Clean Lines, Good Light
The Many Delights of the New Chäserstatt
“It’s that place way up there…where the last spot of sun is still shining,” my hostess pointed out the evening I arrived in Ernen, “that’s Chäserstatt.” I could see the newly opened seminar hotel from the distance, but wanted to see its purportedly fabulous views, stunning interior design, and first summer’s art exhibition first hand. More importantly, the chef cook was Janos Schweizer, a 27-year old Ernen “son” whose menu promised young and creative cuisine. When I heard that he came down to the village every morning to pick up fresh produce, I called to ask if − on behalf of this blog − I might “hitch” a ride back up with him. I could, and with the vegetable crates loaded, we started up the mountain in a solid Range Rover.
Had this been winter, it might have been on a snow cat; ascents on the road then can be “iffy” for most wheeled vehicles. Even in summer, while the drive starts off innocuously enough, the gains in altitude, dozens of hairpin turns, the drop-offs to the valley side – much less the chance of meeting another car – would be too much of a challenge for a city boy. Janos, though, had grown up travelling this road; “Nothing to worry about,” he explained; “I sometimes do the 20-minute drive down and back up again twice in a single day.”
And sure enough, I was in good hands; Chäserstatt came into view on the prow of the hill with me still in one piece. House and conference center manager Maya Belzer welcomed us at the back kitchen to take in the produce over the windowsill, easily sweeping up even the dozens of fresh eggs that were stacked 10 layers high.
While Janos changed into his chef’s gear, I took a few moments to visit artwork that Swiss artist Marcel Hischier was showing on the building’s lower story. His paintings were largely alpine landscapes painted on site; his pieces of sculpture – usually from found objects – included pinwheels, pylons, and driftwood variations, minimalist work that was modest in size and reasonably priced. The seminar rooms were on that level, too, as state-of-the-art, glass fiber cable-connected spaces that faced breathtaking views out over the valley.
The Chäserstatt restaurant sits above those meeting rooms: no frills, no alpine “schnick-schnack,” but a structure with clean lines, good light, and muted colors that speak of honest simplicity instead. The walls are white, but some of the ceilings are painted deep terracotta red, “warming up” the rooms and nicely containing them. The four hotel rooms in an adjacent building are equally purist in bed and bath, but comfortable; with such a backdrop, what else so you really need? In short, the place was infinitely inviting.
It was still early in the day, so Janos sat with me over coffee to tell me a little about himself. He’d always enjoyed everything mechanical, he said, but came into his own when he started learning to cook. Over the three years’ mandatory apprenticeship, his teacher was Klaus Leuenberger, the celebrated chef de cuisine at Ernen’s own Restaurant St. Georg, the 15-point Gault-Millau point kitchen whose mantra has been the highest quality regional cooking for many years.
Janos Schweizer has already been called a “creative perfectionist with his own unique Goms (valley) signature.” That’s one tall accolade, but one rightly awarded, I hear, for he, too, uses only the freshest of products, and those native to the region wherever possible. Convinced that stress-free conditions improve meat quality, Janos diligently follows the story of his supply-animals’ treatment. His description of the four Galloway beef cattle he “personally” visited on their farm before they were humanely put down would make even a Temple Grandin proud. Equally likeable is his lack of presumption; he regularly makes the rounds to greet and thank the restaurant’s patrons, sometimes even bringing their meals to the table himself. His willingness to wear as many hats on the staff as are needed is also commendable. If the grass needs mowing, he mows it. If the snow needs removing, he plows it away.
Maya Belzer underscored the same mind-set. “The days are long up in the mountains,” she said. “If you’re not behind it with all your heart, then you shouldn’t be running an alpine place.” To her great credit, she is someone who embraces challenges, convinced that− with determination, commitment and well-honed skills − a solution for every problem can be found. That includes realizing the most obvious business target: running Chäserstatt at a profit.
That rich chocolate praliné that came with my coffee had been Heaven, but I had to get back to town by noon. Coming down any Swiss alp is notoriously harder on the knees than going up. But three things made my 2-hour hike back to Ernen easier. First was the consummate beauty of the alpine landscape unfolding before me at every turn. Second were the hundreds of perky butterflies that repeatedly crossed my path with their delicate colors. And finally, there was the anticipation of returning to the Chäserstatt for lunch as soon as I possibly could.
Thursday, 28 July 2016, by Sarah Batschelet