A cozy space that once served as the chapel for an all-girls boarding school now houses a two-star Michelin restaurant in the Swiss Alps.
Located in the Giardino Mountain Hotel, Restaurant Ecco hosted a special “Tavolata” dining event as part of this year’s St. Moritz Gourmet Festival. For the second time, Chef Rolf Fliegauf created an epic menu designed for sharing around a long table. The mood was relaxed, with a casual atmosphere that encouraged conversation and conviviality at this exclusive culinary event.
St. Moritz serves as the winter home of Fliegauf, who spends the summer months working at his restaurant in the Hotel Giardino Ascona, where he first started his Ecco concept. He opened his restaurant there in 2007, and since that time it has expanded to two other locations: in St. Moritz and also in Zürich at the Hotel Atlantis by Giardino, under the direction of his former sous-chef, Stefan Heilemann. All three of the Ecco restaurants have earned two Michelin stars, making Fliegauf one of the most decorated chefs working in Switzerland.
Earlier in the day, I had the chance to talk with Fliegauf about his cooking style and how he always seems to carry an effortless smile, even when working in an industry that at times can be quite demanding.
The Ecco Concept
When I asked Fliegauf about his Ecco concept, he described it as a “modern interpretation of a traditional French-based kitchen,” sometimes with Japanese influences. “Our cooking is light. Textures, freshness and acidity are really important.”
Fliegauf grew up in the Swabia region of southwestern Germany, where his parents had a restaurant. “I was fascinated about everything that happened in the kitchen, especially during the busy times. My mom had to keep me out of the kitchen, because it was busy,” he said. “The cooking my parents did was very simple and rustic. They made everything really fresh. Everything was homemade, or nearly homemade. I think that was really important to see when I was young. That you have to work hard to have a nice dish in the end. That was what I learned the most.”
With a passion for cooking that has never left him, Fliegauf started his career with an apprenticeship in Germany, followed by several positions in different restaurants there. In 2003, he moved to Switzerland and eight years later, he had become the youngest chef in Europe to have earned two Michelin stars for Ecco in Ascona. That same year he opened Ecco St. Moritz, followed by the Zürich restaurant in 2015.
When I asked him about the differences in the dishes at his three restaurants, he talked about how the summer season at Ascona has a focus on light, seasonal cuisine. In St. Moritz, his dishes can sometimes have a more rustic feel with ingredients like cabbage and Jerusalem artichokes. Where in Zürich, Chef Heilemann has the freedom to create his own menus. Fliegauf talks with him often to help ensure the dishes keep with Ecco’s signature style.
In terms of Swiss ingredients for his cooking, Fliegauf looks first to the region where he cooks to find the highest quality ingredients. For the Tavolata, for example, he sourced a local pike perch and beef for his dishes. “We search for the best quality in Switzerland, and we try to get the products as local as possible, but if there’s a better-quality product somewhere else in the world, we take the better quality,” he said.
Fliegauf has a sense of relaxed confidence, even though the pressure to maintain his cooking at a certain level must sometimes be intense. “I’m in this business for more than 20 years, but I don’t want to do anything else. I love cooking, but I also love to work with my team. It keeps me young. I am a very relaxed chef. Hopefully I can maintain my Michelin stars. If it’s good enough to maintain it, then yes, that’s okay. Of course, I would be very disappointed if we lose one.”
At last year’s St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, the Giardino Mountain Hotel hosted Jacob Jan Boerma, who has earned three Michelin stars at Restaurant De Leest in the Netherlands. During his time in St. Moritz, he talked with Fliegauf about how he does blind taste-testings at his restaurant when they have new dishes on the menu. I asked whether Fliegauf had eventually adopted this practice at his Ecco restaurants. He said that while they had not it, he did start something new. “First, you create a dish, and then it’s done, and you put it on the menu. And, sometimes, you realize, ‘Oh, I actually haven’t tried this dish for a long time.’ And, that is also what I talked about with Jacob last year. We don’t taste our dishes often enough. And, that’s what we changed. Once a week, we try all our dishes. It’s crazy — the flavors are sometimes different than at the beginning. The product is changing. The season is changing. It’s really interesting.”
With our conversation wrapping up, Fliegauf returned to his team in Ecco’s kitchen to continue with the preparations for that evening’s Tavolata event. After learning more about his background and approach to cooking, I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to discover Ecco’s signature style for myself.
Ecco Tavolata at the Giardino Mountain Hotel
After a glass of champagne at the hotel’s bar, a total of about 35 guests arrived at the Ecco St. Moritz restaurant for the Tavolata. The venue had a festive, elegant feel to it, yet with a comfortable atmosphere.
A look of astonishment must have appeared on my face as I scanned the menu because of the large number of dishes we were about to receive — 14 savory dishes and 8 dishes for dessert. I quickly realized, however, that because these dishes were served family style, we could pick and choose what we wanted and the amount.
True to the Ecco style, one of the first dishes we received — a salmon ceviche with avocado — was fresh and light with some texture (crisp radishes) and acidity (citrus fruit). This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening.
During the meal, I had the chance to visit the kitchen to check on the preparations for the meal. Ecco St. Moritz does not have a large kitchen, but the team worked well together, smiling and joking around in the small space.
One of our first courses was a lovely Caesar salad, which Fliegauf told me he makes nearly once a week at home for his family.
As the meal progressed, here are some of the other savory dishes we enjoyed:
- Tunafish tataki – sushi rise – wasabi – ice oyster bubble
- Lobster salad – citrus fruit – crustacean vinaigrette – watercress
- Quiche Lorraine with Périgord truffle
- Braised guinea fowl leg – pumpkin – chestnut
- Angus beef rib eye – jus with braised cheek – beef marrow
- Sautéed pike perch – lentils – bacon – black mustard sauce
- Baked falafel – jalapeño mayonnaise
- Fregola sarda – saffron – vegetables
One dish that I particularly liked seemed to fit what Fliegauf described as the restaurants’ more rustic style with seasonal vegetables during the winter months in St. Moritz. He baked celeriac in a salt crust and served it with hazelnuts and trevisano, a type of red chicory.
As we worked our way through the dessert courses, one of the major highlights for me was the cheese plate from Willi Schmid, a cheese maker from the Switzerland’s Toggenburg region in the canton of St. Gallen. The servers brought out wheels of Mountain Spruce, a strong and slightly sour cow’s milk cheese, creamy chunks of Jersey Blue and more.
At the end of the meal, which included wine carefully selected for each course, I had a better sense of what Fliegauf means when he talks about the Ecco concept — fresh, seasonal ingredients with intriguing flavor combinations that demonstrate an equilibrium between acidity, textures, lightness and the intensity of flavor.
When he works on developing a new dish, Rolf Fliegauf has a certain feeling when he knows that it’s “done.” He said, “Most of that is about balance. For me, the balance is the most important thing.” I think his cooking philosophy based on maintaining balance somehow also applies to his overall approach to life — summers in sunny Ascona and winters in the upscale ski resort community of St. Moritz. This ambitious, passionate chef also remains humble and at ease — successfully managing his team, while also celebrating with them into the wee hours of the evening after a busy shift in the kitchen. This balance just might be the secret to his success.
For more information:
- St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, Ecco Tavolata
- Ecco Restaurant at the Giardino Mountain Hotel
- Engadin-St. Moritz Tourism
Please note: I attended the Ecco Tavolata as a guest of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival. The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are purely my own.