Markus Arnold

"The culinary trade needs to be more relaxed."

Half past ten in the morning in Bern. We’re standing in front of the magnificent Historical Museum at Helvetiaplatz, across the Aare, the Swiss flag on the Bundeshaus is fluttering in the wind. Everything here has the feel of solid tradition carved in stone. But now a man has come here to break with tradition and bring new ideas to the people.

We turn our eyes away from traditional Bern, turn around and enter the Steinhalle, located right next to the main entrance of the museum. Once the stones used to build the museum were stored here, later it was a bistro, and today it’s run by the 37-year-old Lucerne native, Markus Arnold, the CEO and culinary mastermind of what is probably currently the most exciting restaurant in the Swiss capital.

“The culinary trade needs to be more relaxed,” says Arnold, and this concise sentence stands for everything that goes on in his restaurant. The tall, thin chef once caused a sensation at Merdiano in the Berner Kursaal, scoring points and earning stars, as well as other awards. From 2009 to 2014, he worked in a “great environment, but also in a golden cage,” as he puts it.

Markus Arnold wanted to move on, hungry for the risk of trying out something new. Pop-up restaurants like “Mr. Mori” (Japanese) and “Brother Frank” (Vietnamese) followed suit, Arnold travelled to Bangkok for the World Gourmet Festival and just returned from North and South Korea, where, as an unpaid cooking instructor, he discovered new worlds of taste.

The chef is fascinated by Asian cuisine, for example, he raves about “the incredible spiciness of street food in Thailand”. But his favourite destination is Japan: “I’ve been there eight times now, even our honeymoon was a trip through Japan.” Arnold likes the flavour, the famous umami, the love for the product and the care in preparation – everything that characterizes Japanese cuisine. And he wants to transfer this philosophy to his own restaurant.

Which is why at lunchtime there’s ramen soup in the “Steinhalle”. This simple, tasty dish is to Japan as a burger is to America. It consists of an aromatic broth (for example chicken or meat), noodles, pork breast or other meat, egg and some vegetables or sprouts. Arnold also acquired a Japanese noodle machine; everything is homemade. Even the quiche, which is also on the lunch menu, is freshly baked daily. “So it costs a bit more than a frozen product from the supermarket,” he says.

The first guests arrive, order their lunch directly at the cash desk, pay and then sit down. In a relatively short time the food is served. “Whoever wants to can eat something good here, and that was cooked with care, in just 15 minutes. Many of our guests who come from the nearby offices appreciate this”, says Arnold. But he also admits that he had to educate the people of Bern a bit. “Not everybody agreed with having to pay before getting anything”, says the catering entrepreneur with a mischievous smile.

Since the boss of the Steinhalle also has to take care of administrative and personnel issues, his head chef runs the day-to-day business. He was already Arnold’s sous-chef at Meridiano. “But cooking is still what I enjoy most. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time left for it”, he says. But Markus Arnold takes time for us and prepares for us one of his favourite dishes: a confit rainbow trout with spinach and tarragon-beurre-blanc, the classic butter and white wine sauce famous in French cuisine.

Arnold places the fish in a bowl with some rapeseed oil: The oil prevents beads of water from forming and conducts the heat evenly. Depending on the thickness of the fillet it takes about 15 to 25 minutes with 50-degree steam in the steamer until the salmon trout is half cooked and tender. Then it’s brushed with nut butter, topped with spinach, which is then topped with more beurre noisette. “The fat and the light acidity of the sauce create a magnificent taste. Once a year this fish is sure to be on our menu, the guests are crazy about it”, says Markus Arnold.

The lunch crowd is gone, and now here and there a few visitors to the museum drop in for a coffee and a piece of chocolate-almond cake baked according to Arnold’s secret recipe. Here again, the Steinhalle is a good place to eat. Then the tables are set for the evening: Guests have a variety of seating options: at long tables, at the bar, in front of the open kitchen and on a gallery, from where they can enjoy a multi-course Korean dinner.

The culinary theme rotates. Following the Korean theme, everything that lands on the table will be green, before that there was food, prepared only with smoke and fire. “With changing themes I can always make guests curious, so they may drop by five times a year instead of just twice as in other fine-dining restaurants”, Arnold says regarding his concept, which he calls “casual dining”.

The evening ends with a dessert bowl: Under a light, snow-like yuzu yoghurt mass with some lime zest, sweet mango with forest honey lies in waiting. It’s a typical Markus Arnold dish because it tastes great and can be eaten with a spoon without a lot of explanation. “A dessert with three ingredients that tastes great is more interesting than a plate with 30 components”, says Arnold. That’s his signature: Great taste served up with a pinch of tongue-in cheek.

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