With Help from the Russians, Christian Petrossian Reigns as the Czar of Caviar
03/11/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
For most Westerners, the Caspian Sea on the Soviet Union's southern border has all the accessibility of a nuclear-research lab. The turf-conscious Russians aren't protecting the latest in fission, however, but fish—the exotic Caspian Sea sturgeon, whose eggs account for 95 percent of the world's caviar. For more than 60 years Russia's Sturgeon Curtain has been all but closed to foreigners. An exception: the clan now headed by Christian Petrossian, a 42-year-old Parisian, whose company is a primary exporter of the Russian delicacy to the U.S.
Every spring and fall, when the sturgeon spawn, Petrossian dons his yellow slicker and joins the Russians on the Caspian for the caviar catch. There, thanks to an exclusive contract, he is allowed to select the most suitable sturgeon roe, or eggs, and Aeroflot dozens of tons to Paris for packing and shipping around the world. To get the best, "it is very important that we have the right to choose the caviar ourselves," explains the urbane Petrossian.
The Soviet Union and Iran are the only countries that border the Caspian, whose salty waters provide the best environment for the fish. "The market in Iran is disorganized," notes Petrossian. "There is a lot of opportunity there and a lot of dreamers who went bankrupt. Caviar attracts people like gold mines or diamonds. You can get a fever. So many want to be king of caviar, but there is no such thing."
These days the job of exporting caviar—along with other Petrossian products like foie gras from France and Norwegian smoked wild salmon—adds up to $40 million in sales annually. The profits provide Christian with a lifestyle akin to that of his best customers: a penthouse apartment in Paris, chauffeured Mercedes, golfing on the Riviera and, occasionally, soft interludes with the Russians. Last spring, Petrossian explains, "when night was falling on the Volga, we stopped on a deserted island, made a fire and cooked shish kebabs of sturgeon. A sailor played a guitar and we sang. It was so romantic."
Petrossian was 7 when he learned to tell the difference between beluga, ossetra and sevruga, the three species that produce first-grade caviar. Beluga, a light-to-dark-gray roe, is prized for its large eggs; ossetra is golden and has medium-grained eggs; sevruga caviar is the strongest tasting and least expensive. He has passed the lesson on to his sons, Tigran, 8, and Stepan, 5. (His wife, Catherine, a publicist, works in the company, as do his sister and two cousins.) The Petrossians have dealt with the Soviets since the '20s, when Christian's father and uncle, Melkoum and Mouchegh, Armenian-born émigrés in Paris, gambled on a ready market for caviar among the city's Russian expatriates. They placed the first phone call after the 1917 Revolution to the Ministry of Foreign Trade in Moscow. The Communists agreed to send caviar, but only if they got cash first. Since there were no banking agreements, the Petrossian brothers stuffed two suitcases with bills and delivered them to the Soviet Embassy. Two months later some 600 pounds of caviar arrived. "If the Russians give their word, they keep it," says Petrossian.
In 1980 Christian and his cousin Armen expanded the business into the pricey food boutiques at Bloomingdale's and Neiman-Marcus. Last September they opened an elegant mid-town Manhattan restaurant and shop where you can nibble on beluga (at $362 a pound) and wash it down with champagne. Drop-ins have included members of the Dynasty cast and crew (Joan Collins dined on Petrossian caviar in her jail scenes), as well as Michael Caine and Candice Bergen. But then, the Petrossians have always been able to hook celebs. Aristotle Onassis had his caviar flown in from Paris by an Olympic Airlines jet, and Picasso paid for his in cash wrapped in a sketch. It can be glamorous—not to mention enriching—to live life in a fish bowl.