Cooking up a Storm by Juan Moreno | 6th September, 2019 | Travel
Food festival The Epicure at the uber-luxury hotel The Dolder Grand in Zurich is a must for gourmets. Every year, the world’s most brilliant chefs come together here to cook. The people who benefit most from this festival are the ignoramuses, as Juan Moreno discovered. A paean to great cooking.
My wife is a fairly well known restaurant critic. She has opinions on things I didn’t even know you could have opinions on. She knows exactly if she fancies Ibérico pork cheek with two kinds of parsley or whether she would prefer the terrine with mistletoe and jellied shiso consommé. The chartreuse of quail breast and goose liver served with an apple and gewürztraminer jelly also sounds good, but she would first have to know who was manning the finishing table, in other words the person responsible for deciding whether a particular dish is up to the high standards of the kitchen. It goes without saying that she would know the name of the chef and where he had previously worked. Let me be brutally honest: a wife like this can be a problem.
Ignorance has never stopped me from having an opinion – and writing about it too. I wouldn’t have become a journalist otherwise. The problem is that I secretly live in terror that my proud defense of a slightly charred Neapolitan pizza as the pinnacle of culinary achievement could, in fact, be based on what my wife bluntly calls my “benightedness.” I could sense that my jokes about overly fussy French cooking merely showed that I lacked the necessary insight. And I dimly remembered reading a sentence somewhere: “If you really know France you may smile at the description ‘grande nation’, but never, ever at the term ‘grande cuisine.’”
So I was delighted when this fearless magazine asked me whether I would be interested in writing about a food festival of superlatives in Switzerland. The event brings master chefs from around the world to one of the world’s most fabulous hotels, the five-star The Dolder Grand in Zurich. The man, nay force behind the event is Heiko Nieder, a gifted chef and head of The Restaurant at the hotel. Nieder, who has two Michelin stars under his belt, is a pleasant, thoughtful man you wouldn’t hesitate for a second to entrust a diplomatic mission to. Walking through the hotel with him takes an eternity because regulars are constantly coming up to tell him what a blissful evening they have enjoyed in his restaurant.
The name of the food festival is The Epicure, and this year it takes place September 3 through 8. The second part of the event’s name modestly declares it to be Days of Culinary Masterpieces. There are any number of foodie events worldwide, but very, very few celebrate the art of cooking at such a dizzy height. The line-up is stellar. Some evenings, and particularly those featuring guest chefs who have come especially from Asia or the U.S., are sold out on the spot. This year’s event is the sixth, but the procedure is always very similar. You book an evening meal and a visiting chef – always with three stars – joins Nieder in the kitchen. Together, they create and serve a divine meal accompanied by the finest wines. Cheap it ain’t, with a meal costing nearly 600 Swiss francs per person. However, what sounded like a lot of money soon slipped into proportion when I chatted to the waiter last year at the festival. I had drunk two flutes of a delicious Champagne, whose name I had no intention of remembering, and I asked the question that probably only an idiot of my caliber even thinks about asking: The “how-much” question. I cleared my throat, leaned forward to the waiter who was in the processes of taking away my glass and muttered: “Excuse me, but, um, how much did that cost?” The man considered briefly, as if he was deliberating whether to answer at all. Then he replied: “I would say around 100 Swiss francs. Wholesale. Provided you can even get it.”
You may have realized by now that I am no gourmet, which is why the name of the man who was cooking that evening meant nothing to me: Heinz Beck. It’s a bit like writing about soccer and not knowing who Lothar Matthäus is. Beck is executive chef at the only three-star restaurant in Rome, La Pergola. He also manages several other restaurants, including in Dubai, in London and elsewhere around the world. Beck, with whom I ended up getting wasted at the hotel bar, greatly impressed me. I suddenly understood why gourmets make such a song and dance about food. I have forgotten what the name of the course was, but as long as I live I will never forget the tortellini Beck served. The plate was a work of art, a landscape; very pretty, I thought, but essentially it’s just a plate of tortellini. Your basic pasta. I lived in Italy for a while and thought I knew what pasta should taste like.
Reader: never in my life have I eaten such sublime tortellini. Silky soft with a perfect, thin layer of pasta enveloping an astonishingly good duck filling. At this point, my wife would launch into an explosion of well-chosen adjectives. All I can say is that it was incredible. This evening was a revelation: The festival is not about good food – it’s about perfection. About brilliance. One of the chefs last year was Yosuke Suga, former apprentice of Chef of the Century Joel Robuchon and owner of Sugalabo in Tokyo. Twenty seats, members only and usually open only a few days a month. In Japan, Suga is revered as a culinary master.
I have a very simply definition for brilliance: Something truly brilliant will be recognized as such by anyone, even rank amateurs. Even if you’ve never watched a soccer match in your life, you immediately sense that Maradona was a genius. If you’ve never listened to music, you’ll still understand why The Beatles were so seminal. You don’t have to understand art to recognize Van Gogh’s uniqueness. Beck is said to make the best pasta in the world, and even someone like myself can tell. This year, the invitees to the exclusive culinary festival include Alain Passard, Christian Jürgens, Alvin Leung and Esben Holmboe Bang. These are names that bring tears to the eyes of people like my wife; I, on the other hand, have no idea who these people are. They all have three Michelin stars. Don’t get me wrong: I still love pizza with a charred crust. I am not about to hang a poster of an Impressionist painting in my office or pick “Let it be” as my ringtone. But The Epicure showed me a whole world I never knew existed. It isn’t a gourmet festival, even though the food is so good that you find yourself reliving it months later. No, this festival is a lesson in humility.