Switzerland’s culinary stars came together this week in Bern to select a new “Golden Chef” for 2017, and for the second time in the competition’s 26-year history, a woman has earned the top prize.
Switzerland’s national culinary arts competition, Der Goldene Koch (German) or Le Cuisinier d’Or (French), takes place every two years. With the highest number of Michelin-star restaurants per capita in Europe, the Swiss take gastronomy very seriously. This competition allows some of the best and brightest chefs from around the country to showcase their talents.
In 2015, Elodie Manesse served as the assistant chef to the winner of the competition, Felipe Fonseca Pinheiro. At 26 years old, he became the youngest chef to earn the trophy. Fast forward to 2017, and at the age of 24, Chef Manesse now takes her turn to hold the title of Switzerland’s “Golden Chef.”
Her impressive dishes dazzled the jury of 19 celebrated chefs, such as Frank Giovannini, head chef at the restaurant of the Hôtel de Ville in Crissier. La Liste named it the best restaurant in the world last year. Another jury member, Anton Mosimann of Mosimann’s in London (he was born and grew up in Switzerland), has been one of the preferred caterers of the British Royal Family, having prepared the wedding banquet for Prince William and Kate Middleton.
I arrived that morning for the competition, on Monday, March 6, and settled into my seat at the Kursaal conference center in Bern. Over 1,200 people were invited to attend this event, and the arena was beginning to fill up. Soon after, the gong sounded at 8:00 a.m. sharp to announce the start of the first chef’s countdown clock—4 hours and 15 minutes for a fish dish, and 5 hours and 30 minutes for a meat dish.
All six finalists were given 3.5 kilograms of cod, 1 kilogram of shrimp and 4.5 kilograms of pork. They could supply whatever other ingredients they wanted. The goal? To prepare 2 dishes for 14 people. Don’t forget that all of this had to take place before a live audience, and for the first time this year, the competition was live-streaming on the Internet, so anyone could tune in and catch a glimpse of the chefs hard at work.
The six chefs competing in the 2017 final for the Der Goldene Koch / Le Cuisinier D’Or were:
- Cyrille Anizan (38), Hotel Storchen – Zürich, Stellvertretender Küchenchef (Deputy Cook)
- Florian Bettschen (32), Congress Hotel Seepark – Thun, Exekutive Küchenchef
- Manuel Hotz (25), Residenz Au Lac – Bienne, Junior Sous Chef
- Laurenc Kugel (27), Schloss Binningen, Junior Sous Chef
- Elodie Manesse (24), Restaurant Vieux-Bois – Geneva, Chef de partie
- Soho Sumiya (42), Universitätsspital Basel, Sous Chef
As the morning rolled on, the arena of the Kursaal took on the feel of a sporting event at times, with cheers erupting from the crowds to support their favorite chefs. The chefs were constantly moving, never taking a moment to look up at the video cameras and cell phones recording and photographing their every move. I saw one of the chefs filleting a huge codfish, and another chef was using a ruler to make thin slices of leeks. With the clocks ticking down, the platters of food, artfully and delicately arranged, were gently carried to the jury.
After the jury had sampled all the fish dishes, the audience learned how the finalists ranked against each other. At that point, Chef Manesse was in first place.
The pork dishes came next, and by chance, even though the plates were reserved for the jury, I was one of the lucky ones who got to sample on of the finalists dishes! Here’s why: Throughout the competition, host Sven Epiney—a well-known Swiss TV presenter who can easily switch from German to French (an important skill in Switzerland)—would call for a spotlight to be pointed somewhere in the audience. Wherever it would land, the lucky person blinded by the light would be treated to one of the finalist’s dishes at a special table. To my surprise, during one of these times, the spotlight pointed directly at me! I felt very fortunate to enjoy the delicious pork dishes prepared by Soho Sumiya, which included some flavors of his home country of Japan (sake, daikon, soy sauce and panko), along with some European touches as well (tarte flambée and mourtarde de Meaux).
Once all of the pork dishes were served, it was time for the jury to deliberate, and for the finalists to return to the stage for the awards presentation. The first award was won by Elodie Manesse’s assistant chef, Robin Bessire—only 17 years old and participating in an apprenticeship program. He received the award for “Meilleur commis” with a huge smile. Third prize went to Soho Sumiya, and second prize to Florian Bettschen. The people’s choice award (Prix du public) also went to Chef Bettschen.
Then for the big announcement of the winner… Chef Manesse. She had kept her lead and won the competition. I watched as she nearly took the trophy herself, before Simonetta Sommaruga—former president of Switzerland and current Federal Council member—had the chance to present it to her. It was a joyful moment to see and experience.
“Voilà ce qu’est un concours, un mélange d’artisanat, d’entraînement, d’endurance, de créativité et le zeste de chance nécessaire pour que tout se passe comme il se doit au bon moment… En politique, c’est un peu similaire.” —Simonetta Sommaruga, former president of Switzerland and current Federal Council member
So what does it take to win the Der Goldene Koch / Le Cuisinier D’Or competition? Here’s a brief description of the fish dishes prepared by Chef Elodie Manesse:
- Slightly salted codfish in a green coat and shrimp ceviche fastened with a “hatpin”
- Barigoule sauce with extra virgin olive oil
- Chartreuse of artichokes with candied lemons
- Shrimp escabeche with vegetables
And for Chef Manesse’s pork dishes, here’s a summary of the line-up:
- Roast pork loin stuffed with morels, encrusted with pepper of the Maggia Valley
- Emulsion in the yellow wine of Arbois
- Timbale de penne
- Buttered cabbage and crispy vegetables
During the competition, Mr. Epiney mentioned several times that Chef Elodie Manesse was the only woman participating in the finals (which is also true of the semi-finals event held in September 2016). When he asked how she felt about it, while she was busy cooking, she replied, “Il change rien” (It changes nothing). I really admired her in that moment—so focused, determined and fighting to be recognized for the quality of her work, not for her gender.
I chatted briefly with Chef Manesse after the competition, and while she was unsure of her future plans just yet, she mentioned her upcoming participation in the Tour Culinaire Suisse, which typically starts during the second half of the year. This will take her to various locations in Switzerland during 2017, where she will be preparing her winning menu at several selected establishments. Finally, in response to my perennial question, she told me her favorite Swiss food is rösti, while her assistant, Robin Bessire, chose raclette.
Congratulations to Chef Elodie Manesse and Robin Bessire, and to all the finalists, for their impressive accomplishments. For more information about Der Goldene Koch / Le Cuisinier D’Or and the Tour Culinaire Suisse, organized by KADI, you can visit www.goldenerkoch.ch.