Michelin Star Chef Othmar Schlegel advice on the eve of retirement

Chefs Othmar Schleg and I

Michelin starred (and 18 GaultMillau Points) Chef Othmar Schlegel is retiring this week from a great, successful and fascinating career. How lucky to have not only met him but also experienced his craft at the eve of his retirement? He has touched Castello del Sole hotel with his gift for the past 29 years and now is ready to turn the page and pass the torch to the new generation. He is living behind a huge legacy and moving forward knowing that he was part of history as well as the golden years. I wish I had more time to delve deeper into his encounters and stories.

Chef Schlegel along with Chef Andreas Halter combined their talent and love for food at the closing event of the Davidoff Chefs Edition tour at Tropenhaus Wolhusen. They created a customized menu just for this evening using ingredients harvested at Tropenhaus. Once dinner had been served, I got to sit and chat with Chef Schlegel and ask him my questions.

Tell us about Castello del Sole

It’s a beautiful hotel in Ascona in the country side. We have 170 hectares of property –  a lot for Swiss standards. 

We produce our own wine, rice, sweet corn for polenta, potatoes, herbs and years ago we had our own farmed chicken. It’s the perfect hotel for holidays. We only cater to private people and never to groups, banquets or weddings. We want our clientele to feel exclusive.

What is your food philosophy?

For me the important thing is to keep the main ingredients as the lead of the dish. The sides should be just enough not to hide the real taste of the food – not too much sauce or garnishes. Same with bread, I don’t want to put so much butter on it that I cannot taste the bread anymore. 

How long have you worked for Castello del Sole?

29 years and retiring mid October!!

Are you excited?

Retiring is part of life and I think that it’s important to finish when I’m still in good health and shape. I’m moving back to my hometown in Luzern.

Have you ever worked with Andreas Halter before?

Never. We only met a couple of times before. He does a fantastic job here.

How did this collaboration come about?

Andreas asked if he could work with me on this project and this was the start! I think we will do something together again in the future. I don’t want to get bored and completely stop cooking. But our partnership was really nice. A completely different atmosphere than what I’m used to. It’s not always easy to work in a foreign kitchen because you don’t have your bearings. But it was a great experience working with him!

So now what? No more cooking or only for family and friends?

I love cooking but at home I prefer to make very simple things. The products are the star. If I can have a good piece of bread with a little butter and cheese accompanied with a good glass of wine, I’m in heaven! Why would you need to have more? Absolutely no need. It’s like anything else in life, simple and classic will always win. Good looking girls don’t need to put ‘garnishes’ all over their face to stand out 🙂

What made you want to become a Chef?

It was in the family. My father was a fantastic Chef. He worked at the Palace Hotel in Gstaad and in the summer time at the Palace Hotel in Luzern. But I loved cooking since I was a kid. 

Did you ever cook for someone really special?

How many hours do I have? lol

I used to work at Maxims in Paris as I was young. Back then I needed to make some extra money and my father told me that Liz Taylor was looking for a Chef and I should apply. From there I worked for her, Roman Polanski, Dodi Al Fayed, and even the Shah of Iran while he stayed at the Dolder Grand 2-3 times a year.

Who was your favourite?

When I worked in St Moritz, one afternoon in the summer time, as we were walking a saw a man who looked familiar but I wasn’t 100% sure who he was. I asked his manager if he could tell me who he was and he said it is the King of Spain, Juan Carlos! He acted so normal and humble. He was a fantastic man.

Now you are retiring, looking back, what were the most memorable times?

So many things. One of the best times was while I was working in Paris. The cuisine was starting to change and La Nouvelle Cuisine was becoming increasingly popular. We started eating raw fish cooked just a little bit and very slowly, fish carpaccio with a touch of lemon and olive oil. This was something absolutely new and my father thought that these chefs were crazy preparing raw fish. But eating Tartare wasn’t a big deal!

I love Thai kitchen which I learned to cook in Bangkok. That was also something new for us. We were used to classical Italian and French cuisine. To really learn a cuisine you have to learn the basics and know and understand all the ingredients. For example in Thai cuisine you cannot use the regular Basel but the Thai Basel and palm sugar as opposed to regular sugar – crucial to keeping the original taste. 

What would you tell a young person who wants to follow your footsteps?

I would say, learn slowly because now young chefs move up the ladder like rockets – too quickly. When you go up that fast, you don’t have the power to remain there for a long time. Usually they stay up for a couple of years then fall. They have to learn to go up one step at a time and take their time doing so. They have to have a lot of patience and passion. They have to love nature, the product and of course eating. This is a beautiful and interesting job but it is becoming more and more difficult because good products are not easy to come by and customers have forgotten about seasons – they want everything all year long – asking for cherries in January for example! I don’t think we should have everything available all the time – products lose their taste and nutritional values. When was the last time you had a great apricot or peach? The problem is that customers ask for these things and we have to give them what they want. We can find them but they don’t have any taste. 

Another obstacle today is all the rules that we have to abide by before we can do anything- they are becoming more strict and restrictive. For example, to make a simple jam, we have to write the exact date and time it was made, where did the strawberries come from, the percentage of sugar used, the expiration date – you have to write everything! Sometimes as a chef you have an idea and you just want to do it but with such rules, you just can’t. That in itself can be a big challenge for a young and inexperienced chef.

What do you have planned for this new chapter in your life?

I have plans to do nothing! Traveling and rest. It’s a perfect time for me to retire 🙂

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