Chef Klaus Leuenberger: The Same Kind of Cooking, but Better

Klaus Leuenberger, formerly chef at the Restaurant St Georg on the Dorfplatz, has taken over the helm at the ErnerGarten in the village’s all-new Generationshaus. I asked him to share his story.

Yours was a long history and solid reputation at the St Georg. Why the change?
The time was right. At the St Georg, I had a reputation as being a little too stuffy and high-end among the locals; with all the tables laid, cloths and everything, some of them didn’t even really trust themselves to come in. Here at ErnerGarten, deliberately, we never use tablecloths in the front part of the restaurant, so people realize right away that they can eat something small if that’s all they want. I also offer a substantial lunch menu for CHF 18.00 − price-worthy, generous, and regional, and that’s going very well.

So this is a new model?
Yes. Outside opening hours at the St Georg, everything just shut down, but here at the Generationshaus, we’re open seven days a week, so there are always people going in and out. What’s more, many of the residents here at the Generationshaus asked to know what they could do to support us, how they could help. So I suggested we try a “Walliser evening” every Monday, which they staff entirely themselves. Now, there’s always something of a “raclette battle” on that evening: two different raclette cheeses from two different providers are the contenders, and the guests assess their differences.

Are there any other “formatting” changes in store?
Yes, on Wednesday evenings, we’re planning to start a “Tavolata,” a surprise menu served around a big table as is often done in Italy. We’ll offer whole variety of foods based on local produce − the strength of this restaurant − bringing people together so that good discussion at the table ensues. I worked with the local Biobauer (bio-farmers) over a long period to promote local produce, and the idea now is just to intensify that a bit. From this new location, I’m even closer to the gardens, so I can go across the road to determine what is ripe or ready on any given day.

What motivated you to be a cook in the first place?
Training as a cook meant I would be able to go abroad and see a little more of the world beyond just Huttwil, in the Emmental, where I was born. Once I’d finished the training, I contacted a cruise line for work, but was told to get some real experience first. So I worked three or four years in a large hotel here in Switzerland, then went abroad, first to Canada, then around the world on the QE 2. Working in a big cruise ship kitchen is very hard, but they’re always in need of people since the staff turnover is so great.

And where did you go from there?
I sailed on three different ships: QE2, Royal Viking, and the Viking Sun over the next two years, but landed in Warsaw at the very end of the 80s, the time of the Wendezeit (re-unification). A British firm that had renovated and opened a 5-star hotel there hired me as head chef. Later, when the property was sold to Polish management, I travelled to Qatar to work for a wealthy sheikh, and managed the kitchen of his luxury resort and leisure facility, complete with a Gault Millau restaurant and huge banquet hall. While I was the executive head of operations there, we also catered banquets and formal state dinners for the Royal Palace − all in all, a huge organizational task. 

And what made you leave Qatar?
Well, eventually, I wanted a connection to something simpler again, and wanted to actually cook more. I might be told, “Hey, we’re not paying you to cook here, you’re supposed to manage. You've got people cooking for you!” which was frustrating. In addition to that, the attitude of the sheikhs was a very different one: the idea that if you pay enough, you can get anything you want. The word “no” simply didn’t exist for them. You might be asked to have a roast turkey ready for a large party in a hour; never mind if you were unable to get a turkey in that time, much less prepare and roast it! And if you vocalized that, you might be told this: “That’s not my problem, it’s yours!” 

That would have been hard. So you came back to Switzerland?
Yes, and the St Georg here in Ernen was looking for a cook, so I agreed to work here for a full year. That one year, though, somehow grew into eighteen. So it was a hard decision after so long to close up shop there. Even so, I wanted a crack at a new and more lively venture, one that would pull in people of all kinds all day long. The ErnerGarten location is good for me too, as are the landscape, the many bio-products available, and − above all − the Musikdorf Ernen. It’s made a tremendous difference, since without its draw, I might be never have had the same exposure. And when people come here from every part of the world in the summer, I get a good bit of international flavor – which is somewhat of a substitute for travel. Most importantly, I can assure our guests that the ErnerGarten’s products are of the finest quality. We’re still here in Ernen, we’re doing the same kind of cooking, and we may even be doing it a little bit better!

Interview by Sarah Batschelet, Ernen, Monday 24 July 2017

The Restaurant Erner Garten is located in the new Generationshaus, a 5-minute walk from the center of town (Tel. +41 27 971 11 28). For more information, click here.