The Reluctant Gourmet Metroplus

Frog’s legs for supper in the Alps

A student chef shucks oysters at the final exam-party

A student chef shucks oysters at the final exam-party  


Cafés flaunting French pastry, foie gras lunches and a final exam that involves throwing a grand party, SHONALI MUTHALALY enviously snoops around some of Switzerland’s famed culinary schools

I seethe silently as I read the menu for the day at Cesar Ritz college.

The main course is, and I quote, “sous vide cooked fillet of beef with mushrooms, pan-seared foie gras, accompanied by Heston Blumenthal’s triple-cooked chips.” Half expecting to see Blumenthal in the kitchen, I peer suspiciously over the counter, only to lock eyes with a gorgeous lemon meringue pie, borne aloft by a French pastry chef. “Seriously? For students? We ate condensed milk out of a can for dessert when I was in college,” I splutter. The students giggle. Then add, “Oooh. You should taste his macaroons.”

I’m at the Le Bouveret Campus of the Swiss Education Group, which runs five hotel management and culinary schools across Switzerland. Between them, the schools have students from 111 nationalities. Once they graduate, about 40 per cent still go to Europe to work, but with the hospitality business booming in Asia and the Middle East, these regions also attract about 31 per cent and 12 per cent of these students respectively.

In an age when the very concept of hospitality is rapidly changing, how do traditional schools —with their focus on fine dining, French cooking and traditional service — stay relevant? Cesar Ritz Colleges, based on the philosophy of Cesar Ritz (founder of the Ritz, and one of the pioneers of luxury hotels) seems like a good place to ask these questions. Conveniently, the same campus hosts the Culinary Arts Academy, so I get to slink into the kitchens to intermittently sneak macaroons off obliging student chefs-in-training.

Between bites, they tell me how Switzerland gained a reputation for hospitality over a century ago, when the first palace-style hotels were built for tourists lured to the country by the Alps. Since these hotels catered to royalty, aristocrats and millionaires, service had to be top-notch, so hoteliers created efficient systems for operation, and gradually began getting a reputation for their precision, dependability and discretion.

Now, luxury hotels have new challenges. “We thought we were going to make cooks. Then, by 2011, we changed the syllabus, realising we had to make culinary managers,” says Tanja Florenthal, Academic Director, adding however that the term still begins with classical French cooking, Escoffier style. “But yes, it’s important to innovate. We look at cuisines of the world. Experiment with new trends in fine dining. Talk about vegetarianism, food philosophy, changing techniques.”

Students from culinary schools still become chefs, yes, but also restaurateurs, nutritionists, consultants to food companies, etc. Hence, there is a huge emphasis on practical work — all the food at the college café is cooked and served by students. And the final exam involves throwing a huge party, which they are in the midst of planning when I visit. The theme is ‘Le Cirque Du Monde’ and the classroom kitchens are a frenzy of chopping, stirring and baking.

Since Le Bouveret Campus is in a tizzy, I take a train up to the scenic Swiss Hotel Management School in Caux above Montreux. Set in an old Palace Hotel, the mist-enveloped school has a distinct Harry Potter-at-Hogwarts feel to it. Constructed in the 1900s, it has more than 1,000 rooms. It was a hotel for 14 years, catering to the rich and famous, till World War I began. It then functioned as a hospital, refugee centre and commune, before being turned into a school.

In the library, I browse though their collection of cook books: They have everything from a Japanese pub cookbook to the inevitable Larousse Gastronomique. Kai Janotta, Director of Operations, talks of how they run the school like an operational hotel. for practise. The boom in the Asian travel industry is especially visible here: about 65 per cent of the students are Asian.

Discussing how they’re adapting to a changing industry, Kai says, “Millennials know what they want, and they want it now.” Adding that the success of platforms like Airbnb and Uber prove travellers are looking for unique experiences, he says, “You need to innovate constantly.”

Talking of innovation, the party at Le Bouveret is in full swing when I return, with jugglers, clowns and goat cheese lollipops. A tray of what looks like chicken wings go past, and I happily eat three before I realise they’re frogs legs.

It takes two salted caramel popcorn martinis to wash them down; fortunately, the student bartenders are juggling drinks with professional ease. In the kitchen, they’re rapidly making little plates of seared wagyu, lobster tartar and scallop ceviche.

I settle down with a glass of champagne and oysters freshly shucked by a chirpy student chef. I would happily return to college in an environment like this. Now, I just need to find a way to graduate without having to cook.

Asia-inspired ice creams. In flavours like green tea, black sesame and condensed milk. Served in crisp, sweet and knobbly egg waffle cones

The term ‘Continental’ for everything from pies to steaks. Use ‘Modern European’ instead. No one knows what that means either, but it sounds more stylish..

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 11:56:38 PM |

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