Outside the kitchen, Benoît Violier happily spends his time hunting.
magnify Click image to view more.

Famous Restaurant: Act Three

Sylvie Bigar / December 2012

Frédy Girardet made it a world-class act. Philippe Rochat stayed the course. Now excitement runs high as Benoît Violier commands center stage at Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, Switzerland. The show must go on. No pressure, chef.

"Can we see the new chef and the new kitchen?”

Throughout any given evening, diners are clamoring to go behind the scenes, some before they even see their tables in the newly renovated dining room, at the most famous restaurant in Switzerland. New chef/owner Benoît Violier and his magnificent kitchen, which is nearly as big as a basketball court, are big news in this small suburb of Lausanne, where Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville is located.

Swiss gourmands follow the news at this restaurant with a great sense of national pride. And why not? The legendary chef Frédy Girardet transformed a modest bistro into a Michelin three-star temple that attracted the international cognoscenti long before they flocked to elBulli and Noma. In 1977, New York City restaurant critic Gael Greene breathlessly proclaimed that “the great excitement in French cooking is not to be found anywhere in France, but in Switzerland…” Norman Van Aken referred to Girardet as “the Pope” (see “Looking for the Pope,” Food Arts, May 2001, page 161). After Girardet retired in 1996, another esteemed chef, Philippe Rochat, maintained both the status and the stars. Last April, Rochat retired and sold his shares to Violier.

Violier, a 41 year old Meilleur Ouvrier de France who had worked at Joël Robuchon and La Tour d’Argent in Paris, patiently toiled under Rochat’s tutelage for 15 years, and his succession was planned with a precision even a Swiss watchmaker could admire. As is so often the case in Switzerland, meticulous method and planning support adventure and passion—think the unlikely win of the America’s Cup by the Swiss yacht Alinghi or Roger Federer’s seemingly endless run on the tennis court. Violier says, “We started the transition and planning process in the summer of 2006, when I sketched my dream kitchen while on vacation in Corsica, and I spent the next six years refining the concept, never wavering from the initial plan.”

To make his ideal a working reality, Violier called Hugo Servant, the most creative kitchen designer he knew, and said, “I want the most beautiful kitchen in Europe.”

At a cost of $1.3 million, the kitchen was built in three months and with three goals in mind: minimal environmental impact, working comfort, and the most advanced technology. “In Europe,” says Servant, “most chefs are switching to induction because it’s fast and incredibly energy efficient. To me, it’s the way of the future, just like the electric car.” There are 10 induction units, four gas units, and 24 stations in 3,735 square feet, which is enormous for a 50 seat restaurant.

During service, Violier stands at the prow of the stainless-steel “boat,” as the crew calls it. The custom-fabricated pass measures almost 20 feet long and 43 inches wide. It allows 14 cooks to plate side by side without needing to crouch. It’s the kind of pass cooks dream of.

Since Violier is also an accomplished pastry chef and chocolatier, he requested the longest possible marble pastry counter—54 feet of workable surface. From the light—the whole back wall is a glass window onto the garden—to the powerful ventilation system, every single detail was analyzed and customized to fit Violier’s vision.

So it’s no accident that the locals are agog over this gleaming stainless-steel vision. Or that they are charmed by the hand­some young chef who hands them a glass of Champagne for a toast when they enter his inner sanctum.

You don’t take over a legend with a whimper; you do it with a bang. Switzerland may or may not be the next Spain or Denmark, but there’s no doubt this ambitious young chef will find a place on the international radar. French critic Gilles Pud­lowski, author of the Pudlo restaurant guides, has already bestowed his blessing. Gault Millau followed by naming him Chef of the Year for Switzerland 2013.

A full year before Rochat’s retirement, he and Violier announced the changeover. When they began construction on the new kitchen, they kept the public informed every step of the way, deliberately building anticipation. Not since the British turned Hong Kong over to the Chinese was a handover more carefully calculated and orchestrated.

When Violier finally took over on April 1, he scaled a scaffold to hang a sign bearing his name from the roof of the three-story town hall that houses the restaurant. His entire brigade, clad in whites and toques, cheered him on. What a photo op!

Violier is a modern media-savvy chef, adept at marketing. One of the first things he did was to create a blog offering news, recipes, videos, and course announcements. Then he initiated another public relations sensation—a driving service to pick up and return business lunch customers at the nearby Lausanne station, thus enabling them to freely order wine. The day after he announced the service on his blog, reservation lines were flooded. In addition, he appealed to the desire of many customers to go behind the scenes by offering cooking classes for the public—even children—in his spacious kitchen. Further bolstering his passion for education, he set up a stagiaire program for professionals. During one recent lunch service, Jakob Gregoire, chef/owner of Restaurant du Mollendruz in the nearby Jura mountains, watched the crew intently. “I’ve been here as a client, and thought I could benefit from a refresher course,” he said. Gregoire had decided to work each station and to come each season. Stages are organized throughout the year and cover 15 different subjects, from the best dishes of each season to the new trends in pastry or the extremely popular fall game session.

Both hunting and cooking game are abiding passions for Violier, and it plays a starring role on his menu. He was 4 years old the first time he accompanied his father and four brothers to hunt in a nearby forest, and he has been an avid hunter ever since. Early on, he devised his own code of honor, respecting the environment, the people whose lives revolve around the hunt, and whole animal, long before the nose-to-tail ethos caught on.

In 2008, he began to tell that story in his stunning La Cuisine du Gibier à Poil d’Europe (The Cooking of Flightless Game Animals of Europe), a unique anthology of 157 recipes of four-legged game, and he is now at work on a companion book, covering game birds. Next fall, lièvre à la royale (hare cooked with red wine, shallots, onions, and cinnamon, then rolled and stuffed with foie gras and truffles) may find itself on the menu next to woodcock salmis or a seared rack and saddle of chamois, one of the chef’s favorites, simply sprinkled with summer savory.

Aside from game, Violier’s singularity emerges clearly: It’s about wild asparagus from the nearby alpine forests, available only a few weeks a year; supersized pink spiny langoustines and blue lobsters from his native Brittany; lean, finely grained Parthenais beef—all intriguing, rare ingredients presented as simply as possible. It’s also about complete candor with the diner (under several fish or seafood dishes, the menu reads: “depending on what looked best today”).

“In the last five years, my chef de cuisine Franck Giovannini [who worked with Gray Kunz at Lespinasse in New York City] and I traveled throughout Europe to meet top purveyors and distributors. Then we invited them to come here and see how we work, who we are.” Thanks to the human network he wove, Violier now feels his partners understand him and the respect he feels for the ingredient.

“If fishmongers see a particular kind of turbot and think ‘this one’s for Crissier,’ then I can call clients I know who love turbot, and cook it for them that very evening.”

He also tries to stay local but because of the rather cold Swiss climate, it calls for fine-tuning. “Monsieur Girardet always said, ‘At the beginning of the season, Swiss potatoes are not so good,’ so we’ll use them in October, when they’re at their peak.”

As he explains his own conception of the métier, Violier’s joy is infectious. He wants to cook the most interesting products, simply, and he loves to personalize his cuisine, matching food lovers with their favorite ingredients. “Eighty percent of our clientele is a repeat, local group so we change the menu as often as we can.”

Whereas Rochat followed the three-taste rule on the plate, Violier goes minimal. “I basically work with one ingredient (or one family of ingredients) and attempt to enhance it with another, that’s all,” he says.

Last spring, a duo of asparagus featured lightly boiled thin “fillettes” (tips held vertically in a delicate porcelain bowl hiding an asparagus velouté under a sprinkling of osetra. Next to the bowl, a thicker “bourgeoise” specimen supported a mosaic of eggs mimosa and a film of mousseline brightened up with asparagus vinegar; a deliciously refreshing consommé of “écarlates” (scarlet) tomatoes displayed paper-thin tomato slices and celery spheres doused with tomato seed oil and pulp, seasoned by more caviar; tiny artichoke hearts à la barigoule liaised with lobster roe and accompanied a tender flash-roasted blue lobster from Brittany; a pointy morel emerged from a marasme des montagnes (a local mushroom) foam and jus combined with Port and Madeira.

In the summer, thin slices of local tender porcini balanced an ethereal and nutty girolle custard; abalone, cockles, and razor clams rested over a light Sauvignon jus, tasting both briny and rich but with a hint of bitterness; the tiny crab “batailleurs” shells, from Brittany, yielded an oceanic gelée and consommé while the sweet flaky meat added delicate texture.

The wine list of some 950 labels is international, although Violier notes that “many diners choose local white wines either from Valais or our canton Vaud with their appetizers but choose Bordeaux for the main course. A Bordeaux means let’s celebrate!"

As a typical night winds down, Violier’s wife, Brigitte, flows smilingly and discreetly between the front of the house and the kitchen. In the dining room, there are only a few customers left, but the whole crew is cleaning up, enthusiastically it seems. As Violier finally removes his toque, a request from the maître d’ comes through: “Table 3 asks if they can see the chef and the kitchen.”