In a lakeside restaurant in Twann, a small town in the heart of Switzerland, Anton Mosimann is reminiscing about his first job. He was 15, working in the kitchen, toiling away six days a week. ‘I was an apprentice here,’ he says. ‘Very hard work – 14, 15 hours a day.’ He slept in a small room upstairs. Some nights he was so tired, he cried himself to sleep. So does he resent this tough apprenticeship? Not in the slightest. ‘I had a wonderful chef – a fantastic cook, but also a real gentleman.’ That chef became his role model, an enduring example of how a cook should treat his staff. Anton passed his apprenticeship with flying colours, and since then he’s never looked back. ‘The hard work in the kitchen, it paid off.’
Now, 55 years later, Anton Mosimann is back at the Hotel Baren, where he started out, to celebrate his 70th birthday, but this is no ordinary birthday party – it’s the first pit stop on Mosimann’s Grand Tour. There are loads of classic cars outside, from E Type Jags to Aston Martins, plus Anton’s open top Mercedes, adorned with Swiss and British flags. Over the next few days myself and my fellow guests will be following him through some of Switzerland’s finest scenery, stopping off in some of the landmark locations of his life.
Mosimann is the man who revolutionised British cooking. Born and raised in Switzerland, he became head chef at the Dorchester Hotel when he was just 28. During his 13 years at the Dorchester he transformed our idea of fine dining. Before he arrived British haute cuisine was rich and heavy, drowning in boozy, creamy sauces. ‘It was old fashioned and it was overcooked,’ he says. Anton pioneered ‘cuisine naturelle’ (fresh ingredients, lightly cooked – no cream or alcohol) and launched a culinary renaissance. This amiable man has inspired countless chefs, and after all these years he’s still passionate about his profession. ‘In the morning I put on my chef’s uniform and I feel proud of being a chef. I can’t wait to go to work.’ He still loves to cook, but when he’s not cooking he loves driving. He’s driven from Peking to Paris and across the Andes, with his Swiss wife Kathrin (they have two sons, both in the hospitality trade). They’re off to the Himalayas next week for another rally. ‘I’m hungry for experience,’ he tells me.
After a simple lunch of local perch, fresh from the lake, we drive on to Broc, where Cailler make their scrumptious chocolates. Anton joins us for some chocolate making (it’s a lot harder than it looks). He’s even more famous in Switzerland than he is in Britain and for these chocolatiers his visit is a big occasion, but he’s a natural ambassador with a talent for putting everyone at their ease. ‘I never allow shouting in my kitchen, I never allow swearing – that’s not necessary,’ he says.
We drive on through rolling hills and up into the lower Alps. We spend the night at the Gstaad Palace, where Anton trained as a pastry chef. We walk through the kitchen where he used to work. One of the waiters he worked with is still here, after all these years – they greet each other like old friends. Over dinner Anton reminisces about his time here. Of all the jobs he’s done, this is the job that reveals most about his character, his determination to succeed. When Anton came here he was already a head chef, but like most head chefs he knew nothing about pastry – so he decided to go back to the bottom and learn it all from scratch. He came here as a commis de patisserie – an apprentice pastry maker. People thought he was mad, but Anton had no doubts. ‘It was the best decision ever to come here,’ he says. ‘When I went to London a year later I had 132 chefs in the kitchen, and 32 pastry chefs.’ These pastry chefs were amazed to meet a new head chef who understood every aspect of the business. It’s details like these that made his Dorchester the first British restaurant to win two Michelin stars.
Our journey began a few days before, at Mosimann’s in Belgravia, the private dining club he founded after he left the Dorchester. Over a delicious dinner (salmon, mushroom risotto, fillet of lamb and crème brulee cappuccino) he explained his attitude to food. ‘You have to let fish taste of fish and chicken taste of chicken – let the food speak for itself.’ It’s a philosophy that applies to every cuisine, in every country. He raved about his recent tour of Vietnam: ‘10 days by jeep – street food every day.’
Anton Mosimann was born in 1947 in Solothurn, a small town in Switzerland. He was an only child – his parents ran a small hotel. ‘When I was six years old I was already in the kitchen.’ Every Christmas, his father would open up the hotel to all the locals. It was a happy, hardworking childhood which gave him a lifelong love of hospitality. ‘I learnt a lot from them – discipline, attention to detail.’
He’s cooked for four generations of the Royal Family and half a dozen Prime Ministers. ‘Left or Right, they all like good food and a good glass of wine,’ he says, He’s worked as far afield as Montreal, Stockholm and Osaka – he finds inspiration everywhere he goes (‘I always believed if you want to learn something you have to go and see it locally – meet the people, one to one’). In Sheffield, where he taught the locals to boil cabbage for four minutes rather than four hours, he discovered bread and butter pudding. It’s now one of his signature dishes. ‘You have to be open minded – I never say no to anything. I always go to the markets. You see so many things the chefs in the hotels don’t see.’
Next morning we drive on to Berne, Switzerland’s compact capital, then Anton heads off into the mountains, across the Grimselpass, with the rest of his guests in tow. Most of them are Brits, but there are a few Swiss drivers too. The oldest car is a Jaguar Roadster, built in 1955 and still going strong. When I rejoin the group next day in Leukerbad (a remote Alpine spa town where the spring water is piping hot and full of minerals) everyone is still there – thanks to Marco Trevisan, Anton’s unflappable mechanic. Marco and Anton drove from Peking to Paris together – after that odyssey, this journey must seem like a doddle.
The finale of our trip is a visit to the Cesar Ritz College in Bouveret, a little town on Lake Geneva. As well as training the next generation of hoteliers and restaurateurs, this college also houses the new Anton Mosimann Museum – three floors of precious artefacts amassed during his 55 year career. There are countless awards and celebrity photos, but what’s most impressive is all the other stuff he’s collected that’s got nothing to do with his own career – a whole library of historic cookery books, stretching back 500 years. For Anton, this museum was a dream come true, something he’d dreamt of for half a lifetime. He hopes it’ll inspire the next generation of Mosimanns. ‘I cried – I couldn’t believe it,’ he says, recalling last year’s opening. ‘I’m very lucky to have a museum while I’m still alive.’ So what became of that young apprentice who started out all those years ago in Twann? ‘He came a long way,’ says Anton. For a moment he looks lost in thought, but then he pulls himself together. ‘OK,’ he says, briskly. ‘Let’s go and have some lunch.’
For more information grand tours to Switzerland, visit www.myswitzerland.com/grandtour