At home with Rolf Fliegauf
Rolf Fliegauf is one of Switzerland’s most decorated chefs. But what does he cook with his wife, Jenifer, at home? We joined him for dinner at his flat in Locarno.
The guests mill about, passing around canapés and clinking glasses. Rolf Fliegauf stands looking thoughtfully at the oven. “This must be the first time I’ve ever used that.” Surely not? After all, Rolf’s dishes are famed not just in Ticino, nor just in Switzerland, nor even only in Europe – the name Rolf Fliegauf is known worldwide, with restaurants across the globe clamouring to use his concept. His restaurant Ecco Ascona boasts two Michelin stars. So does Ecco St. Moritz. When he brought his culinary concept to Atlantis by Giardino in Zurich, it too acquired a duo of stars. Rolf was only 29 when he became Europe’s youngest two-Michelin-starred chef. Top critics call his creations – which include his langoustine with shiitake and yuzu and his young venison with parsley roots and blackcurrants – symphonies for the senses.
APERO Bread, ham, cheese, quark with herbs and champagne
Despite the stratospheric praise, Rolf – now 37 – is pleasantly down-to-earth. He charms his guests with a healthy dose of selfdeprecation. It is Saturday night, and he is giving a dinner party at his flat in the cobbled Old Town of Locarno, where he lives with his wife Jenny. Jenny is responsible for the service at Ecco – and does her job just as impeccably as her husband does his. No matter how off-the-wall the questions that diners throw at her, Jenny always has the answer. She can usually divine a guest’s culinary preferences within moments of their entering the restaurant. A guest who does not order an aperitif, for example, is likely to be a wine connoisseur.
“I can’t cook,” says Jenny. “At least nothing more elaborate than pasta.” Although Rolf clearly can cook, at home he rarely does. “A painter and decorator doesn’t repaint his house every couple of weeks,” he says by way of explanation. In any case, the kitchen in their little loft is barely more than a kitchenette: there is a cooker, sink and worktop, but no table or chairs. By far the biggest piece of furniture is the fridge, usually full of cola and champagne. The Fliegaufs generally content themselves with quick dishes like chicken salad – a staple in their household. “I’m very easily pleased. I don’t get invited anywhere much, though,” says Rolf. People worry their food won’t meet the Michelin-starred chef’s high expectations. But they needn’t. “Bread, quark with herbs and a good red wine – that’s all I need to be happy,” he explains.
Rolf and Jenny are always on the move, spending the summers in Ascona and the winters in St. Moritz. He is just back from a food fair in China, via Berlin. “We don’t really have a proper home. That can be hard,” says Rolf, reaching for a foil-wrapped sphere that glows appealingly in the warm-white light of the oven. Carefully, he opens it and takes out the large beetroot, which has been marinated overnight in thyme, butter, caraway and sea salt. He places the beetroot on a chopping board and cuts it rapidly and rhythmically into identical, millimetre-thin slices, not once lifting the tip of the knife off the board. Rolf lays the brilliant red slices down on a white plate and gently applies wavy lines of sheep’s milk yogurt over them with a teaspoon. He stops for a moment to assess his work. Apparently he approves. Rolf’s calling was always clear to him. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I plop a knob of butter in a pan, sprinkle on some herbs – the stress of the job is worth it just for the smells alone.” Rolf is a firm believer that eating should be fun. The magic of his cooking is in its lightness and creativity – the classic ingredients, the acidity and heat playing off each other, the different textures, the surprising combinations. “A visit to a restaurant should be like an evening at the opera. You shouldn’t leave either of those places feeling bloated, overwhelmed.”
Rolf’s career started in the kitchen at his parent’s restaurant in Augsburg, Germany. “It was rustic, simple and traditional.” As a little boy, Rolf was happier in the restaurant than at kindergarten with his friends. At 16, he started his apprenticeship in Rain am Lech in Bavaria. Next came a stint at the famous Traube Tonbach hotel – a steep learning curve for Rolf. After two years, he moved on again, trying to work with as many different chefs as possible to develop his own style. It was at the Lenkerhof resort that he met Daniela and Philippe Frutiger, the CEOs of the Giardino Hotel Group, who subsequently offered him the position of Executive Chef at Giardino Ascona. When he arrived at Giardino Ascona, Jenny was already in charge of service there, having previously worked at the Steigenberger in Davos. Jenny and Rolf were soon an item.
He describes his style of cooking as “purist aroma cuisine”. “Aroma cuisine means that every ingredient keeps its original flavour. By carefully combining the different components, I bring out the nuances of the flavours to optimal effect,” he explains.
STARTER Red prawns with avocado and quinoa salad, whole-cooked beetroot with sheep’s milk yogurt and black walnuts, beef carpaccio with rocket and Sbrinz cheese
Jenny has adorned the dining table with yellow roses. All the other details are much as one would expect at Ecco: colour-coordinated napkins, wine and water glasses, plates and cutlery positioned with impeccable precision. Near the table is a big shelf full of cookbooks that Rolf uses for inspiration. He doesn’t often get the chance to go out for meals and see what fellow chefs are up to. Whatever you cook, Rolf says you can’t just ignore your guests’ taste. He made that mistake himself when he first started out at Ecco, by focusing on molecular cuisine. “The reviews were good, but no one came.And the ones that did come, didn’t come back. I had to rethink what I was doing. Today, when I design a new dish, I have my guests firmly in mind. A lot of them come frequently, and I need to keep things exciting for them. That keeps me on my toes.” A chef of Rolf’s calibre is under intense scrutiny from all angles. Does he feel constantly pushed to achieve more and more? Yes, these days he does. His first Michelin star, gained after just eight months in the job, came as a complete surprise. By the time the second came along three years later, he was secretly hoping for it. Now he just needs one more. That would really be a dream come true. “But the most important thing is to keep developing my style, and never to forget about my guests.” No wonder he has almost no spare time. “I’d love to play golf. I did take it up once, but patience isn’t one of my strengths. I really like travelling and shopping, but I also love just chilling out sometimes.”
MAIN COURSE Turbot with marinated lettuce hearts, orange and fennel salad, baked focaccia, new potatoes and aioli
The mood is cheerful as Jenny serves up the main course. The food is so artistically presented that the guests are hesitant about starting. But soon the laughter dies down as the diners tuck in. You could hear a pin drop. If ever enjoyment could be summed up in a single moment, then it was now. The different ingredients and temperatures in the dish fit together to create a uniquely balanced whole. Words fail us.
Nonetheless, I manage to ask one final question: What are his plans for the future? Asia is an exciting market, says Rolf, and he has just received an interesting proposal from China. “It is very possible that we will open a fourth Ecco there.” But before that, he has something very different planned: “Starting a family would be nice.” Jenny agrees.
DESSERT Crème brûlée with forest fruits, yogurt and strawberry sorbet