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Always caviar

The glories of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival: permatans, gastro kicks, portaloos and all. By Margrit Sprecher

The dress code is simple: as little as possible. But you only know that if you have been before. The experienced kitchen-partygoer comes with bare belly, shoulders, back or legs, and tops off the outfit boldly with a ski hat or Chanel boots. That is the only way to survive the heat amongst the steaming pans and pots of boiling oil, between red-glowing grills and ovens emanating hot air like a desert storm. Nowhere does the champagne get warm quicker, and nowhere is it knocked back more rapidly.

Four hundred guests shuffle in a stop-and-go crush through the stainless steel gleam of the Palace Hotel kitchen. Jolly chaps jostle down the narrow corridors, cheerful women drift through the unfamiliar surroundings. There could be nothing more satisfying for the leisured jet set than to watch others driven by real passion to the heights of excellence, and see the well-organised chaos shudder, clatter, sizzle and spin, without having to lift a finger themselves. At one stove you get a plateful of gnocchi with green olives and fried gambas, at the next stop you are served lamb cutlet with saffron honey and cinnamon/orange blossom sauce or a flip with dashi vegetable jelly and lobster tartar.

All photos courtesy of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival

To chill out, the guests retreat to the icy blue disco light of the patisserie, where the white gloves of the pastry chefs fly through the air apparently weightlessly, moving as if by magic. There used to be girls coated in liquid chocolate posing here, but they have been replaced with a life-size chocolate cow. Although that has nothing to do with political correctness, for in St Moritz the guest's unmarred pleasure – correct or not – is sacrosanct. To avoid spoiling anyone's fun in fur, the village has even banned animal rights posters from its territory.

Compared with their permatanned clientele, the chefs appear pale and lost in thought. The look of people who spend sleepless nights staring into the darkness searching for the latest ultimate gastronomic kick. Engrossed in endless ideas, they cook up creative relationships between marinaded Barbary duck and puff pastry with ginger and coconut. Or between cabbage, crayfish and shitaki sauce. In this league – where each of the eleven Swiss chefs boasts at least one Michelin star and 18 GaultMillau points – permanent restlessness is the source of excellence. The game of extremes can only go on if more rules are found to break.

As true artists, the maîtres do not have the robust soul-armour of their St Moritz customers. It comes as a real shock to watch a guest just scrape the caviar garnishing off your creation and discard the rest. Or thoughtlessly shovel your wasabi aroma-firework into his mouth, instead of allowing it to explode on his palate in stages. Or get his plate filled only to abandon it at the next opportunity. After a week of Gourmet Festival and so much direct confrontation with his audience, Horst Petermann of Kunststuben in Küsnacht lost three kilogrammes in weight.

Another stress factor is that the chefs are not allowed to play to their greatest strengths with what they normally do best. The star chef's favourite ingredients are caviar, foie gras and truffles, which can lead to a certain monotony after a week. The organisers had no alternative but to more or less ration these dear ingredients, allocating them according to a strict formula. But they had not reckoned with the chefs' inventiveness. Over his hors d' oeuvres, Martin Dalsass from Tessin grated a truffle which, he insisted, was fundamentally different from the truffle in his competitor's main course. It tastes, he said, more like a flat mushroom and grows, unlike the common truffle, only at altitudes above 1,000 metres. Other chefs hide the caviar and lobster behind innocent-sounding rustic names. Local champion Roland Jöhri, for example, smuggled the caviar into his maluns – potatoes mashed in the pan, a traditional dish of the poor of the Grisons region– and used lobster to pep up his capuns (spaetzle parcels wrapped in chard).

St Moritz came very close to giving up its Gourmet Festival a couple of years ago, because the rivalry between the chefs had taken on forms that boggled the imagination – and ravaged the purse. One German master chef tormented his guests with liver sausage and bean ravioli garnished with ginger froth and octopus, while an Italian maestro required liquid nitrogen from the particle physics laboratory at CERN for his iced coffee. And fate had other blows in store too. One time a whole team of prima donnas from Abu Dhabi simply stayed at home; another time the winter was so mild that during the finale on the frozen St Moritz lake the water was coming up through the carpet and each waiter left a little wake behind him. And the costs for excess baggage rose to staggering levels. The curries brought by the Peninsula crew from Hong Kong alone weighed in 72 kilogrammes over the limit.

At least in terms of travel costs there were no unpleasant surprises to be expected from the Swiss star chefs who were invited to the 13th St Moritz Gourmet Festival. They came in their company buses bringing with them nothing more than their own pots and pans, their best trainees and that rare Sicilian olive oil that tastes of green tomatoes. Admittedly, one or other deeply regretted placing his trust in the grocers of Engadin. St Moritz may possess the world' s greatest concentration of 5-star hotels, boutiques, jewellers and banks. But in culinary terms it remains, apart from a caviar shop and an organic quail farm, a third world village. The only delicatessen has drastically reduced its assortment and even in the Coop, fresh cream is not always available. Stefan Meier from Rathauskeller Zug searched in vain for the right potatoes for a proper potato purée, and a colleague equally unsuccessfully scoured the butchers for bones for his veal stock.

That is no surprise, given the standing of St Moritz' s hotel kitchens. Only the Suvretta House has recently achieved 14 GaultMillau points. In the other hotels the main thing is that the steak is thick, the champagne cold and the ingredients expensive – the latter being for many still the most reliable sign that it tastes good too. The same even applies up in the mountains. At Corviglia, Reto Mathis has long since scrapped his spaghetti machine – then a world first – and instead generously grates fist-sized white truffles over T-bone steaks and ravioli. And his guests spread the caviar so thick on their blinies that his supply for the year had already run out by the end of January. Even though the price of caviar has risen by a third.

The main takers for caviar are not only bankers with fat balances, but – of course – the Russians. In January alone 52 private jets from Moscow landed at Samedan Airport. When they first turned up ten years ago they were every hotelier's nightmare. In the dining room they yelled the best jokes from table to table by cellphone and drank vodka from the bottle. Their bodyguards took over the hotel entrances and intimidated even the doormen with their Rambo manners. Dolled up like opera divas the Russian women ransacked the boutiques, dragging bagfuls of bling through the mud of the Via Maistra to their hotels. The boots had to be from Prada, the sable only from Fendi. The Byzantine gold crucifix did not even get a look in unless it weighed at least a pound. Now the Russians no longer attract attention either acoustically or optically. And in the last two years the tourism association has received not a single complaint of bawdy behaviour.

The most dependable indicator of where the world economy is currently booming is the nationality of the guests at St Moritz. After the War the Germans came first; the Bismarcks, Hohenzollerns, Opel, Burda, Flick, Sachs and Bogner. Then the Italian wave rolled in – Guccis and Puccis, Pradas and Agnellis, together with the Greeks Niarchos and Onassis, and followed by the sheikhs and the Turks. The next trend could be India – leading the way the world' s third-richest man, the Indian steel maharajah Lakshmi Mittal, whose 44-million-euro villa is currently being built on the Chantarella, a clearing in the forest above St Moritz.

The longer-term outlook is not hard to infer from the list of guests on display at the Gourmet Festival. The letters X and Z, normally empty in these parts, are full of Xiangs, Xues and Zangs. For the moment these are just the members of two rival Chinese TV teams from Beijing and Shanghai, who – not knowing beforehand that they had the same destination and brief – found themselves in a bitter visual duel. They no longer have to explain to their audiences what St Moritz stands for. The name already has such resonance in China that a luxurious suburb of Shenzhen has been christened "St Moritz".

Like most of St Moritz' s attractions, the Gourmet Festival is also an idea of resort director Hanspeter Danuser. He was not only after a gastronomic highlight for his resort. He was also looking, literally, for fillers, to fill St Moritz' s hotel beds in the gaps between the prestige events of polo, horse racing and jewellery auction. As Switzerland' s longest-serving resort director nothing shakes him these days. Not when the night-time talk show host Stefan Raab called him Dr Mabuse on camera because he cannot remember the name Danuser, nor when the tabloids call him a "drug baron" because the cocaine levels in St Moritz's sewage have reached world record levels. Just as long as the name St Moritz stays in the headlines. Although he did lose his cool last summer. At the height of the high season hundreds of lorries carrying excavated earth were thundering through the pedestrianised centre of the village, rudely awakening guests and soiling the displays of banks and boutiques. Worse still, the council had drained the local indoor swimming pool. "In a place where there has been bathing for three and a half thousand years!" groans Hanspeter Danuser. In his desperation he shared his frustration with a local newspaper. For thirty years he had been touring the cities of the world – Moscow, Houston, Tokyo – with his alphorn ensemble, the St Moritz Royal Tigers, to beat the drum for his 6000-inhabitant village on top of the world, and now the construction lobby and local council obstinacy were endangering his entire lifework.

The grand finale of the Gourmet Festival takes place on the frozen lake. The marquee roof is charmingly ruffed, chandeliers hang from the ceiling, comfy armchairs and sofas stand around invitingly, and a carpet softens the tread. "And underneath," resort boss Danuser grins diabolically, "is half a metre of snow, half a metre of ice and 44 metres of crystal-clear water." Guaranteed to bring his guests out in goose-pimples.

The finale brings unfamiliar challenges for all involved. Guests are tormented by wardrobe questions. What does one wear to a midday gala dinner on ice? Winter boots or pumps? Roll-neck sweater or low neckline? For chefs aspiring to perfection, technical questions can bring trials and tribulations. One time the power failed in the improvised canvas kitchen just at the very moment when the fish was at the critical point. Now Horst Petermann has searched in vain for a steamer and has one hour to invent a new course. And his nerves were already fried. Because the shy chef – with two Michelin stars and 19 GaultMillau points the star of the festival and already at the centre of attention – had to pose among skikjöring horses at the behest of a German TV team, even though he was terrified of their hooves.

The 70-strong serving brigade faces its own challenges. At the morning roll-call they gather round their chef de service from Suvretta House like Napoleon's soldiers before the decisive battle. "Moresi?" "Sì!" "Antonelli?" "Qui!" In the coming hours they will have to demonstrate acrobatic capabilities and accomplish Olympic performances. No more than sixty seconds for the dash from the kitchen to the dining marquee, otherwise the filet of beef will sink into the celeriac purée and skin will form on the pool of fondue swimming in the middle of the plate of risotto. On the way the full spectrum of climatic zones must be crossed. Icy winds blow between the marquees, while the fans in foyer and dining room blast out tropical air.

Candles flicker on the tables, four hours long the waiters come and go. Seen from here, in the middle of the lake, St Moritz actually looks good. Too far away the ugly fume-stained streets, the planless jumble of concrete blocks and the ever-identical holiday chalets with their thick walls, little windows and picturesquely slanting roofs that now swarm right up to the top of the Corviglia funicular.

The dishes themselves are hard to describe. Nothing is as it seems. Cucumbers come dressed as dessert, the Sacher cake turns out to be a foie gras creation. At the edge of the plate lies a 24-carat gold foil decoration, a pearl secures the prawn to the fish below. And while you savour wonderful things happening in your mouth, the evening sky outside turns a delicate purple through the marquee windows. The towering ring of snowy peaks threatens like eternity itself and makes everything that has been served up seem as meaningless as a human life on the day of judgement.

Back in the fresh air the deceptions and disguises continue. The path to the bank passes palms that were not there just one hour before; between them a motor boat high and dry. Recalling a fata morgana, young men in white suits play cricket on the hard-packed snow as if it were the green lawns of Eton; gracious female admirers with a cup of tea in hand, already ice cold. And finally, a piece of true, unfalsified life after all. In the middle of the lake, nicely arranged in a square, two dozen portaloos wait for the final act.


Translation: Meredith Dale

Margrit Sprecher is a freelance journalist.
This article originally appeared German in the July / August edition of DU magazine.

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