As head of the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group, Prigozhin is a cog in Putin’s war against Ukraine. He’s also, inexplicably, a caterer.
This summer, Yevgeny Prigozhin became an official Hero of the Russian Federation, reportedly honored for his work running the Wagner Group, a network of private Russian mercenaries that’s created havoc all over the world. The U.K. Ministry of Defence says that since the February invasion of Ukraine, Prigozhin’s soldiers have developed into a prominent cog of Russia’s war. Earlier this month, Prigozhin reportedly visited several Russian prisons in an effort to personally recruit fighters. “It’s better, he said, for it to not be common killers, but straight up calculating ones,” an inmate told the independent outlet Mediazona. “In general, he gave the impression of a maniac.” All of which in no way explains Prigozhin’s peculiar nickname. People call him “Putin’s chef.”
Prigozhin, 60, looks a little like Jason Statham if Statham did the face-melt thing from Minority Report. His CV includes assault, robbery, theft, and the spearheading of a misinformation campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, that last offense landing him and two of his companies under American sanctions. Since the invasion of Ukraine, his entire immediate family has joined him on that sanctions list.
But in addition to his dealings in violence and chaos, Prigozhin also has a day job as a caterer. He started out in the food business in the 1990s, first selling hot dogs, then running restaurants, and, finally, operating a sprawling catering company called Concord that now effectively functions as the parent company of the Wagner Group.
In May, when The Guardian asked Prigozhin about alleged Wagner Group atrocities committed in Mali, Prigozhin denied that Wagner even existed, then added, “you are a pathetic endangered bunch of perverts.” Officially, he is just a guy who got private-planes-and-yachts rich in catering. And tragically, he is more relevant than ever. Who is this preposterously notorious food-industry professional?
Last year, the news site Meduza unearthed the 1981 court ruling that sent Prigozhin to prison in St. Petersburg, back when it was still known as Leningrad. It’s a strangely entrancing time capsule of Prigozhin long before the big time, when he was just a young man with a serious work ethic and a taste for petty crime. In March 1980 alone, Prigozhin robbed a woman of her boots and gold earrings by choking her into unconsciousness; broke into multiple homes to steal a tape recorder, two carpet runners, and a steering wheel cover; and defrauded someone out of 250 rubles “under the pretense of purchasing jeans and other scarce commodities.” He was convicted and served nine years in prison.
He left prison in 1990 and began his rise in the food world with a St. Petersburg business which, depending on who you ask, was either a sausage wholesaler or, more humbly, a chain of hot dog carts. At the time, St. Petersburg, amid the dysfunction that followed the fall of the USSR in 1991, was an oasis for organized crime. Prigozhin once claimed he paid the mob $100 per kiosk in protection. He also said he’d made the mustard from scratch.
Prigozhin moved up in the world quickly, going on to co-own and run Contrast, the first grocery store chain in the city. He next went into restaurants, first the Old Customs House, which currently serves dishes like duck leg stewed with sauerkraut and sea scallops with celery mousse and cream sauce. New Island, a boat restaurant on a St. Petersburg river, would follow. This was the proper beginning of Prigozhin’s food empire.
In the summer of 2001, Putin — then early in his presidency, and at peace with the West — was hosting French President Jacques Chirac. He took Chirac to the city’s buzziest spot, New Island, where menu options may have included beef filet with black truffles, caviar on ice, and gingerbread served with prunes.
In Prigozhin’s own telling of his origin story, this was the definitive moment. He personally waited on Putin and Chirac, and Putin “saw how I wasn’t above serving,” he once told a Russian magazine. According to the Daily Mail’s reporting, Prigozhin charmed everyone by “joking and skilfully bringing napkins.”
Currently, Prigozhin’s strongest Putin ties are through Concord, a catering company that has become a pet favorite of the Russian government. Concord and its related entities have received government contracts in excess of $3 billion, which has included supplying the food for Moscow schools, a deal that backfired majorly in 2018 when a bunch of kids fell ill; numerous parents filed suit against Concord over the outbreak in 2019. Concord is also a major caterer for the Russian army. That means reports of Russian soldiers marching into Ukraine with MREs, or ready-to-eat military rations, that expired in 2015 could well be tied back to Prigozhin.
Bizarrely, everything that Prigozhin does ties back to Concord. There is no legal entity called Wagner. Rather, fighters for Wagner are paid by shell companies, many of them connected to Concord. “His networks do so many things,” says Jack Margolin, a program director at C4ADS, an NGO which tracks and quantifies global conflicts and who has been researching Prigozhin and the Wagner Group for years. “His tradecraft is awful.” Margolin says that out of a “huge umbrella of really-difficult-to-untangle Prigozhin companies,” a startling number use the phone number of Concord Catering. (Unsurprisingly, Prigozhin’s own legal connection to Concord is calculatingly obfuscated; Putin, for his part, has said he “doesn’t count” Prigozhin among his friends.)
The name Wagner originally appeared in 2014, when Russia invaded eastern Ukraine, and Wagner mercenaries have since fought, and been accused of atrocities, in Syria and the Central African Republic. Last year, a Wagner propaganda action movie called Touriste premiered in Bangui, the capital of the CAR, depicting hired Russian soldiers performing various acts of heroism. A reporter for the Financial Times was in Bangui months after the premiere and saw stickers reading “With the Support of Evgeny Prigozhin” in the CAR language of Sango above “a heart-shaped Russian flag.”
Even as Prigozhin manages for-hire killers and produces movies, the catering business trucks on. Right now, anyone can go online and solicit Concord. They’ve catered weddings, campus openings, and “an exquisite reception in the interiors of the Imperial Palace.” Their services include “barbecues, corporate parties, animation stations,” the last of which appears to be an interactive, watch-the-chef-work type of experience.
“Each of our banquets is like a work of art,” the Concord site boasts. “We pay great attention to every detail! Individually, chic and just for you.” It goes on: “We don’t follow trends, we create them!”
The logic behind sanctioning Putin’s ultrarich inner circle is both punitive and practical. Theoretically, if Putin’s actions are fucking up the money of his friends, then Putin’s friends will talk him down. But sanctioning Prigozhin might be pointless. Because Prigozhin isn’t someone Putin listens to — he’s just the “chef,” someone Putin tasks with doing his dirtiest work.
As Margolin sees it, Prigozhin would “like to be part of [Putin’s] absolute inner circle but he’ll never be, because he’s not former security services,” namely the KGB, where Putin served and developed his longest-standing relationships, and its successor organization, the Federal Security Service. “If you came up in organized crime in the ’90s in St. Petersburg, that’s pretty good. That gives you some proximity, some respect. That possibly makes you useful. But you’re not quite one of them.” The ex-security services guys, on the other hand, “have a code and speak a common language.” For all of his industriousness, Prigozhin “will never be able to breach that,” Margolin says.
In this reading of the Kremlin’s inner workings, Prigozhin has become a willing executor of all kinds of wild shit in a quixotic hope to go beyond his origins and become truly, fully embraced. “This guy got started with a hot dog stand,” Margolin says. “He’s the ‘go get your shinebox’ guy of Russian oligarchs.”
Originally, I thought of Prigozhin in terms of the intense bond that can arise between food provider and consumer — especially when said consumer is a paranoiac head of state like Putin. A familiar, beloved intimacy — a good meal — leads to a long, close relationship. That’s not hard to understand. In this case, though, it also led to an international network of death squads. I thought, as well, about how fear of poisoning is a common trope for world leaders dating at least as far back as the Roman emperor Claudius. (Michael Wolff alleged that Donald Trump loves McDonald’s because “nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade,” which at least feels true.) To trust someone with the food you eat is no trivial thing. But from the perspective of the autocrat, it is the difference between life and death.
It’s hard as well to ignore the element of servitude in Prigozhin and Putin’s meet-cute. As Prigozhin tells his tale, it suggests his fortune was built on the back of merit and one specific incident of humility. As critics see it, Prigozhin’s story represents something else altogether: the complete slavish devotion you need to survive in Putin’s scene. The source of Prigozhin’s wealth and power is his psychotic willingness to do anything. He is eternally the caterer; he will provide whatever is needed.
My personal favorite of Prigozhin’s many, many endeavors is BlinDonalts, a defunct McDonald’s knockoff offering a proudly Russian spin on fast food. A blini is a kind of pancake, which BlinDonalts offered in both savory and sweet permutations alongside “jellied meat, borsch, pelmeni, cutlets, etc” according to an enthusiastic blog on st-petersburg.net which also promised that “the restaurants BlinDonalts will be housed in modern cylindrical buildings of glass and steel.” The motto was “Tasty, Russian, fresh.”
Unlike the Wagner Group, BlinDonalts had no evident chaos motive. If Concord is a slush fund for all kinds of evil shit, what was the point of BlinDonalts? Was it, before it went bust, a solid revenue stream? Was it something Prigozhin could control out of Kremlin reach? It seems just as possible that Prigozhin is at heart a food business owner with a passion for savory fast-food pancakes.
In one well-circulated photo of the pair, Prigozhin stands behind a seated Putin, lifting a lid to reveal delicacies; Putin juts his chin out in a caricature of culinary discernment. It’s so comically cliched that it’s sublime. It’s stagecraft. A bit of a joke. They destabilize the Central African Republic and also they do this? Did Prigozhin gain Putin’s trust because of his food? His service? The comfort he once provided at New Island? Or did he do it because he is sociopathic? Once, I thought there might be answers there. For me, today, the rise of Putin’s Chef feels like just another soul-crushing story of practical nihilism from Putin’s Russia.
Amos Barshad is the author of No One Man Should Have All That Power: How Rasputins Manipulate The World.