TRISANNA talks to chef of the century Eckart Witzigmann, patron of the “Culinary Way of St James,” about simple food, regional cuisine and the impact of good ideas on curious chefs.
TRISANNA: You’re the patron of the “Culinary Way of St James”, an event which aims to bring better food to the mountain huts of Paznaun. What’s your motivation?
WITZIGMANN: I like simple food; a good dish can be anything that is prepared with love and with good produce. A piece of mountain cheese, for example, with home-baked bread richly spread with butter from the Alpine pastures and a generous sprinkle of finely chopped chives. Simple doesn’t have to mean unimaginative.
But five award-winning top chefs are at work here. Five master chefs from Austria, Germany, Holland, England and Portugal are cooking in five Paznaun mountain huts. Isn’t this exactly the opposite of what you’re after?
WITZIGMANN: Hang on! If these chefs were serving the dishes which are on the menus in their restaurants, it wouldn’t have any long-lasting effect. But if the star chefs are creating special dishes for the mountain huts, which are also practical and can be implemented as part of day-to-day operations, then that’s something else completely.
What do you mean by that?
WITZIGMANN: Let’s just take the dish that Konstantin Filippou, who’s a very talented chef from Vienna, by the way, has thought up for the Friedrichshafener Hut. Crispy Jerusalem artichoke baked potatoes with horseradish and chive cream. That’s intelligently thought through: Filippou has dreamed up a hearty, down-to-earth dish that’s very similar to what people in the mountains like to eat. Similar, but not the same.
What does he do differently?
WITZIGMANN: By using Jerusalem artichoke instead of potatoes and refining the baked potatoes with crispy bacon and a creamy cheese sauce, he brings a creative touch into play. And he shows the chef, who otherwise mostly just prepares classic dishes, the way: really simple food can taste really good.
How should we picture the “Chef of the century” cooking something simple? Is it a part of your own cooking at all?
WITZIGMANN: Of course. I cook myself every day, even if I’m alone on occasion. Even if it’s just lettuce with a poached egg and nice herbs. Lovely. I’m content with that.
May I ask a really stupid question – what’s so special about a salad?WITZIGMANN: Oooh. The ratio of oil and vinegar in the dressing has to be just right, for example, or otherwise a delicacy turns very quickly into an abomination. The very best thing would be salad fresh from your own garden. It has to be crisp, dressed with mild fruit or herbal vinegar, a trace of Dijon mustard and the finest salad oil – and sprinkled with freshly plucked herbs, tarragon, parsley, chives. Perhaps with small radishes and cubes of garden cucumber. No stress, and straightforward to prepare at the last minute.
It doesn’t sound that simple!
WITZIGMANN: Simple cooking is made out to be a bit too easy, in my opinion. It’s not actually that easy. Not everyone who can turn on a stove is automatically a chef.
Returning to your role as the patron of the “Culinary Way of St James”. Is your involvement a personal plea for a regional, grounded cuisine?
WITZIGMANN: Of course. Culture, tradition and connection to the region are very important for people, after all. A perfectly-made dumpling with a mushroom sauce is simply a sensory revelation. And a dash of creativity is always the best prerequisite for innovation.
Eckart Witzigmann, 76, is rated as one of the best chefs in the world. A student of Paul Bocuse, he was awarded three Michelin stars for his work in each of the “Tantris” and “Aubergine” restaurants in Munich, as well as the title “Chef of the century” from Gault Millau. Since the mid-nineties, Witzigmann has worked principally as a very much in demand consultant and cookery book author. A series of guest chefs from around the world cook under his patronage in the “Ikarus” restaurant in Ischgl. He has been the patron of the “Culinary Way of St James” in Ischgl since its first edition – this year will be the ninth time in total.