He is one of Switzerland’s most decorated chefs with a total of six Michelin stars under his belt. Germanborn Rolf Fliegauf talks to Cara Houchen, editor of The Staff Canteen, about the inspiration behind his celebrated cuisine.
Rolf Fliegauf is the founder and executive chef of Ecco restaurants in Switzerland. He led Ecco, based in Hotel Giardino Ascona, to its first Michelin star six months after opening in 2007 – and when he was just 26.
“I couldn’t breathe when I first found out,” he said. “In 2007 when we started, the vision was to have molecular cuisine – there were a lot of crazy things in our kitchen! But after two years, the style changed completely, and we went in a different direction.
“During that time, we started to look for and work with local farmers who now produce organic vegetables for us. We like to use a lot of citrus fruits, spices and there is a Japanese influence. A typical dish from the menu is the Gillardeau oyster which we open and then smoke. This is put on the plate with the salad of squid and pearls of horseradish.”
And is this a signature dish?
“We don’t have a lot of signature dishes,” he explained. “To me, signature dishes mean that our creative process is standing still.”
Rolf received a second star in 2010 and just a year later he opened a second Ecco restaurant in the Hotel Giardino St Moritz. This was awarded two stars in 2012.
Although based in Ascona, in winter his entire team move to St Moritz for the winter season.
He said: “There are a lot of challenges because it’s always like a reopening, the staff are changing, you’re in a different kitchen – but it never gets boring.”
Rolf also has a place in Zurich and this two-star addition to the collection is headed up by his former sous chef Stefan Heilemann and serves a mix of classic Rolf dishes and some with Stefan’s own twists.
Ecco is a modern dining experience. The kitchen is French-based but the execution is very modern. Rolf’s cuisine is a far cry from the rustic dishes associated with his home town in east Germany.
“There is a lot of acidity in the dishes and they are very light with a lot of texture,” said Rolf. This is very important for us.”
When Rolf first started his apprenticeship, he says he was ‘in an easy restaurant’ but when he first held a Gault & Millau (a French restaurant guide) in his hands, he was fascinated.
He said: “I decided one day I wanted to be inside this guide.”
Rolf is heavily influenced by what he calls his ‘road trip’. He spent eight months staging in top restaurants and he says it ‘made him ready to go his own way’.
He said: “Doing stages is very interesting. Of course, it’s very hard, but you learn a lot and you see very different styles.”
Ascona is in Ticino, one of Switzerland’s 26 regions, Rolf says he finds inspiration everywhere but he does draw from the area around Ascona, in particular the herbs and small-leaf salads that are grown especially for him.
For his menu he says: “We work seasonally because each season brings you the best produce.
“We want to keep the original taste of the ingredients and focus on playing with different textures and flavours.”
With six Michelin stars and three restaurants how does Rolf measure success?
“To me, success is everything together – the guides are very important because people are looking to see if you are achieving awards but in the end, you have guests or clients who need to be happy and they should be surprised about what you are doing. That success comes from working as a team and you have to work hard and believe in yourself.”
He added: “The restaurants all run very well, and I still enjoy what I’m doing. It’s not just cooking or just a job, it’s passion. Where will I be in five years? I don’t know, still here I think!”
Download The Staff Canteen app Chef+ and watch the full interview with Rofle Fliegauf at Ecco Restaurant.