Heroes (2/4) - Anton Mosimann (1947- )

We all have heroes, people we admire and want to emulate, perhaps to impress. Some of them will be distant figures who may have lived generations before us, others will be members of our own family. All of them make us who we are. A few years ago, I gave a series of dinners in celebration of some of my culinary heroes. This series of posts explores the lives and influence of those people and recalls the atmosphere and style of each dinner. In a dinner I called "Clean Air, Cold Water," I celebrated the great master of Nouvelle Cuisine and Godfather of Modern British cooking, Anton Mosimann.

From its opening in 1931 until the 1970s, the kitchens of London’s Dorchester Hotel, and indeed every London hotel, had served mainly classic French cuisine. With its vast brigades and extensive kitchens, the hotel was well prepared for a style of cooking that can conjure an almost infinite variety of dishes out of five “mother” sauces and an array of pre-prepared flavouring ingredients. The drawback with this style, however, is that it does require a VAST brigade to do it well on the scale on which pre-war London hotels had built their reputation. Sadly, by the mid-sixties, increased wage costs had led most restaurants and hotels to cut far too many corners, and London’s culinary reputation was suffering greatly. I pointed to the influence of Elizabeth David in the domestic sphere in my previous post. Her disciples were now seeking similarly exciting and tasty experiences out in the restaurants and dining rooms. Stories circulated in the glossy magazines of a shocking, new movement that was taking Paris by storm: une nouvelle cuisine. Nouvelle Cuisine places a high value on local, seasonal ingredients, extremely lightly prepared and, perhaps above all, artfully presented. London, for now, remained steadfastly, stodgily unchanged.

Change was surely coming, though: Eugène Käufeler, Maître-Chef des Cuisines at the Dorchester was nearing retirement and he recognised the need for the hotel to take a radical new direction if it were ever to regain its reputation. He turned to Adelrich Furrer, a Swiss expert on international cuisines for advice on whom to suggest as a successor. (Käufeler was himself Swiss, completely steeped in the classic French tradition.) Furrer immediately suggested a young Swiss chef making a name for himself in Paris and beyond - Anton Mosimann. Mosimann had already served as head chef at the Swiss Pavilion at Expo70 in Japan and was working his way through hotel kitchens in Rome, Montréal, Tokyo and Brugges. Käufeler had found his crown prince! After a year working under Käufeler, to familiarise himself with the hotel and its workings (and possibly to reassure its owners), Mosimann became Maître Chef des Cuisines. At 28, he was the youngest chef ever to be appointed to that post (a record he still holds).

If it had been Käufeler’s intention that his young successor would send shock waves through the stuffy kitchens of a venerable hotel, and out into the moribund food culture beyond, he was not to be disappointed. A new approach to cooking was immediately instituted at the Dorchester: out went roux sauces, butter glazes, goose fat, alcohol, cream and foie gras, in favour of fine stocks, steamed vegetables, cooking en papillotte and Nouvelle Cuisine’s obsessive attention to the visual. Mosimann’s approach was purist in the extreme, shunning all but minimal processing and serving his ingredients as fresh and unhindered as possible, allowing each ingredient to retain and be appreciated for its natural character. This style he named Cuisine Naturelle. During his 13 years at the hotel, Mosimann earned two Michelin stars. It was the first restaurant outside France to achieve such an accolade.

About this time, a young lad in Lancashire was discovering that he enjoyed cooking...
Although food programmes were rarer then then the are now, I always looked out for them and enjoyed watching how others cooked. Daytime staples like "Farmhouse Kitchen" and Delia Smith's appearances on the Saturday morning children's show "Swap Shop" taught me well, but there was something compelling about Mosimann, and I looked out for him in particular. It may have been the mid-European accent and tall hat, making him the very image of a stereotypical chef, that led to my fascination, but one only had to watch him cook to know the man was a genius. While other TV cooks and food show presenters were serving sludge in fifty shades of beige, Mosimann worked quickly and methodically to present food so vibrant that you could almost taste its deliciousness.

The biggest problem Nouvelle Cuisine faced (and still does) was its reputation for measly portion sizes. We have to remember that this style of cooking arrived in the country when our experience of fine dining was very limited, rather expensive and generally not very good. We had learnt that good dinners ALWAYS come in three courses; that meat comes covered in heavy sauces, and that vegetables were something best boiled to death, for fear their flavour compete with anything else on the plate. Nouvelle Cuisine proved the very antithesis of that. Its first French proponents served their meals in a series of small, beautiful dishes, rather like the modern trend for “tasting menus.” Their vegetables were served with so much of the original taste, colour and texture left in them that shocked British diners often sent them back as undercooked. It may well be that those wits who first coined the jokes about needing a chip supper afterwards were the very problem they sought to mock – it’s not that the chef was mean but that the critics had ordered too little and sent much of it back uneaten.

Mosimann’s tenure at the Dorchester drew in talented young cooks from around the country and from  abroad. Names we might recognise today have been among his protégés: Raymond Blanc, Rowley Leigh, Michael Gill, Anthony Worrall-Thompson, Mark Hix… We might not recognise much of Mosimann’s Cuisine Naturelle in their rediscovery of butter, wine and cream, but surely his greatness is in engendering a love for fresh, local and seasonal ingredients while fostering in each their own unique “voice.” Never abandoning his own style, Mosimann became, through his encouragement of young chefs, the acknowledged Godfather of the “Modern British” cuisine that started to emerge in the late eighties. The second generation of those cooks have made London, and the wider UK, one of the most exciting places to eat, now positively glittering with Michelin stars where once we had just two - and both of them were Mosimann’s!

Nouvelle Cuisine’s real popularity lasted less than 10 years in London, and it never really reached much further out at all. In reality, only the most expensive restaurants ever employed chefs with the skill to do it well. Mosimann was always the undisputed king of Nouvelle Cuisine in this country. The hard-edged purity of his approach may have relaxed a little in his later years, and even foie gras might occasionally be found on the menu at his current restaurant, Mosimanns’. To understand the lasting influence of the fashion, and of Mosimann’s mastery of it, we need to look at certain features of the restaurant food we rather take for granted today:
  • The primacy of the visual. Even the simplest pub fare is presented with an emphasis on appealing to the diner’s eye. Some don’t get it right (bloody pint-pots of chips!), but every cook since 1983 has been drilled in the supreme importance of the “picture on the plate."
  • The expectation that food will be local and seasonal where possible. Next time you raise a toast to the British asparagus season, remind yourself it could have been transported from a poly-tunnel in Peru instead. Then include Mosimann and the champions of Nouvelle Cuisine in your toast, who rescued British food from a growing tendency to serve everything all year.
  • The taste and texture of vegetables. We’ll never go back now to soft sprouts and carrots that seep water onto the plate. And with meat, when we do cook things longer, we use the cuts that need it: we no longer simply overcook the expensive, leaner, single-muscle cuts.
  • The flexibility of our serving conventions. We’re often happy to eat a starter alongside the main, to enjoy a “pre-dessert” (whatever that is!) or to delay pud while we nibble on a few well-dressed leaves to refresh our palate. Can you imagine our 1970s selves knowing what to do with an amuse-gueule?

Leaving the Dorchester, Mosimann set up his eponymous private dining club in 1988. There he was joined by his two sons. Even at the age of 74, he is actively involved at the head of the business, still innovating, still pushing the boundaries of excellence and still mentoring younger chefs. He was chosen to cook for the evening wedding reception of TRH the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace and has been honoured in his home country with a museum dedicated to his life and work. Just last week, he was awarded the Swiss Culinary Merit of Honour at a benefit dinner in Bern.

For our own celebration dinner, we adopted the styles and fashions of the Yuppie hey-day of the early 1980s, the time when the Dorchester's dining-rooms were the meeting-place of royalty, celebrities and bankers, and the time I had first seen Mosimann on TV. Everything had to look clean and defined, giving us the pleasure of setting the table with starched linen, mirrors, glass and electric blue orchids. Men attended in coloured shirts and bow ties, while women chose either metallic fabrics and shoulder pads or overgrown bows on flowing dresses. We served a simple, clean Champagne en apéritif, accompanied by a carefully curated audio mix of Philip Glass and New Romantic pop. Dinner itself consisted of four light courses, interspersed with amuse-gueules. The fish course is a Mark Hix dish, chosen for how well it shows the influence of his time under Mosimann.

We ate:
Steak tartare
Crab & avocado salad set in a bowl of chilled tomato consommé
Steamed, truffled breast of guineafowl with braised leg and guineafowl jus
Herbed vegetables en papillotte
Rheingold gâteau
The amuse-gueules were figs with foie gras mousse and a drizzle of sauce gastrique, oyster and bottarga barquettes and a pre-dessert of pear and parmesan dressed with a fine balsamic. As the evening drew to a close, we toasted this hero of modern hospitality with chilled eau de vie, a nod in the direction of his Swiss origins and another example of the clean, simple flavours and startling visuals the occasion demanded.


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