable-based soup, because it’s so hearty and rich. If there’s any doubt about how serious he is about this, one only has to look at the tattoos on his right arm. They are based on the favorite foods of his childhood, including a recipe for borscht in Russian.
Felikson explains that whatever he cooks, it’s going to be eclectic. So whether he’s making borscht, pierogis, beef stroganoff or blintzes, it will be his own version. He’s not concerned about offending immigrants who grew up eating Eastern European food, although he has no doubt it will happen. “That’s okay because that’s the business I’m in. Food just needs to taste good and support good agriculture,” he says.
As a Jew and a religious refugee, Felikson has strong feelings about the role immigrants play in food and in the kitchen. One hundred percent of his kitchen staff is Latin immigrants. He speaks with pride about a worker who cut his hand that morning, only to return to work hours later. “I thought I was going to work his station tonight, but he’s here because he cares so much. Lucky for him, I care so much that I’m going to send him home anyway.”
I can’t help but ask the Jewish chef who is cooking Asian food about the hotly debated topic of cultural appropriation. He says he’s happy with how little it has come up, but at the same time is shocked that it’s brought up at all. He finds it shortsighted.
“I don’t think in the future we are going to look at and talk about food as cultures. I don’t think we will talk about Japanese food or Chinese food or Thai food. Maybe when we talk about the heritage of food we will talk about those things. But I believe that food will always be an amalgamation of where you are, and what’s going on around you, and who you are, and who you studied with, what you’ve eaten and the weather outside. As culinarians, we can’t cure disease. But we can create and revamp memories for people, and that’s the greatest thing that we can do.”
Bring on the borscht, Chef Felikson. America is ready.