You’d be forgiven for thinking chicken Kiev got its start in the Ukrainian capital. After all, a hearty dish of chicken filled with butter, wrapped in bread crumbs, and deep fried is the perfect meal to withstand sub-zero temperatures and cold winds blowing across the Dnipro River.
Ukrainian chefs say they have the only authentic recipe for the dish, but they concede that chicken Kiev, despite its name, has a far more sophisticated provenance: It’s French. The French connection isn’t as odd as it first appears.
Viacheslav Gribov, head chef at Kiev’s Hotel Dnipro, says that during the late 1840s, Russian royalty sent chefs to Paris to learn from the best and return home with impressive recipes. One of those recipes was for a dish they called Mikhailovska cutlet.
“The dish was made in Paris with veal,” Gribov says, “but in Moscow, it was made with chicken. At that time, chicken was more expensive and considered more of a delicacy.”
Chicken Kiev remained a dish served in posh dining rooms, and later appeared on the menus of official dinners in the Soviet Union, but it needed American immigrants to make it popular. In the years after World War II, chefs at white tablecloth restaurants, like the Russian Tea Room in New York, began putting the dish -- renamed chicken Kiev -- on menus to lure Russian and Ukrainian immigrants who had settled in that city in large numbers.
Back in Kiev, though, chicken Kiev wasn’t popular until visiting tourists began requesting it in the city’s restaurants in the 1960s. “Chicken Kiev made Kiev famous,” says Gribov.
Kiev chefs like Gribov have strict rules for the dish and decry variations. They say neither the Russian version stuffed with cheese, nor the American and British recipe calling for garlic and parsley, are the real deal.
“This began as a dish for dignitaries meeting one another. You would never serve them garlic,” he says. Gribov should know. He’s been serving the dish to some of the biggest political heavyweights in the world since 1978, including Fidel Castro, Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Clinton.
But the authentic Kiev recipe, Gribov says, calls for only butter inside, and if done properly, a bit of butter remains unmelted when served. “We don’t just learn how to make the dish; we also learn a special way of serving and cutting it to avoid butter splashing out,” he says.
The Ukrainian version comes with a small bone sticking out that keeps the butter sealed inside. It resembles a conical corn dog and delivers the same fried, crunchy outside and soft center.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Kiev tourists made the dish popular, and locals quickly followed. But, like so many dishes, chicken Kiev has fallen out of fashion. It’s now a food of convenience, relegated to supermarkets and fast food restaurants, and has all but disappeared from Ukrainian menus.
“I’m worried that very few chefs know how to make it,” says Gribov. “Young chefs are not being trained to make chicken Kiev. I’m thrilled every time someone orders it.”
These days, he says, Kiev’s urban dwellers want exotic, international cuisine. “People order lasagna, pizza. They want Mediterranean or Asian food. Many people have never left the country and want to experience something foreign through food. “
Ironically, one of those foreign places is seeing a revival of the dish. In London, as the Evening Standard reports, there’s a yearning for the comfort foods of yesteryear. Chicken Kiev is back on West End menus, with new ingredients, like truffles and a mozzarella filling.
So how does Gribov’s pure, but plain version taste? Delicious. A satisfying crunch, followed by a mouthful of warm melted butter. The technique of frying, then baking makes it extra crispy and erases any yearning for garlic or parsley. And here, portions are far less sinful, fitting inside the palm of a hand. Though it’s also served with shoestring French fries, putting this dish firmly in the high carb, high fat camp. But it’s worth it. The views from the hotel’s Panorama Club dining room are also worth it, even if you skip the chicken and head straight for a few shots of fine Ukrainian vodka.