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Feature Fri May 18 2007

Cooking in Zurich

My life seems to be one long menu or song.

Wherever I go, whatever I do, it's nearly always food or music related. It's been that way since I was a child and continues through today; both are my careers. Depending on when you meet me, I'm either a player who cooks, or a chef who plays.

Some people eat to live. I live to eat.

Growing up in Chicago on a street in a neighborhood like mine, the smells and sounds wafting from the windows would seduce me. I tried and loved nearly everything offered and later on when I couldn't get it or afford it, I made it myself. I'm fascinated by other cultures and often incorporate things I find in them into my own life.

I've never been impressed by the things I can do, it's the things I can't do that get my respect and attention.

In true American fashion, I've borrowed/stolen just about every good idea I've ever come upon. Incorporating them into my life, particularly if it involved food or music. I copped proper bathing techniques in Japan (shower to squeaky-clean first, then bathe) and cheese etiquette in France (never cut the nose off Brie). Of course you want the best piece, so does everyone else and to grab it is bad form, usually attributed to unruly children or Americans.

I love the exotic and feel I'm a citizen of the world. Markets or bazaars have always fascinated me. I love all the colors, smells and sounds... besides the promise of delicious things to come. Or new toys. Sampling foreign items and seeing things I've never before seen. Surprises I wouldn't or couldn't make for myself are among my greatest joys in life.

I take my food very seriously. It has nothing to do with price but everything to do with quality. Period. I've had phenomenal meals for under $10 and unfortunately, lousy ones for $200.

To me, a bad meal is a wasted opportunity. I'll never get it back and am well aware of the potential heights it could've soared to. When endured, I literally pout like a child while it harshes my mellow.

Some would say I place entirely too much importance on the table. I would disagree.

In November of 2001, an old friend I'd previously worked with called and asked if I could help him for the busy holiday season he had booked at his restaurant/nightclub in Zurich, Switzerland. Within the week, I was there!

I became Chef de Cuisine at Restaurant Purpur at #9 Seefeld, in the old city across from the Opera House. Ten course meals for 200 people and 50,000 Swiss Franc liquor bills were not out of the ordinary. Two hundred people times 10 plates each. That's 2,000 plates cooked mainly by the chef and myself, set up and plated by three or four other cooks.

The exchange rate on the Swiss Franc was about 80 cents to the dollar. Do the math. Quite a party. Extravagant would be modest at best. And that's just the liquor bill; the food cost two to three times that.

After dessert was plated and served, inevitably I'd say that it was time to take out the "Eurotrash."

I'd leave the kitchen to take my evening constitutional through the club and mingle with the throngs of stunning club kids and celebutantes. For whatever reason, there were proportionately more attractive women in any given room in Zurich then anywhere I've ever been. My theory was that a mutt mix of French, Italian and German nationalities rolled up in a ball gave rise to some stunning progeny. As my man mind took over, I couldn't help but smile, lick my lips and rub my hands together as the visuals blurred to fantasies.

I saw a lot, but I learned a lot as well. Got to try wonderful ingredients that just are not available in the States. Different types of fish and raw unpasteurized cheeses. The Servelot at Vorder Sternan was the embodiment of sausage; thick, crisp and succulent porky goodness coupled with the hottest mustard I've ever encountered. It literally took my breath away. After my first taste, I staggered away in tears...

...of joy.

Fresh truffles whipped into sweet butter and folded into Carnaroli Risotto with roasted root vegetables to finish. Or simply shaved over a fried egg or some fresh pasta with some champagne. Simple, elegant, delicious.

Sometimes we'd take a huge wheel of cheese like Brie de Meaux or a young Pecorino Romano and cut it widthwise and stuff it with freshly shaved truffles. Then we'd put it back together, like two pizzas on top of each other, truffles spilling out of the middle and just eat and laugh at our good fortune. This is one of the reasons you get into this business in the first place.

A culinary money shot.

My first experience with truly fresh truffles is something I'll never forget. They were a gift given to me by a chef friend that I helped do a large New Year's Eve party for over 1,000 people on frozen candlelit Lake Zurich. They were featured on the menu stuffed into lobster tails with brown butter and wild mushrooms, and at the end of the evening he gave me three that were vacuum sealed in Cryovac.

I took them back to my apartment and waited for an opportune time to use them. A couple weeks passed and I decided to have a few of my new friends over for dinner. When I finally cracked the plastic seal, the entire room was instantly transformed by the perfume of this unmistakable heady aroma wafting through the apartment. Nothing even remotely similar to what passed as the cardboard equivalent I'd previously had in the U.S.

A fine dining epiphany.

In the West, we believe that there are basically four tastes: salty, sour, sweet and bitter. Taste being a sensation created by receptors on the tongue aka our taste buds. Flavor, on the other hand, is a combination of taste, smell, texture, temperature etc.

In Japan, they believe in a fifth. "Umami."

It's that taste that is hard to describe. A kind of savory of the earth or of the sea. An intangible, don't quite know how to describe what it is, type taste. Something different from the other four tastes. There really is no direct translation.

Like a truffle or sea urchin or sautéed mushrooms. Or shellfish or dark chocolate and some cheeses. Or fermented foods such as soy or fish sauce.


As an American having cooked in both Europe and Japan, I learned by experiencing first hand about this uniquely Japanese concept. And they're so right.

Add that to my repertoire of good ideas embraced, borrowed or stolen from around the world.

Everyone does it.

The world keeps getting smaller with each global connection. You haven't lived until you've seen the Simpson's in German. "Nien Bart, nien! Kommen zie hier." Once in Japan, I saw a Samurai movie with background music from Bonanza.

The chef (who was impeccably trained at a Swiss hotel school, considered to be among the best in the world) was brilliant. His passion for food was exceeded only by his inquisitive nature and vivid imagination. He wanted me to show him everything I knew that he didn't. I taught him plenty, and he did likewise for me. He would tirelessly pump me for information while working and, after work, while showing me the city. His city.

The Hotel Bauhaus that his girlfriend managed. The red light district where I happened to innocently reside and coexist with the junkies and whores and pubs with spicy sausage and Spatlese. A traditional Swiss Fondue made with cherry kirschwasser after a Prosecco aparitif at his sister's home by the lake. Or nearly frozen Russian vodka with Russian caviar and blinis at the Swedish-Tibetan bar down the road from Purpur that we'd go to for a nightcap after work. Or the food halls in the basements of the city's department stores, similar to Harrod's or throughout Japan.

An insider's eye view.

A symbiotic relationship if ever there was one. We'd just vamp on a theme, as if on a bandstand but instead in a kitchen, using a little of his and a little of mine. Playing off of each other while being acutely aware and supporting the interchange of ideas each of us were riffing on. Food as music as...

Jazz cooking. We were trading licks in the kitchen. No pun or double entendre intended.

One of our more inspired dishes was grilled crevettes over aubergine mousse with fresh pico de gallo and guacamole puree. Having worked in Los Angeles during the advent of California Cuisine, I'd seen opposing cuisines collide on a plate with poor results. A mishmash of unformed ideas. No one will ever convince me that blueberries, teriyaki, cauliflower and maple syrup belong together on purpose. Or strawberries and chicken livers.

Seen them both. I'll pass.

This was anything but. Between the two of us and our similar esthetics, this food was jumping off the plate.

The Swiss are not big fans of the grill but as the resident arrogant American, I pushed the point. "These crevettes are unreal, Gary, and I just don't see any other way, sorry." They were huge sweet fresh local prawns, like small lobster tails, that I've never seen before and there's not a chance in hell that I'm not marinating and grilling them.

The aubergine mousse was Gary's as well and simply one of the most decadent tastes I've ever had in my mouth. The Latin influence was mine too, but of all things and of in all places, he taught me to make the best Indian and Thai food ever. Unbelievable tandoori and curries in Switzerland no less.

He never taught me to yodel though. Since my voice has a type of Barry Whiteness to it, that would have been good for a laugh.

I remember doing zander fliese (similar to pompano or yellowtail snapper) with sauteed bananas and toasted almonds, drizzled with yuzu beurre blanc over tomato cous cous, a Floribbean-like concoction that blew them away.

Gary countered with a pan-roasted duck breast with a 20-year-old balsamic-wildflower honey-zinfandel reduction over celeriac-gala apple puree and herbed Rosti potatoes.


It was like tennis. Volley and serve. Set. Match. Or backgammon. We didn't stop for three months, except to occasionally drink Mojitos while it snowed. They were the house drink at Purpur. Cuba in Switzerland. Two more widely different cultures don't exist.

Go figure.

Guten tag, liebchens.


Alan Lake has been a professional chef for 25 years and has won numerous awards, professional competitions and distinctions. He's mainly consulting now, setting up projects like kitchen design, menu development, hiring and training staff, research, etc. He has also been a professional musician most of his life, coining the term "jazzfood" to describe "solid technique based upon tasteful improvisational skills." Just like the music.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

The State of Food Writing

By Brandy Gonsoulin

In 2009, food blogging, social media and Yelp were gaining popularity, and America's revered gastronomic magazine Gourmet shuttered after 68 years in business. Former Cook's Illustrated editor-in-chief Chris Kimball followed with an editorial, stating that "The shuttering of Gourmet reminds...
Read this feature »

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