Passion stirs award-winning chef

Didier de Courten in his kitchen

The newly crowned "Chef of the Year" says he is under intense pressure but Didier de Courten appears to be handling it pretty well.

This content was published on October 12, 2005 - 11:48

He has just seen his restaurant awarded 19 out of 20 points by the respected GaultMillau guide – the first to achieve the feat in Switzerland for seven years.

"In Switzerland, Europe, the world, there are excellent chefs – ten times more famous than me – but it's not a question of being good on a single day, you have to do it twice a day, every day throughout the year," he says.

"Right now we are at the top of a shaky ladder, so we must always strive for perfection. There is constant pressure, but it is positive and it drives you forward."

De Courten has only been installed at the Hotel Terminus in Sierre since May, but while it might appear a somewhat meteoric rise, the chef is no overnight sensation.

He picked up his first GaultMillau points in 1995 and was awarded 18 points and two Michelin stars for his La Côte restaurant in nearby Corin five years ago.

The 37-year-old puts the secret of his success down to ensuring everything is in place – the right location, the right team, discipline, passion and hard work.

Both a "boss and a worker", he leads by example and is the first to arrive in the kitchen at 6.30am and the last to leave at night.

"Many elements have to come together and when this happens it creates a kind of magic," he says. "But if you remove one element, it all collapses like a house of cards."

French cuisine

Though founded on classical French cuisine, his kitchen is equally influenced by ingredients from around the world.

De Courten says he is always searching for new tastes and textures from Asia, Africa and elsewhere that will electrify the senses.

Perhaps surprisingly his inspiration does not come when he is at work in the kitchen but during "calm moments" when he is away from the restaurant on holiday or relaxing with his family.

"It can even come from a smell. Right now I am working with kaffir limes from New Zealand. I ordered some to try and they were superb – fragrant, with an essence that comes from the peel. I am open to all sorts of things," he says.

This sense of adventure, the quest for "something magical", is impossible to miss in his contemporary and elegantly comfortable restaurant.

An "amuse-bouche" of wood pigeon has the taste buds scrambling to pin down the most delicate hint of juniper.

While a deliciously light nugget of foie gras, topped with a thin slice of fig jelly and accompanied by lemon and apple chutney, positively floats in the mouth.

The kaffir lime makes its grand entrance with a main course of roasted cod, topped with crisp carrot shavings with a delicately flavoured artichoke "émulsion". The lime brings a wonderful zest to the terrific blend of textures and flavours.

"Explosion of beauty"

GaultMillau is spot on when it describes his food as "an explosion of beauty, delicacy, balances and enchanting flavours".

And it goes without saying that the presentation of the dishes is exquisite and the service wonderful.

Sommelier Delphine Cretin's choice of a memorable Petite Arvine and a Humagne could not be faulted. The restaurant holds 250 wines in its cellar, of which 80 per cent are local.

De Courten says he places a great deal of importance on the quality of the produce he works with, plundering the surrounding Valais countryside for fruit, vegetables, meat and fish.

He has the utmost respect for the fat of the land and the idea of molecular cuisine and marrying a chateaubriand with a chocolate sauce is anathema to him.

"We are tradesmen first and artists second, and you have to respect the work of others. If you receive a magnificent wild lake trout, the aim is to do it justice. It is not to stamp your mark on it."

Food first

But while the chef insists on letting his food do the talking, it is becoming increasingly difficult for him to remain in the background.

GaultMillau's largesse means that the restaurant and the hotel's brasserie are now firmly in the culinary and critical spotlight.

The heat is definitely on: at one point during swissinfo's impeccable lunch, de Courten could be heard loudly admonishing a member of staff in the kitchen.

Laurent Goffre, his long-time friend and maitre d', assured us that it was the first time in a long while that his boss had let off steam.

"He is passionate about what he does and sets high standards for others to follow."

swissinfo, Adam Beaumont in Sierre

Key facts

The Hotel Terminus in Sierre opened in May this year.
Its kitchen covers 100 square metres and employs a team of 14 cooks.
The gourmet restaurant seats between 50 and 80 guests.
The five-course Business menu costs SFr90 ($70).
The six-course Season's menu costs SFr120.

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