Most Americans (wrongly) consider Russian food to be either bland (root vegetables and not much else) or terrifying (meat jelly and fish eggs), but the one dish we can all agree on is pelmeni. These small, round, thick-doughed dumplings most closely resemble tortellini and are therefore the most familiar and least threatening to Russian food newbies. Universally loved, pelmeni are the dish of choice at Anton Yelyashkevich’s food cart—brightly designed and cleverly parked outside the West 4th Street subway stop in New York City, the perfect location for rushing students, curious tourists, and late-night hungry revelers.
Traditionally served with butter, white vinegar, sour cream, and a generous sprinkling of black pepper, Anton’s Dumplings go above and beyond: gouda fondue, teriyaki, chimichurri, and the indulgent Drunk Russian (sautéed mushrooms and onions with a fried egg on top, only available on Saturday nights) are just the beginning. Despite inevitable eyebrow raises from traditionalist Russians, Anton knew that a town like New York was looking for more than normal.
Anton left the cozy world of advertising and jumped head-first into the food world, partly, he admits, because his friends convinced him to, but also because he has simply always loved to cook. The uber-structured world of design was quickly erased from his mind when he set upon the steep learning curve of opening a food business. He soon learned that you have to move fast and smart—in Anton’s case, literally. The tiny food cart requires some serious agility: “you have to see where the weaknesses are,” shares Anton. “One example is looking at the foot movement during the cooking process. Think of it as a ballet—the movements should line up to the actions and work seamlessly.”
Food carts are about spontaneity and speed, and so are pelmeni—this is a dish you throw together when you’re too hungry to properly cook, the first dish this writer ever made as a child while her parents were working late. But Anton’s approach is far from haphazard: he is calculated and confident, adamant about doing right by the people he works with and making his food the best it can be. He pays his workers more than a living wage, and wants to build relationships with his customers (Russians and non-Russians alike), appealing to like-minded people not afraid to try something new. A lot of his current staff were once childhood friends—the foodcart itself is a prototype built by one of these longstanding pseudo-family members; it’s totally silent, and runs on solar and compressed natural gas.
The non-traditional toppings come partly from head chef Eleazar Nun, who was brought up in Argentina (hence the chimichurri) and partly from trial and error. Both know the only way to discover something truly revolutionary is to take some risks. Eleazar spent years in the restaurant industry, but saw Anton’s dumpling project as a way to do his own thing and break out of the monotony. The two “take what [they] are influenced by, and turn a staple into a fusion.”
Anton’s background in design is most clearly seen in the bright red cart—almost constructivist in style, it’s confidently Russian without resorting to stereotypes of bears and vodka bottles. Russian and English are both present—as the English is more important, it’s in black, and the Russian is in red, like a highlight. Anton explains: “the brand and design reflect myself. Between the food and everything that influenced me, this is how I wanted to present my dumpling project to the world. The process itself was just a logical approach on how to present food that many people have never heard of.”
But people are starting to understand, and appreciate. Russian food places in the United States tend to be restaurants geared towards Russians themselves—it’s one cuisine that hasn’t really found its way into the American fast food milieu. In Anton’s opinion, “in fast food, typically you’re looking for a quick turn-around and something to eat on the go. Russian food doesn’t really offer that,” except for a few exceptions—most notably, pelmeni. For Russian diners looking for a taste of their homeland, the food at Anton's Dumplings inspires an overwhelming sense of…"finally," while adventurous New Yorkers are always up for new and unusual food.
Anton isn’t stopping here: despite the never-ending adventures at the cart on West 4th Street (not least his annual winter challenge of eating pelmeni outdoors shirtless), Anton is looking towards the future. He wants to start pop-ups of the cart outside bars that don’t have their own kitchens, not to mention continuing to think of more ways of bringing pelmeni to the next level: Eleazar jokes about needing to “smoke up, and let the other side of the brain handle things” as they consider new recipes and combinations. A moment of laughter and teasing, but the moment a customer separates from the sidewalk crowd and approaches the cart, the two friends get to work—and the ballet begins.