For the first time this year, Nira Alpina—a 4-star luxury hotel in Silvaplana—served as a partner hotel for the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, which took place this year from January 30 to February 3, 2017. Throughout the week, the hotel hosted a guest chef from the United States: Chef Melissa Kelly of Primo Restaurant in Rockland, Maine.
As I mentioned in my previous post, the Gourmet Festival gives chefs from the guest country the opportunity to work with chefs from some of the luxury hotels in St. Moritz. At the Nira Alpina, Chef Kelly partnered with the head chef, Florian Mainzger. Her reputation for fresh and delicious food, along with her impressive accomplishments certainly helped earn her a spot in this year’s event. In 2013, she won the James Beard’s “Best Chef, Northeast” award for the second time. Out of the 20 participating chefs at the festival this year—both the local and guest chefs—Chef Kelly was the only woman.
At Primo, Chef Kelly has truly embraced the farm-to-table concept. Unlike other chefs who must order the majority of their ingredients, Chef Kelly also helps oversee the production of the food she uses in her kitchen. Approximately 80 percent of her ingredients come from the gardens and livestock found on her 4.5-acre farm. The seasonality of her produce influences the dishes she creates at her restaurant.
I attended the chefs’ first Gourmet Dîner at the hotel on the second night of the festival. My expectations were high for this meal, and it did not disappoint. Here’s a quick summary of my culinary experience at the Nira Alpina, in the posh mountain resort town of St. Moritz, located in the Swiss canton of Graubünden.
Nira Alpina: A Cozy Mountain Retreat with Exceptional Service
During the festival, I stayed at the Nira Alpina for two nights, and I relished my time at this cozy mountain retreat. With a spa, children’s area, bakery, rooftop bar and restaurant, as well as the Corvatsch cable car right across the street, it has options for all types of guests. In addition, I found the staff to be extremely kind, helpful and accommodating. I had lots of questions, since it was my first time visiting St. Moritz, and they were always quick to find an answer for me.
Overall, the atmosphere of the Nira Alpina was very friendly and comfortable, and not in a stuffy or overly formal way. General Manager Claudia Pronk and her staff provided excellent customer service. For example, if I needed a ride somewhere for an appointment, they helped me right away to schedule a vehicle, without hesitation and always with a kind word. It felt like my home-away-from-home in St. Moritz, and I hope that it will continue to serve as a partner hotel for the Gourmet Festival in future years.
Chef Melissa Kelly’s 5-Course Dégustation Menu
For her Gourmet Dîner at the Nira Alpina, which she served Tuesday through Thursday during the week of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, Chef Melissa Kelly brought a taste of Maine with fresh seafood and farm-fresh produce. The five courses prepared by Chef Kelly and Chef Mainzger represent some of her favorite dishes that she serves at her restaurant. Several of the dishes also had Italian influences, representing her family’s heritage. She told us after the meal that she started making pasta with her Italian grandmother when she was 5 years old.
We learned that the two chefs spent months beforehand trading emails back and forth to finalize the menu and ingredients. Chef Kelly had to take in consideration the altitude of St. Moritz (1,822 meters), which can have an impact on baking. Her menu also incorporated some Swiss touches as well, like the Gruyère cheese added to the bread rolls at the start of the meal. The result of the chefs’ hard work and collaboration was a stunning line-up of the following dishes:
Chicories with Figs Two-Way
The first course was a pretty salad made from local chicory, which included a fresh fig stuffed with a Marcona almond and wrapped in pancetta. Two flavorful sauces also appeared on the plate—one with Gorgonzola and the second with candied orange. Everything paired well together—the sweetness of the fruit with the savory pancetta and creamy blue cheese. A very nice start to the meal.
Brittany Scallop and Cauliflower Panna Cotta
Beautifully presented on a slate slab, she served the rich cauliflower panna cotta in a scallop shell and topped it with caviar and fine herb spuma. The panna cotta was maybe a little creamier, and less solid than I have typically had before, but the flavor was excellent. I could have eaten the entire dish, but it was very filling and I knew there were three more courses on the way… The Brittany scallop was also excellent, served with a thin slice of cauliflower and the fine herb spuma, but I am maybe a bit biased in preferring the fresh scallops from off the coast of Maine, which in comparison seem a little sweeter and with a slightly more briny flavor.
Squid Ink Linguine
Honestly, I am not a huge fan of squid ink, so when I saw the title of the third course, I was not terribly excited. However, when I took a bite, I was pleasantly surprised. The spicy tomato sugo and broccoli crema blended nicely with the flavor of the pasta and the calamari a la plancha. This was not my favorite dish of the five, due to my personal preferences, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Nonno Primo’s Pork Saltimbocca, named for Chef Kelly’s grandfather, is one of her signature dishes. In her restaurant, she uses prosciutto made from the pigs she’s raised on her farm. Saltimbocca is traditionally prepared with veal, but her version uses pork. It was served with roasted garlic potato purée, spinach, prosciutto and wild mushroom Madeira sauce. I loved every part of this dish—true comfort food.
Another surprise for me that evening was the dessert! Typically, I am not a fan of custards or puddings. Also, I usually avoid butterscotch—a very American sweet made with butter and brown sugar—because in candy and ice cream, I often find it has a somewhat artificial taste. In contrast, Chef Kelly’s dessert had an incredible and real butterscotch flavor—salty and sweet in the best kind of way. Chef Kelly told us that she had to make her own brown sugar for this dessert at the Nira Alpina, using molasses and white sugar, as they could not locate this mainstream American ingredient in Switzerland (this has been my experience too). I would love to have the recipe for this dessert, so I could make it at home!
Altogether, Chef Kelly’s Gourmet Dîner had some real highlights for me and invoked some memories of the United States and American-style cooking. I lived for a short time in Maine many years ago, leaving the same year that Chef Kelly opened Primo: 2000. I’ve never had the chance to visit her restaurant, but I hope to eat there this summer when I’m back in the US to visit family and friends. Before I met Chef Kelly, I checked in with some friends who live in Maine, one of which has been to Primo, and both only had good things to say about Chef Kelly and her restaurant. She’s known as a hard worker, who practices what she preaches in terms of eating and cooking locally. It was a real pleasure to meet her and try some of her signature dishes during her time here in Switzerland for the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival.
If you’re planning a trip to St. Moritz, be sure to check out the Nira Alpina, and if a Maine vacation is in your future, or if you’re lucky enough to live in this beautiful state, Melissa Kelly’s Primo should be part of your agenda.
Please note: My tickets to the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival and my stay at the Nira Alpina were provided free of charge, but I am sharing my own independent views based on my personal experience.