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Giovannini’s new lightness

“We respect the products, the guests, and our employees”

In Crissier, the only constant is change: new head chef Franck Giovannini remains true to the principles of his predecessors at the world-famous “Restaurant L’Hôtel de Ville”, but is resolutely further developing the culinary signature.

Franck Giovannini is the epitome of calm, and the “Starship Crissier” appears to be floating through the universe without any turbulence. With its huge elliptical pass, the bright, spacious kitchen in which 25 chefs and pastry chefs work, actually does look a bit like an orbital glider, and the smooth and steady running of things is not something which should be taken for granted.

Much has stayed the same at the “Restaurant L’Hôtel de Ville” in Crissier: it remains a superb restaurant offering refined culinary delights which is unique in the world. Following its opening in 1971 by Fredy Girardet, one of the co-inventors of “Nouvelle Cuisine”, came three other head chefs or proprietors, each of whom received the highest award of three stars in the “Guide Michelin”. In his work, Franck Giovannini is fully aware of this tradition: “Our kitchen is actually still based on the philosophy of Fredy Girardet: the product is the star,” says the experienced chef.

Respect is of utmost importance for him, he adds: “We respect the products, the guests, and our employees.” That means not just cooking well for the guests, but for each individual. “We eat as you do in a good bistro; everything is home-made and today, for example, we did saltimbocca with polenta and carrots,” Giovannini recounts.

But this chef, born in 1974 in Tramelan in the Jura region, doesn’t just want to preserve the culinary heritage – he is determined to develop it further. The dishes need to be even lighter for example – less butter is the motto, which for somebody who feels indebted to French cuisine is somewhat surprising. “Flavour comes from reduction, and not in the first instance from adding butter or salt,” explains Giovannini. He says that he wants guests to feel they have enjoyed a light meal, even after nine or ten courses. But Giovannini also adds firmly: “We don’t do classic cuisine. For me, classic means you’ve been cooking the same dish for 30 years. Our dishes are continually evolving.”

Our visit falls in the spring, a time of year which vegetable-lover Giovannini particularly enjoys: “I love the bright colours and possibilities that using fresh vegetables offers.” In 2007, Giovannini won the “Bocuse de Bronze” award in the world’s most prestigious cooking competition. “One thing I learned there was to present as many facets of a product as possible,” he says. “Each of my dishes needs the right product, then it doesn’t need more than two or three different flavours. Different textures are important to me. For example, a dish is never just creamy. It needs something crispy or something crunchy – even just fresh vegetables for instance,” explains the head chef. In spring he uses morels or asparagus, then in early summer green beans, chanterelles or tomatoes for example, buying his products locally as far as possible.

Giovannini raves about dishes which consist of just one type of vegetable: morels, for example, or cardoons, for which the Romandie region is so famous, and which are grown exclusively for the “Restaurant L’Hôtel de Ville” by a farmer in Crissier. These meals must be “light and elegant”, and the guests’ sense of well-being should be enhanced by this new lightness.

One of the most important changes that Giovannini has undertaken concerns the organisation of the kitchen: unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t stand alone at the pass checking the prepared plates; he believes his place is in the team. So you’ll find him going between the various stations, stopping to slide a fish into an oven, then speaking with the chefs who are preparing large quantities of asparagus, and greeting guests in between. “I speak with my team and don’t shout. The atmosphere in our kitchen needs to be calm, relaxed, and above-all focused,” says Giovannini. And he apparently also sometimes wants to pick up a pan or a knife – he still enjoys cooking. By contrast, the huge pass has become like a wall between him and the team, so he has put an experienced chef in that position to perform the checks.

One of the culinary principles in Crissier is that food is cooked “à la minute”. This means that meat and fish are not cooked at a low temperature for a long time, which is what many chefs do nowadays. Meat is seared in a pan and cooked in the oven, while fish is often steam-cooked: cod or sea bass only need steaming for a few minutes at 90 degrees and then seasoning with a little olive oil and some salt.

Franck Giovannini gives a wry smile when asked whether he feels the pressure of working in an establishment like this, and in such a particular situation. “I’ve been working here for almost 22 years. Pressure has always been part of the job,” he replies. “I didn’t seek out my new role. Benoît and I actually wanted to finish working here together.” But things took a different turn, and Giovannini has made the best of the situation for one simple reason: “This is a wonderful place to cook,” he says, putting it all into a nutshell with that one statement.

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