Have you ever pictured yourself in your company’s kitchen peeling off potato skins for 150 of your teammates? That is what happened in a tech company in Moscow.
Great ideas are often accidental. And this is no exception. It all began with a simple question: What if food could contribute to developing the company’s vision of creating a better world?
During my last trip to Moscow, I challenged my food friends with the question: “Do you know any chef who works as a corporate chef?” None could answer straight away. But after some thinking, all of them agreed that there was one person who I should meet: Ivan Dubkov (‘Vanya’ for everyone), one of the first cooks to revolutionize workplace food in Russia.
I met Vanya at an immaculate white vegan restaurant he curated, and while indulging in a matcha latte and a vegan roll with avocado, he told his story. In this Workplace Wisdom portrait, Vanya shares his life-changing journey of becoming a vegetarian cook at Dream Industries, a Russian IT company, and his vision about living and nutrition.
How it started
“I joined Dream Industries (DI) in March 2012. Previously I had been a raver and a bartender but since I had just become a father, I recognized that my lifestyle had to change if I wanted to be able to support my wife and spend time with my kids.”
At the time, Vanya had no professional experience in the kitchen. I had encountered a lack of a formal culinary education in the restaurant industry before in Russia, but as he told the story, that didn’t seem to be an issue for him and his employers.
In the early days at DI, he expressed his culinary creativity in salads, fish or chicken meals, and soups. Of course, soup is a must-have for lunch in Russia, and depending on the season, it could be either a cold soup (in summer) or one of the traditional hot soups (in winter).
The trip that changed it all
“Alexey Ostroukov, the co-founder of DI, an eager juicer to the extent of being considered an extreme one and a practitioner of yoga and meditation, inspired me to rethink the role I had. The team had started to grow with the addition of many new international employees, and gradually the company had become more lifestyle oriented. Alexey pointed out that what I had been cooking until then didn’t align with the company values anymore.”
In the summer of 2012, Ostroukov booked Vanya for a month-long research trip to California and New York. The purpose of the travel was to take cooking classes, visit restaurants, and learn about healthy living cuisine. Amongst others, he met Chef Be Live and Matthew Kenney, the founder of PLANTLAB.
“It was a life-changing experience. Never in my life had I felt such energy and positivity by cooking and eating food,” explained Vanya.
Upon returning to Moscow, his approach to food changed radically. The meals he served became mainly vegetarian and plant-based. He started to seek out local farmers and producers who shared the same approach. He established some collaborations with the organic farm Nikola Lenivetz and the farmers’ cooperative LavkaLavka, among others.
“I understood that the role of my food is to support the physical and intellectual needs of the employees. And to do so I had to change the way I chose the raw products, how I cooked the food, and how we ate it. When I did, I also noticed a physical transformation in myself. I became healthier and had much more energy, and became aware that I approached my life more mindfully.”
Culinary educational initiatives in the kitchen
“With the support of my boss, I launched a series of projects to integrate eating, healthy living, and team bonding. It seemed to be an effective way to get people excited while aligning to the company vision.”
Amongst different initiatives, Vanya invited every new employee to help him prepare lunch on the first day of work. By doing that, the newcomer learned about his approach to cooking. At the core, it revolved around showing DI’s company culture, and at the same time, breaking the ice by cooking together.
“The idea behind First Day Practice was to metaphorically show each new colleague brings some impact to the business. Food is just a symbol of the benefit,” Vanya explains.
Considering the growing amount of foreign employees, he created a weekly Expat Lunch to encourage inclusion and mutual discovery. Each week, a team member joined Vanya and prepared a recipe from their home country, which they presented and ate together with colleagues. That sometimes included peeling off potato skins for 150 people.
Other projects included the Free Lectures Lunch, in which he invited professionals from the food industry to explain the origins of products based on the main ingredient in the meal. Moreover, during Detox Week, he made juices while providing resources and recommendations about movies and exhibitions to lift people’s spirit up. He often led culinary tours in the Moscow offices, like at Look at Media. Moreover, he invited yoga teachers and monks for meditation twice a week.
For a few weeks during the renovation of the DI Telegraph building, he ideated the Karma Cleaning Service Parties. Every morning the employees came to work a little earlier. For one hour, they were split into two groups to either clean the 2,000-sqm space or to bake cakes and mix cocktails for the end of the morning party, which they celebrated together.
“The purpose was to show employees that we all have a responsibility about the places where we live and work, and that we all have the power to improve each other’s quality of life. It was a challenge to work after the party, but it was totally worth it!” laughs Vanya.
Measuring The Impact
“Of course not everybody was enthusiastic about my food or the projects. Some employees preferred to eat at McDonald’s instead. However, I never had to fight to introduce new programs since my employers were my main supporters.”
Employees were happy and satisfied. They had something to look forward to every day. And the food activities helped the company build a more human and productive workplace.
“The change was profound. It’s hard to explain how, but there was some positive vibe because we made time to connect with each other and talk through some issues. We also got a lot of media coverage in Russia and positive feedback from investors.”
In May 2015, Vanya quit his job with the dream of building a new project with a bigger impact. He is now working on his YouTube channel.
“For me, food is bringing about a process of democratization. It doesn’t matter who you are. You deserve to eat good food, and you deserve to take care of yourself through what you eat. Food is about our own identity, and it connects me with the world.”
Keeping lunch casual is one thing, but building an exciting company that fosters potentially deeper relationships through food is quite another.
Interact with Vanya:
At WE Factory, we help organizations’ design their food culture to support people’s creative progress and wellbeing. Read more on Workplace.