Maria Sharapova — tennis legend, decorated Grand Slam champion, and noted pal to a certain royal family — doesn’t believe in using her star power to score tables at super-popular restaurants.
“I feel like that’s part of being a food lover — the process, not just the food but getting there,” she told Eater. One of her favorite spots, and a notoriously hard place to nab a table, is Felix in Venice Beach, California. On a recent visit, Sharapova and a friend managed to walk in right at opening and grab the last two spots at the bar.
When they got settled, their neighbor at the bar struck up a conversation. “A gentleman next to me was like, ‘Have you tried that restaurant that was featured on Chef’s Table in Russia yet?’ And I was like, God, that’s a random question,” Sharapova said. They got to talking, and the meal ended with Sharapova’s new friend gushing about Totoraku, a Los Angeles hotspot that requires a direct line of contact with the chef to get in.
“So next thing you know he’s like putting the contact details of chef Kaz into my phone and he’s like, ‘You got to try this place out,’” she said, laughing. “And I’m like, God, that’s so random, I wonder if this place even exists.” A week later, after some googling and a phone call, Sharapova and her family rolled in to Totoraku.
“It was honestly one of the best food experiences that we had, and I look back at that moment, I was like, if I had never sat at the bar, and just walked in casually and having a nice little time with my friend, [I] would have never walked into this guy and never gotten that recommendation.”
Those serendipitous moments are less likely when you rely on assistants to book private tables. Sharapova’s travel schedule would make even the most seasoned globetrotters balk, but the exciting dining opportunities she finds across the globe fuel her through a grueling training schedule. A sprawling spreadsheet on her phone helps her keep track of them all, from wine bars in Melbourne to mom-and-pop joints in Italian villages.
On a new episode of Eater’s Digest, Sharapova tells Amanda Kludt about her training diet, her formative food memories, and the motivation to start Sugarpova, her candy company.
Below, a lightly edited transcript of Amanda’s interview with Maria Sharapova.
Amanda Kludt: Today on the show we have tennis All-Star and the founder and CEO of Sugarpova, Maria Sharapova. Welcome to the show.
Maria Sharapova: Thank you, I’m a huge fan.
Amanda: Awesome. We are a huge fan of yours. So many people are excited that you’re in the office today. So we’re going to have to take you on a tour.
Maria: Probably, like, “What is Maria doing on this podcast?”
Amanda: I know. I tell people that I was meeting you today, they’re like, “What? She has a candy line, obviously.”
Maria: Your viewers are probably like, why is Maria Sharapova doing on this podcast?
Amanda: But also, you are a huge restaurant lover, if I’m not mistaken.
Maria: I am. Oh, I’m just a big foodie. I always grew up loving food because I was in my grandmother’s kitchen from a very young age and she actually, when I wanted to help her work on the ingredients or put things in or mix it myself, she would be like, “No, this is not the career path I want you to take.” So she would actually always guide me away from the kitchen. But I always had this curiosity for tasting different foods and ingredients and that’s one of the best things about travel. But I’ve just been, spent a few weeks in Bordighera, Italy, north of Italy, and just the simple, casual places that are so unexpected where you go in and you just have a mom and pop cooking pasta and adding a little bit of truffle and they have their local cheese and their local milks and the heavy cream and just seeing all of that come together, I think those are the best experiences. Not necessarily particular restaurants, but those are the memories that I draw from on food.
Amanda: When you’re traveling for tennis tournaments, do you get to eat out much or are you pretty regimented in what you’re consuming and your training?
Maria: Kind of depends what city and where we’re staying. In London this year we had an incredible chef come over, because at Wimbledon, [I] usually stay in home. So I stay with my team and my family, and we just had farm-to-table food every single day. That was a real treat, and that doesn’t happen very often, because it’s hard to find kitchens and constant hotels that I end up living in.
Amanda: And in New York, where you spend a lot of time, any restaurants you want to call out?
Maria: Oh, I’m usually calling out restaurants I haven’t tried yet.
Amanda: Yeah, what’s on your to do list?
Maria: Is it Misi?
Amanda: Misi, yeah.
Maria: Misi, yes. So I want to try that. I’m still longing to find a soup dumpling place, so maybe you can help.
Amanda: Okay, we will provide you with a bunch of samples.
Maria: Right. So I visit Mari Vanna a lot, because it’s a Russian hotspot for me, and just makes me feel like I’m close to home.
Amanda: What do you get at Mari Vanna?
Maria: I get the borscht, I get the, if it’s in season, the cherry dumplings and the potato dumplings.
Maria: Sometimes the blends with like sour cream or a little bit of caviar, I love all of it.
Amanda: And vodka?
Maria: I’m not a big vodka lover, but I have in the last two years loved trying different cocktails, and seeing what I like, but I’m not a... I can’t do straight-up vodka, no. Definitely not. Not the true Russian people expect me to be.
Amanda: So disappointed in you.
Maria: I’m so sorry.
Amanda: I was reading a food diary that you did for Grubstreet, and you were mentioning how much you love Felix and how hard it is to get into so you would show up at 5:15. And then one night you went and you just waited at the bar a long time. Do you not have someone who could just get you into these places?
Maria: I feel like that’s part of being a food lover, is the process, is not just the food but getting there.
Amanda: So you are not skipping the line, you are just like —
Maria: No. Actually this particular incident, my friend and I were just walking around Venice, we didn’t really have an agenda and we went to Felix early because we knew we didn’t have a reservation, so we have no chance. Walked in there, two seats at the bar and close to finishing our dinner, a gentleman next to me was like, “Have you tried that restaurant that was featured on Chef’s Table in Russia yet?” And I was like, God, that’s a random question.
Amanda: Because he knew that you love food?
Maria: Well, he knew that I was Russian, and he thought that maybe, we’re at Felix and maybe that I’d been there.
Amanda: White Rabbit, right?
Maria: Yes. And he’s like, “I’ve been to almost all of the chef’s table restaurants.” And I was like, “Well, congratulations.”
Amanda: Good for you.
Maria: So we started talking about food and he’s like, “Have you been to this little Japanese steakhouse, Totoraku in Los Angeles?” And I was like, “No, what is that?” He’s like, “Oh well, you’ll find out.” And he’s like, “You got to know the chef to get in.” So next thing you know he’s like putting the contact details of chef Kaz into my phone and he’s like, you got to try this place out.
So I finished dinner, and I’m like, God, that’s so random, I wonder if this place even exists. So I google it, I’m like, yep, this is like a very [discreet] place on Pico in Los Angeles, looks like nothing from the outside, and then there’s this, pretty much a one-man show inside of a Japanese steak grill. So I write to the chef and I say, I have some family in town, four of us, any chance we can get in? He’s like, yes, come on over.
And so we went a week later and it was honestly one of the best food experiences that we had, and I look back at that moment, I was like, if I had never sat at the bar, and just walked in casually and having a nice little time with my friend, would have never walked into this guy and never gotten that recommendation, so yeah, that’s part of the food experience.
Amanda: And also just being open to having that conversation with a stranger like that.
Maria: Yes. Which usually happens when you eat alone, which is also very odd and strange, but I kind of love it, I feel like you focus on food, you focus on the purpose of why you’re there, and sometimes when you’re talking so much, you almost forget what you’re doing, but yeah.
Amanda: That’s so funny. What about when you are training, what kinds of foods are you eating?
Maria: I’m pretty regimented. I have, I would say an 80 to 20 percent work balance, where 80 percent of the time I’m very diligent with what I eat from when I wake up to the amounts of water that I drink. I start my day off with probably half a liter of water with lemon, having that routine in the morning — there’s little routines that I feel are very important in life, but generally with food, because they get you back on track to feeling well, and then I indulge for 20 percent of the time. Because you have to.
Amanda: And is indulging for you, is that candy or sweets, is it wine?
Maria: I think my first pleasures of indulgence in the kitchen were with my grandmother, when she would bake, like, the apple tarts and even the dumplings, which are the sweet version. She would pick the cherries off the garden, she’d make her own jam with the cherries and then she’d make the dough and then she just put these two sides together, create these dumplings and in an hour you’d have this beautiful indulging moment. So whenever I do eat sweets, I’ll always think back to that.
But it is a little bit of candy occasionally, or a chocolate bar. I don’t know, I just feel like sometimes you need it, you need it to get back to feeling okay, I treated myself, I really worked for this and that’s probably why I started Sugarpova in the first place. So I know it’s such a strange concept, being an athlete, but I think I give myself an opportunity and to many others to feel like it’s okay to embrace the fact that you’re not 100 percent all in, all the time. You have to give yourself a break for your mind, for your body, for your confidence. It’s good for you.
Amanda: Well, especially as an athlete, you’re so healthy — like, you are very aware of what you’re putting in your body and how much energy you’re exerting. So I feel like you probably have a good sense of when you can indulge and when you shouldn’t.
Maria: Yeah, I just finished a four-week training block in Italy and I said, on my last day I said, “The last day, my last meal, I want to have pizza.” I was there for four weeks, one slice of pizza, no one. I had a lot of pasta, but I didn’t have pizza, and I was like, “Okay, please take me to just a local spot.” And we went to this, honestly I thought it might’ve been, it was probably one of the best pizza experiences I’ve had, and they had these combinations of mortadella with ricotta cheese and it just came out like on these pans and it was amazing. It was exactly what I had pictured my last day of training to include.
Amanda: I love that. So you’re a restaurant lover and a foodie. Do you find the other athletes on tour with you are also, or are people more, I don’t know, focused on cooking at home with their personal chefs?
Maria: Yeah, I think the best part, some actually do have consistent chefs and sometimes they travel with their family, who also end up cooking a lot. But I love venturing out, and especially when you find a good-quality restaurant, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go back to it. And you definitely, I have my favorites and I have my go-tos — okay, I have a Grand Slam tournament coming up and there’s definitely go to restaurants that I know are reliable, where the food tastes great, where I’m happy, where you almost know the people, and it’s like a family environment and you enjoy yourself and you relax without the wine.
Amanda: And to talk a little bit about Sugarpova, why did you want to start your own business, and why did you focus on candy?
Maria: Well, tennis was, I mean had always been and still is a huge part of my life, since I was a very young girl. At 21 I had shoulder surgery and something that I thought would continue forever, because that’s all I knew how to do, kind of almost stopped, and I really didn’t know if I’d be able to get it back again or play again. I already had two feet in business, because I was part of brands; I did a lot of advertisement or sponsorship stuff, and at the end of all of it it was like, I was just a very small piece of the end result. I was either the face or I contributed in some of the marketing or in my opinion or a design aspect.
Amanda: Right, but you didn’t get to own it.
Maria: But I never had full control, and I think as an athlete, when you’re out on the court and you’re competing, everything is in your hands, and that’s such an amazing feeling, and I think I wanted to incorporate that into a business venture. And sweets was just this memory and the name Sugarpova came about and I started the line with gummies, because gummies [were] something I saw in America for the first time, never seeing it back in Russia. So I thought of it as a souvenir. I remember bringing it back to my friends and showing them all these different shapes and colors — little did I know they’re all artificial flavors and not great for you, but I loved that feeling of buying something that I didn’t want to throw away as I checked out and just put in my mouth, I thought of bringing it home as a present.
So that’s where the idea evolved: We started with gummies and now we were doing truffles and chocolates and we just launched our all-natural gummy line.
Amanda: With all natural, how did you overcome the challenge of using the ingredients you want to use, but also having it look and taste and feel the way you want it to taste? Because I know, usually those ingredients you end up with not the bright, bright colors.
Maria: Well that’s the thing about candy, is you want to, and I know from my own, you can only draw on your own experience, and what you like and don’t like. Of course you’re also reaching out to consumers, but I know that if I tried a piece of candy and I am rewarding myself and it doesn’t taste good, I don’t really think I’m going to be a repeat customer and I don’t think I’m going to give it to anyone that I know, because I didn’t really like it. If I’m going to try to be healthy, I’ll eat healthy, and if I want to indulge I’d rather it tastes good.
So putting those two together was not easy at all. And this line of the natural gummies, it took two years to create, because part of it was also seeing what others were doing. When I started the line, a lot of it was like, for me to be in Paris at Colette was very cool. To be at this $8 or 9 euro price point, I was like, “Oh that’s really cool, but you don’t make money.” It’s a great marketing tool. And then over the years people were paying more for good-quality ingredients and products and so on, but it takes time to create a good-tasting gummy bear that’s made like [with] blue raspberries, [or] made with a super food — and that’s how you get — with spirulina, that’s how we got that bluish greenish color.
Amanda: That’s fun.
Maria: So it’s finding those combinations that was difficult ... and candy is an impulse purchase: We see it, it’s bright, it’s colorful, we want it, especially with gummies. And to create that with natural ingredients that are more like peo and that are not as bright was one of the biggest challenges.
Amanda: Interesting. And I know that you in your international travels like to try candies from around the world. Are there any favorites you want to call out, or any Russian candies that you love?
Maria: We have a Russian wafer that’s, in Russia it’s called like a little bear. I don’t know if there’s a brand name, but it’s known as a little bear. I still love the Kinder Eggs with the surprises, I’ll treat myself to one of those when I’m at an airport even though they sell them by six, I just want one, but I guess I’ll have five in the next month.
Amanda: And you sell in a lot of airports. Can you talk about that strategy of going the airport route versus some other way of distributing the candy?
Maria: Yeah, placing it in airports was quite strategic, because you have a lot of travelers, we’re also not just direct to consumer, we’re also a retail business, so we go through distributors. So it’s also like a viewership for distributors that travel a lot, and because our branding is fun and we have a fun lip logo, it catches the eye and I think that’s been a lot... We get a lot of compliments and a lot of feedback from people that see it in airports and like, oh they pick it up and oh this could be interesting in Mexico, or this could be interesting for Spain.
So that’s been really, really fun, I travel all the time, so seeing my product at a Hudson News is surreal.
Amanda: Okay, so you’re going on Shark Tank, what is that experience like?
Maria: Oh, I loved it. Well first of all, because I’ve watched every single episode for the last few years, and I’ve always watched the show thinking that while I was starting the brand of Sugarpova, I thought, Oh, what would I say? Or how would I pitch? Or what would I do? And I found myself on the show, not pitching my product but as a guest shark. So I think that kind of seeing myself, and like seeing it from the sidelines as if someone put me on the TV screen, but then it felt so real, like the whole show. I mean, it’s non-scripted, nothing about it seems... Like TV sometimes seem like it’s, you have an audience and you’re trying to cater to an audience, but it felt very real while I was on the show and I think that’s what was really fun, was by the 10th pitch, I was like, I can do this all day long. I —
Amanda: Hire me full time.
Maria: Yeah, seriously. You see the energy in people’s eyes and the ambition that they have, and I think the products that people are coming out with, and the ideas are getting better and better with each season and that’s what I think all of us are like. There was at one point we’re like all fighting for this deal.
Amanda: I love that. So it is really real, you —
Maria: It’s very real, you’re investing your own money, which I think many people don’t realize, it’s your own money out there that you’re, so this is very, very real.
Amanda: Did you feel you were empathizing with the entrepreneurs more, now that you’ve been through all this?
Maria: I kind of feel like I’ve gone through every single mistake that speaker have. So I relate a lot especially with the consumer good products that came on the show that were pitching on that day. Because I, from distribution to the factory to the product to the R&D, I was like, Oh boy I’ve been there before and this is —
Amanda: You don’t even know what’s coming for you. I know you travel the world quite a bit for work, and what are some of the favorite destinations you go to, just for the food? When you know you’re going there, you’re like, Oh I’m going to eat so much good stuff.
Maria: Let me get my phone out, because I’m terrible with names.
Amanda: Do you also have like a spreadsheet? And my notes tab is full of restaurants.
Maria: I’ll start with Paris.
Maria: Had an amazing meal at Buvette recently. Always like a classic, and when I come with friends I feel like you kind of have to go there just for the french fries. I’ve traveled so much this year. So Tipo 00 in Melbourne was one of my favorites. Carlton Wine Room, had an amazing meal there, and I don’t know I love that it’s like an Italian wine-bar scene, so you don’t necessarily have to sit at the table, sitting at the bar actually has the best experiences. I love going getting coffee at Pellegrini’s espresso bar, the Marianne wine bar in Fitzroy, that was amazing. Say those are my Melbourne spots.
Amanda: Awesome. And other great food cities, do you get to Asia much? Do you get to eat around in Japan?
Maria: I love Japan, but I haven’t explored Japan like on a culinary level, and I would love to do that, that’s actually on my bucket list. Of doing Kyoto in the month of April and seeing the cherry blossoms so, yeah, that’s definitely a to do thing.
Amanda: I love that you like the rest of us have just a long list of all the restaurants you want to try.
Maria: I really do. That’s the great thing about travel is you start with the restaurant, then you’re like, where do I go from here?
Amanda: I know, book the reservation and then you find the hotel.
Maria: That’s right.