Did your mouth just water? Yeah, mine too.
If anyone knows what cheese can do to people, it is Oliver Kotelnikov, owner of the Russian bakery Piroshky Piroshky in the Pike Place Market.
Apparently, cheese can make pastries fly off the shelves.
Cheese didn’t start it all, though.
Kotelnikov’s parents did, 20 years ago, on October 24th 1992.
”It was hectic. Everybody had their own idea of what was going to happen. It was immediately busy,” Kotelnikov recalls of the first day the bakery opened. “We didn’t know what to expect, but it’s a good sign when there’s just people.”
Anyone who has been down to the market knows that sweet scent of cinnamon always emerging from Piroshky Piroshky’s wide open green doors. On busy days, a line craving piroshkies–little Russian pastries with meat or vegetable fillings–stretches well outside the bakery and needs to be guided by bands, just like at an airport.
The smoked salmon, and the beef and cheese piroshkies are two of the best-sellers. In the sweet category, the apple-cinnamon roll takes home the prize.
But the mood of the market certainly plays a role as well. ”Some days for some reason, all of a sudden something like cabbage will be selling like mad for whatever reason,” Kotelnikov says. “It’s been days when I can’t figure out why. A lot of times it really makes no sense.”
And then there is the cheese.
”There was a potato-onion that didn’t do anything until you added cheese and then they kind of figured out that cheese was a big marketable item in this country. You could basically bake anything and add cheese to it and it would increase sales.”
Kotelnikov’s father is Russian, but the family used to live in Estonia, a former Soviet Republic on the Baltic Sea that was one of the first to break away when the Soviet Union started to collapse.
Kotelnikov was just turning 13 in 1989, when his family left the Estonian capital Tallinn to seek refuge in the US.
”My dad was basically a political refugee. He got into trouble for reading books, talking, saying things. It was right at the end of the Soviet regime, but it still kind of caught him. He was being investigated and almost prisoned.”
Initially, Kotelnikov’s parents, Zina and Vladimir, worked all different jobs; cleaning at hotels, construction, and baking.
But after three years, a rare vacancy opportunity at the Pike Place Market led them to open Piroshky Piroshky in 1992.
Zina and Vladimir were in no position to obtain a loan from a bank. Oliver, however, was conveniently close at hand. As a teenager he had been working to save up for a car.
“I was getting ready to buy this car and they came and ’Yeah, we’re gonna need your money to open this bakery.’” He recalls the dramatic moment with a smile today. ”They ended up paying me back very quickly but it was hard…It wasn’t up to me, it was like a mandatory investment.”
The investment turned out to be a good one. Gradually, the art of baking caught Oliver’s interest.
“I started reading my own books and basically got an informal education in baking on my own. It gave me a chance to try out new stuff, experiment with things.”
But he says there was not a specific date when he decided he wanted to take over from his dad and run the bakery: “There was more of an attitude switch in my head that took place over a year’s time.”
The piroshkies you find at Piroshky Piroshky are not the kind you typically would find in Russia, Kotelnikov says. The main difference has to do with the preparation.
“A lot of the traditional piroshky is fried, deep fried in oil, while these are baked. It’s not unheard of, it’s just not the main line.”
Most American customers don’t know the difference, and Russians usually aren’t disappointed when they visit the bakery. But it’s not unheard of.
“It was a lot of that in the beginning, but I think we’ve pretty much been accepted. We have a huge Russian clientel and they actually like the fact that it is different now.”
And there’s not really any right or wrong in how you make your piroshky, Kotelnikov continues, but it is a concept the bakery has had to fight for.
”When people say that’s not right; Well, what’s right to you? Is it the way that your mom made it? The way the place around the corner from where you grew up made it? That’s just how it was made there.”
The Kotelnikovs aren’t afraid of a little change.
And evidently, Seattleites agree.
Piroshky Piroshky is located at 1908 Pike Place. To learn more about the Kotelnikov family’s story, check out Vladimir Kotelnikov’s memoir Piroshky with an Accent.