The end of an era

Mon, 13. Jan. 2020
Robert Speth receives the award for Chef of the Year 2005, which caused a considerable increase of guests that year. (Eddy Risch)

Robert Speth was at the helm of the Chesery for 35 years. Together with his wife, Susanne, they catered for their guests in their typically natural and authentic way. Over the decades Speth cooked himself into the hearts of Gstaad gourmets and into the highest ranks of the trade.

For GstaadLife he looks back and remembers challenges and highlight of his career.

Could you tell us a little about your life before you came to Gstaad?
I was one of seven children and we grew up on a farm near Ravensburg. None of them are in the hotel trade – the catering profession doesn’t run in my family. When I was a child I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my mother, watching what she was doing. My first profession was as confissier (pastry chef). I enjoyed it but, after four or five years, I found it a little boring. For me, the difference between a chef and a confissier is that, for a chef, every day is a little bit different. A chef needs to have a feeling for his or her work: one time a dish may need less temperature, another time more, one time it needs to cook for longer, another time for less. For me, being a chef is a more creative profession and later you have more contact with the clients. I think that is very important.

I grew up in the south of Germany and never planned to work in Switzerland. I worked as a chef in Germany, Ravensburg and Munich. In 1979/80 I worked in the south of France for a couple of years: first in Cap d’Antibes for a summer season, then in La Napoule in Louis Outhier’s 3-star restaurant, L’Oasis. It was one of the best-known French restaurants at the time. After that I returned to Germany, where I passed the exam of Küchenmeister (master chef) in Heidelberg. I then went on to work in the gourmet party service at the Steigenberger Hotel Frankfurter Hof. That is where I met my wife Susanne.

What brought you to Gstaad?
I had a friend in Gstaad who was director of the old Bellevue in the early 80s. Aga Khan built the Chesery Chalet in 1962/63 as a hostellerie for his friends. It had a famous nightclub on the ground floor and a small restaurant on the first floor. When the new owners (Chesery AG) took over, they renovated the building completely and installed the existing Chesery Restaurant in 1984. My friend invited me to come and work in it. I said, “No, I don’t want to go to Switzerland” but finally I agreed to come for the opening and to stay for one season only, the winter season – and that was 35 years ago!  Susanne and I came here together; her first season was at the Bellevue and I was at the Chesery.

Looking back, what do you see as the highlight of your career at the Chesery?
I enjoyed the last fifteen years the most. At the time I started in Gstaad, the height of gastronomy was considered to be a chateaubriand or a lamb rack in a restaurant. At the Chesery we introduced French cuisine, called nouvelle cuisine then. People said, “Oh no, this is not for Gstaad. People won’t like this here.” It was something different. We persevered, however, and after five or six years, we had built up a regular clientele and the business went up.

Is this the ‘cuisine pure’ that you are known for?
Yes, this is the French Mediterranean cuisine. For us the quality of the product is crucial, and I keep my dishes simple, nothing too complicated. I don’t like to combine more than three or four different flavours on the same plate. When you have many different tastes on one plate you don’t get a pure taste. Thirty-five years ago, this type of cuisine was considered to be a new style, something innovative, but today it is accepted and has become more or less classic.

So, you were like a pioneer – the beginning was difficult but afterwards people started to come?
Yes, it took time to establish a regular clientele. I think it is central to the business to have a good contact with the clients. People go to a restaurant not only for the food, they also go for the atmosphere and they need to be able to have a conversation with the chef. For the past years we had people who didn’t want to see the menu when they came. They said to me: “Do something for us.” I knew them, I knew what they liked and, once they told me how many courses they wanted and whether they wanted meat or fish, I made something for them and they were very happy. It’s the same with the wine. What do you choose from a wine list that has over 800 choices? You need a sommelier who gets to know your preferences and price range then, as a client, you can trust his choice for you.

I read that a high percentage of your clients returned regularly.
Yes, about 85-90%. Besides the catering/traiteur business of the Chesery, we had the Golf Club Restaurant for 28 years and the catering business of the Yacht Club for 10 years, so we have all come to know each other well over a long time.

You recently had an assignment with Swiss to prepare meals for their passengers in first and business class.  Could you tell us about the logistics of this?
I originally worked with Swissair in the late 90s on a similar project and it was much easier at the time. Today everything is more organised and complicated.

In 2018 Swiss approached me about including dishes representative of the Bernese Oberland in their menus. They invited us to submit a menu selection: 2 starters, 2 main courses, 1 dessert for business and the same, plus an aperitif, for first class. All the meals had to be prepared and on the plate 24 hours before they would be served; we had to work within a price range and avoid certain ingredients.

Our partnership was with Swiss but, once they accepted our menus, it was their caterer, Gate Gourmet, who prepared the meals. We went to Zurich frequently during the whole procedure. After they chose the menus, we presented the recipes and I worked alongside their team, preparing the dishes in their small test kitchen. The people who prepare these dishes are not cooks. They are semi-skilled workers. They receive the recipe – like a formula – and they make the dish exactly according to its instructions. It’s like a factory. On a daily basis they prepare a minimum of 200 meals for first class and 800-1000 for business class for Swiss.

During the preparatory stages I tasted all the dishes until they met my standards – initially from the test kitchen then, again, the first time they were made in the big industrial kitchen. Finally, the day before the first flight, we participated in a major public relations event with the press and all the staff who had worked on the project, then we had one final meeting, which was the last moment we could change anything.

You received a lot of publicity from this. What was the feedback like?
The feedback was positive. The project ran for three months, from December 2017 to March 2018, and the publicity was good for the region and for our restaurant. But I can tell you it was not so easy. The taste is sometimes a little different up there – you eat a piece of meat that was cooked 24 hours before and then reheated on the plane! The fish that was served had to be cooked to an inside temperature of 75 degrees – something we would never do in the restaurant as the fish would be too dry. There was, however, one item that we made ourselves at the Chesery and that was our very popular Brie de Meaux – a brie filled with mascarpone, truffles and cream.

You have received several awards including a Michelin star in 1998 and Chef of the Year in 2005. Did this put you under a lot of pressure? Did it make a difference to your business?
I didn’t feel under more pressure, no. Some chefs have the impression that people expect more creativity from them once they have received a prestigious award but, for me, that is not the point of the prize. The prize comes for what you have done in the past, not for what you will do in the future.

We were running a business and the prizes led to publicity; that was good for us. What we like most is that our clients are happy, and they come back. When people read about awards, they come to try out the food. A chef with a Michelin star is an assurance of a consistently good standard. ‘Chef of the Year’ gave us 25-30% more guests in 2005 – it was a very good year!

What is your role now that you have sold the Chesery business to the Bellevue?
The catering for private clients in their chalets was a major part of our Chesery business. We did it before for ourselves and we loved it. Now we continue to do it, but we do it for the Bellevue. Part of my agreement with the Bellevue is to maintain my personal contact with the catering clients – they are our clientele from the past 20 years. We know them all well. Public relations plays a major role in catering.

For the past 35 years, we spent every day in the Chesery, morning to evening, and the time has come that we want to have time to do other things too. We will still be working in the catering business, but we will have other projects on the side, in Gstaad and perhaps elsewhere.

It was recently announced that the Chesery is to be sold soon and will possibly give way to a new building. What was your reaction to this news?
It was not that much of a surprise for us that it will be sold. We had the assurance that we can stay for as long as we operate the Chesery but we also knew that there were various possibilities once we stop. It is just that things now happened much faster than people expected. Of course, the future owner can do whatever they like. However, I cannot imagine that the building will be demolished. Maybe it will be hollowed out and redone but not demolished. You can’t build anything nicer in this spot.

If the Chesery will not be preserved as a restaurant, would that harm Gstaad’s gastronomy much?
It would be a great loss because it is one of a few restaurants that does not belong to a hotel. Not every hotel guest likes to stay in the hotel for dinner and hoteliers do not like to see their guests visit a restaurant of another hotel. The Chesery fulfilled an important role in this respect. And it has been part of Gstaad’s gourmet scene with a good reputation that would go missing.

Do you regret these developments so shortly after you left the Chesery. After all it was your professional home for over three decades.
Personally, I do not. I guess some people assume that this still affects us but I am not the sentimental type. We knew that once we give up the Chesery this era is over for us. It is regrettable for the restaurant and for Markus Lindner, who can only continue it for half a year now. Who knows, maybe the new owner will continue the Chesery in its tradition as gourmet restaurant. Everything is possible for now.

Guy Girardet

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