“I had like three weeks to think about the name of my restaurant and I thought ‘focus’ is very good because you focus on the guests, focus on the product, focus on the work, on yourself,” says the 34-year-old Nenad Mlinarevic, Restaurant focus head chef at Park Hotel Vitznau, Switzerland, two Michelin stars. In fact, he repeats the word 18 times during our interview, explaining how different chefs he learned from at some of Europe’s top kitchens taught him the importance of concentrating on different aspects of the job.
“One chef is focused on the best ingredients. The other is focused on details—perfection. You have ten per cent from this or that. So after 15 years, this is what makes you a good chef,” he says. Part of Mlinarevic’s love of local products came from René Redzepi of Noma. His attention to detail from the two years he spent at three-Michelin starred Andreas Caminada’s Schloss Schauenstein, the highest new entry on the 2011 World's 50 Best Restaurants list sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. It debuted at 23 that year, one above Eleven Madison Park.
Now, at his own restaurant in Switzerland’s Park Hotel Vitznau, his focus is on classical technique, pure flavours and a meal that’s more a leisurely nine-course jog than a 17-course marathon. His most recent menu additions include trout roe with dehydrated beetroot, horseradish snow and chive vinaigrette; aged potato, wild garlic, cabbage and confit chicken legs; and beef with fermented garlic and seasonal vegetables with a beef jus served tableside. “Instead of butter we just cook the beef fat with the onion, garlic and herbs for a very long time. It’s very tasty, very simple,” he says.
He’s also focused on what he calls “one-hundred per cent Swiss-ness.” Since he returned from moonlighting at Toqué! restaurant in Montreal, Quebec, during Festival en Lumière, he’s decided to source all his ingredients from within Switzerland. He and his team were already foraging herbs from the forest behind the hotel. Now they’re replacing seafood with lake trout and sourcing local duck instead of ordering from France.
“I found a producer who’s raising Pomeranian ducks,” he says. “The breasts are pretty small, but the meat is nice. My idea is to serve it like Peking duck in China, but Swiss duck.” Instead of crepes and hoisin, he’ll cook the various duck pieces in different ways and plate them together in a single course of five bite-size appetizers.
“We’ll use everything—the liver, the breast, the leg.” That’s what sets Focus apart from many Michelin Star restaurants, he says. “Here in Switzerland, all the chefs work with the same products. If you go to a two-Michelin Star or a three-Star in Switzerland, they serve langoustine, they serve lobster, beef, foie gras—just these normal products that every Michelin Star chef thinks he has to serve to be successful.”
But Mlinarevic would rather focus on seasonality. His restaurant serves asparagus three weeks later than most in Switzerland because he waits for the springtime vegetable to come into season locally instead of ordering from Germany, Mexico, US or Austria. “We get our asparagus from one hour from the restaurant,” he says. And while he loves seafood—he floored Montreal diners at Toqué! with a dish of sweet Atlantic scallops with earthy Jerusalem artichokes and beurre noisette—he says his guests appreciate that the freshwater fish he serves at focus comes from half-an-hour away. “It’s not from Bretagne, France. It’s from our lake. It’s stupid to serve it if you have the lake in front of you and you have so many good products. We can make a difference with what we do.”
He’s hoping his new newspaper column in the Sonntag Zeitung will also help disseminate his message. Each month he’ll head to a different Swiss farm to talk with a producer. Then he’ll go home with an interesting fruit or vegetable and create a simple recipe—“something that people don’t think about doing with it,” he says. His kitchen will also start preserving more of the local harvest and offering jars of thyme and green apple jelly and elderflower syrup to customers as souvenirs.
But how does a Swiss restaurant avoid such an iconic Swiss product as chocolate? Cocoa beans don’t grow in the forest behind the restaurant. “For dessert we have a dish with wheatgrass, goat cheese, rapeseed oil, sorrel and salted anise crumbles,” he says. So far, no one has complained. If they did, Mlinarevic thinks he would know. There’s a chef’s table in the kitchen and he likes to greet guests in the dining room at the end of the evening. He welcomes feedback on dishes and the overall experience.
The restaurant also has regulars, which to him is a sign that he’s doing something right. “We have a lot of guests who come every three weeks,” he says. “They don’t want to see the menu card. It’s nice that they just trust us. One guy comes every week. Sometimes I ask him what he wants to eat next week.”
But his best feedback to date came from first-timers. “A few months ago two ladies came and they gave me like together a kiss on my cheeks, one from the left side and the other from the right. And there was another couple who were like 50-years-old and the woman said to her husband, ‘I’m sorry, honey, but this guy gave me an orgasm with his food.’ Sometimes they’re really crazy comments.”
At least the wife has good taste. So maybe, like Mlinarevic, the husband should learn to focus on what’s important.
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