Seppi Renggli

July/August 1990

Food Arts presents its July/August Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Seppi Renggli, the well-grounded and ground-breaking chef.

The source of Renggli's ceaseless creative flow can be traced directly to his earliest days in the professional kitchen. Born in Lucerne, Switzerland, in 1934, he began his career at the age of 14 at a nearby country inn. He soon served a two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship at the Buffet de la Gare in Zug, in the German canton. There he received the kind of training "now given nowhere:" butchering pigs, planting and tending herb and vegetable gardens, conserving fruits, drying mushrooms and beans for winter, processing charcuterie, and smoking hams.

In 1953 Renggli moved on to Holland to work at the Huize Ter Duin, "the biggest grand hotel in Europe at the time," and from there to Stockholm's Grand Hotel, where many of the cooks were Chinese. He watched them closely. Stints with Holland-America Cruise Lines and summer seasons on the Channel island of Jersey were followed by a formative eight-year stay in the West Indies. In Dutch Guiana he met his wife Janey, an Indonesian student on holiday from school in Holland.

The Caribe Hilton in Puerto Rico beckoned next, providing Renggli with yet another cultural slant: "I'm one of the few cooks who has always tried to absorb the local styles wherever I am. So I watched the Puerto Ricans closely. It helped me a lot when I came to New York to work for Restaurant Associates (RA), at La Fonda del Sol, in 1966." Next, Renggli took charge of the company's grandiose and floundering Forum of the Twelve Caesars: "I was the one who killed it." But this was an ill wind that blew good for what was then yet another RA property, The Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. It was there that the chef's genius for interweaving the many disparate culinary styles he had mastered took fire. Over the decade in which the annual California Wine Barrel Tastings were held at The Four Seasons, Renggli's flabbergasting 12-to-18-course tasting menus were consistent in their creative artistry and cutting-edge modernity.

Recently, Renggli has returned to RA as executive chef of the restaurants, take-out department, and private club in Rockefeller Center. As usual, he has a barrage of exciting plans: "I have to become two hundred years old to cook all the things I want to!" What's next on the menu agenda? "Now that I have the Sea Grill, I'm going to start putting fish, shellfish, poultry, and meats together—quail stuffed with crawfish, quail and lobster ragoût, shrimp and chicken curry, veal and crabmeat... When I did it twenty years ago everybody thought I was nuts!"