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Healthy living and healthy eating are two notions that go hand in hand. This does not mean that you should avoid fried and greasy foods. How do you combine different flavors in one dish? Which notes – sour or sweet – should be in a salad, and which in a hot dish? A mastery of subtleties is the foundation of any craft, including the culinary arts.
We talked to the renowned chef Andreas Caminada, the winner of three Michelin stars. We met at his Schloss Stauenstein Restaurant, situated in an ancient castle / manor house in Furstenau (Graubunden) amidst the mountains – a truly fairytale place. However, gaining access to this fairytale, for those wishing to try the culinary masterpieces created by the iconic chef, is not easy: you need to reserve your table six to eight months in advance. Since 2011, Schloss Stauenstein has been known as one of the top 50 restaurants in the world.
Today, this brilliant cook is absorbed in a new project called IGNIV A year ago, we talked during his presentation at Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, and now – on the eve ofthe opening ofhis second restaurant, already becoming a chain – we meet him in St. Moritz.
– The creation of new dishes is a kind of art. Moreover, like in any other art form, it is impossible to explain what exactly happens at the moment of creation. How do we create music, or dance? What makes us experience certain feelings when we contemplate the works of talented artists? The food that we eat influences us just as much. Please tell us what goes through your mind at that magic moment when you are tinkering with the next culinary masterpiece. Do you take into account the preferences of your guests?
– My primary focus is on the flavor, in which I am guided by my own tastes. If the guests like it – I am happy. If not – that is OK too, I will continue to further perfect my dish. I might even introduce some radical changes into it. This incessant search for the new, and the desire to perfect the existing, is in my nature. You could say that this is my trademark. I am always looking for new combinations, new suppliers. That, as a matter of fact, is the foundation for the creation of dishes, because a creative impulse also needs a foundation to rest upon. Besides that, there are the local seasonal products and my personal experience as a chef.
– Every creator has his own tried and time-tested techniques and I’m sure you have yours. What is the most important thing in creating a new culinary experience? What do you strive for when mixing different ingredients?
– The basis of flavor, as I see it, is its naturalness. It is not good when the flavor is too rich or too subtle. For example, I like slightly sweet or slightly sour tones. For example, salads should have a sour note, and that could be achieved by adding lemon. Besides this, I eagerly combine sweet and spicy flavors. To me, this is harmonious. I do not like combining multiple flavors. I cannot stand falsehood. All the ingredients should retain their character. Carrots should taste like carrots, and parsley should taste like parsley. When you combine one pure flavor with another, you create intrigue. This is probably the most important thing – the foundation, upon which you build everything else.
However, we cannot look at any one individual dish out of context. When a person comes to a restaurant, they order more than one dish. We offer a menu, and it has a certain structure. Lunch starts with an appetizer: champagne, small snacks, and then other dishes. It is important to stick to the serving order, and to see everything as a whole. That creates intrigue.
The dishes should not have similar flavors. One may be sweetish, another sourish, and the third spicy… The idea is to make this combination enjoyable.
– So, the creation of dishes is, in a way, an alchemy of combining different flavors? Was I wrong when I called this process «magic», meaning that the main character here is your own instinct…
– No, not at all. I really do not ponder as to what I will combine, and in which proportions. I just know intuitively what should go well with what. However, in order to keep the dishes exciting, we have to constantly update, modify and transform them. All the time. And here, what really matters is having a reliable team of like-minded people (which we have built here), with mutual understanding, and everyone contributing to the common cause. We discuss and express new ideas and add something new to the existing menu. This way, coming to the restaurant and ordering a familiar dish, you might get something totally unexpected…
– But how do you manage to find pure flavors? After all, today’s carrots do not taste like carrots anymore, and tomatoes have long lost their true flavor. Often what we eat is just a mixture of chemical fertilizers, and nothing else. In our plastic era, food has become plastic, tasteless…
– That is true, and that is why quality suppliers are important. Luckily, we have such suppliers. For example, a local farmer, Marcel, has been providing us with excellent artichokes and great vegetables throughout the summer. We purchased nice stocks for the winter, and hopefully these will last until March. The best potato supplier in our area offers 30 kinds of potatoes. I am talking here about top products, which do not require much seasoning, and they are organic products, although quite ordinary. I never use any rare or unique products that people have never heard of before. If you wish to take care of your health, then you must know where your food comes from.
– That intuitive knowledge of what goes well with what, have you had it since birth? Or are there any ways to develop it? Maybe it is experience that matters?
– I have known many people who cook well, but have no style and cannot properly serve the dish. And this has always been important for me. For as long as I can remember, I could combine anything with anything. This concerns not only the food, but also the tableware. For example, we use pans that have been custom- made for this restaurant. Beauty, quality and aesthetics should complement each other.
All of that combined is what I call ‘style’. Cooking skills are just one component of this. How to serve a dish, how to place it on the menu and on the plate… Taste and style are comprehensive and complementary notions. Why some have it and others do not remains a mystery. This is something that you cannot measure mathematically. When people say, «Yeah, that’s Caminada», everyone understands what they are talking about.
– Time, however, does not stand still, and that is the way things are. How have your preferences changed over the years? Andreas Caminada at the beginning of his career, 13 years ago, and today – these are two different people, right?
– All of us evolve in one way or another. This is inevitable. If I go to Tokyo, I might come back with some new idea. Something I did not like yesterday might appeal to me today, and the other way round. This happened to me with white truffles: a few years ago, I thought they were just horrible… However, over time, you get used to their flavor and start to appreciate it…
– What would you describe as your perfect guest?
– If people come to the restaurant happy and relaxed, having left the fuss and the stress at the door, and immerse themselves in a different world for five or six hours, and are really enjoying what they have come for, those are the guests of my dreams. I also follow this very same principle: when I go to other restaurants, I am always in a positive mood.
– Where do you like to go as a guest? What are your favorite restaurants in other countries?
– Mainly, they are the restaurants owned by my friends. For example, in Holland, one of my friends regularly sends me on an amazing culinary journey. And this always encourages me to create something new. I do not really copy him, not at all, but I get the inspiration, the creative impulse. And another friend of mine has a real temple of food in Munich!
However, Switzerland occupies a special place in haute cuisine: no other country has so many Michelin stars. The Swiss are very thorough and precise, and always quality-oriented. And we, too, personify this quality. We are very thorough about everything we do. Almost everything we do is perfect! You can see this both in the way we cook and in the way we serve the dishes. A level of perfection in everything is truly a sign of Swiss quality.
– That is true, although not everyone knows it. How did you feel when Schloss Stauenstein was listed as one of the world’s top restaurants for the first time?
– I was certainly happy. After all, it meant recognition.
– Those wishing to eat at Schloss Stauenstein have to book their tables six to eight months in advance. There are so many people wishing to eat here that there is not enough room for all of them. And if one wishes to stay at the hotel adjacent to the restaurant, will they also need to book in advance, as with the restaurant?
– Yes. We only have six rooms, and the waiting list for them is quite long. However, we are planning to open three more rooms. The thing is, some people like to stay here for a few days: to have lunch, then walk around this beautiful city with its amazing park, then dine, then spend the night at the hotel, and in the morning treat themselves to a delicious gourmet breakfast. Some come for one night, others for two or three. That is a culinary journey.
This place is magic in some way. It attracts people. Many think that everything here is in its original prelapsarian state. Take a look at the nature around us! You will not find anything like this anywhere else in the world!
– You are a real advocate of this place. Where do you prefer to have dinner, at your own restaurant?
– No, I never eat at my own restaurant as a guest. However, I always walk around the hall, talk to the guests, ask them what they think.
– Tell us about your new project. What prompted you to open what has now become a chain called IGNIV? And with such an unusual concept…
– You are right, the concept is not a common one. This is the concept of a shared meal, which implies openness to the world, drawing people together, creating an atmosphere of trust, since dishes are served for several persons. Just like in a big family circle, when representatives of different generations gather around one table to have dinner and share their news. Just like birds in a single nest: that is the translation of the word «igniv», from the country’s fourth official language, Romansh. Birds bring everything back to their nest, to share with each other.
I have been in this business for 13 years, and all this time I have been dreaming of making art. And now my dream has come true! This year, the IGNIV Restaurant at Grand Resort Bad Ragaz is celebrating its first birthday. This is not just a place with a relaxed atmosphere, but also a family restaurant with a very high quality of service. There are very few like that in Switzerland, but I think in the future they might become quite popular.
From the very outset, I have been focusing on the details and on the mood, in order to ensure that every restaurant has its own style, to ensure that people do not only go there to eat, but to enjoy the atmosphere of a cozy «nest» – the very name of the restaurant suggests this. However, the atmosphere has to be created. Here, everything is important: hospitality, service, interior design, tableware.
– At times, you must want to take your mind off things and do something else. To break the routine, feel like someone you’ve never been before… Do you have a hobby unrelated to your occupation?
– Of course I do! Twice a year I publish a magazine. Every chef publishes a recipe book. But then I thought: Why a book? I do not want to be like the rest. I want a magazine. And since I cannot publish the same recipes in every issue, I have to invent something new every time, and tell the readers about what I do. This serves as a great motivation to create. The creation of new recipes and illustrations, getting to meet new producers… That is what inspires me. By the way, the magazines are not only about what I do. I visit different chefs (Quique Dacosta, for example, or Gaston Acurio), I cook with them, and I interview them.
– What comes to your mind when you look at your stars?
– The fact that I am a happy person. There has not been a single day when I woke up and did not feel like going to work. I enjoy every bit of it. I was born here in Graubunden, and I can work, live and create here. My roots are here, and I do not have to go anywhere! And my business is my child: I have invested so much in it! Many people have worked for me over the years, and some have even opened their own restaurants. I have never felt bored. Certainly, having your own business requires much effort and energy, but this is my little world, a world in which I can decide for myself what to do and how to do it.