“We were working for a third star, but you can work for a third star for twenty years and it might never come along.” says Peter Knogl in Kerry Spencer’s interview
Sitting down to interview Bavarian-born chef Peter Knogl in the library of Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, it’s easy to see how he commands the respect of his kitchen. Knogl has a big presence. By contrast, his personality is not overly bearing. Instead he’s calm and modest. “I am a very quiet chef,” he says.
“These days, I think that style of [a loud and boisterous] kitchen are finished. The atmosphere here, at Cheval Blanc, is like a family. But that doesn’t mean I make any compromises. Everything has to be perfect and the character and personality of a chef is important to lead a kitchen.”
Cheval Blanc is perfectly formed. Opened in 2006 by its current owners, the restaurant isn’t overly large, but the sheer height of the room adds to its grandiose scale. The dark parquet floor is matched with antique chandeliers and fine art on the walls, while the pistachio-hued walls are complemented by the large purple-draped windows, which allow light to floor in and for diners to gaze out to the river Rhine.
The river, as well as Basel’s many art galleries and museums (the city is home to 40 museums in total) are playing second fiddle to Knogl’s cuisine these days. In November 2015, Cheval Blanc entered what is arguably the culinary world’s most sought after club, when it was awarded its coveted third star.
With a population of roughly 175,000, Basel is a small city with big ambitions. “It’s the first time in Basel’s history that the city has had a three-star Michelin restaurant, so it’s great for the city and tourism,” Knogl says.
“It’s also a very special moment in the life of a cook to get three stars. It was a big surprise. We were working for a third star, but you can work for a third star for twenty years and it might never come along.”
Knogl reveals the moment he discovered the restaurant was about to receive its third star. “It was on a Friday—we were about to close the hotel restaurant for two weeks for our holiday—and at about 11pm I was still in the kitchen, when a waiter came in and says ‘somebody from Michelin is on the phone and wants to speak to you’.”
On the other end of the line was the chief of Michelin Guide Germany. “He said to me, ‘next Wednesday you will get three Michelin stars at Cheval Blanc’, and at that moment I was in complete shock.”
How does a chef and his team celebrate when they discover they’ve been awarded three stars? With champagne, a big party, I wonder? “Actually, we didn’t celebrate that night or even that weekend, because I wasn’t allowed to say anything about it. I only shared the news with the hotel’s owner, because Michelin weren’t announcing the guide until the following Wednesday, so we had to keep it a secret until then,” Knogl reveals.
Because of the restaurant’s planned two-week closure, Peter jetted off to his beloved Spain—where he has previously spent nine years working—for a holiday, but as soon as Wednesday arrived he called his team to congratulate them.
“I celebrated in Barcelona at a restaurant called Lasarte. It’s a two-Michelin-star restaurant and I know the chef, Martín Berasategui, very well. We then had a small party and drank a lot of champagne when I retuned to Basel,” he says.
This year Knogl celebrates his ninth year at Cheval Blanc. Over this time he has seen the city and the restaurant evolve enormously. “In the past, we always [hosted] a lot of business lunches at the restaurant. This is now changing and we find a lot of people come to Basel specifically to dine at Cheval Blanc,” he reveals.
Knogl learned a very important food philosophy at a young age—one that has stuck with him ever since, largely thanks to the area he grew up in and his grandmother’s teachings (she was a cook with a restaurant in Bavaria). “We never ate ‘convenience’ food (such as ready meals or takeaways). We had a farm with our own fresh produce, so we always ate fresh food,” Knogl says.
Today, Knogl is blessed with a very similar bounty to that he grew up with. Not only does Cheval Blanc benefit from swathes of luscious Swiss countryside, producing a regular source of herbs, vegetables and dairy, Basel is bordered by the Black Forest in Germany and Alsace in France. So close, in fact, that both regions are clearly visible from the rooftop of Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. “The lamb from France is very good and our foie gras is from just over the border in Alsace. And we always have foie gras on the menu,” he reveals. “If we don’t have it on the menu, people will only ask for it anyway.”
Knogl cleverly modernises classic cuisine, making it more relevant to today’s tastes with subtle Mediterranean and Asian influences. He reveals he likes the Asian, specifically Japanese, style of cooking and flavours, such as “spices, ponzu, yuzu and the umami taste”.
Knogl’s sous chef, Susumu Sasaki from near Tokyo, no doubt plays a hand in dishes such as sweetbread with yuzu and pepper and the kingfish, avocado, radish and miso.
The menu, which includes a selection of appetisers followed by six courses, also includes more classic dishes, such as the heavenly foam of artichokes and Parmesan, roasted foie gras and Périgord truffle. The black truffles—at their peak during my visit to Cheval Blanc in early February—were generously shaved on top of the foam, finishing off the layers of flavour and texture with a bang.
The menu flows eloquently, climaxing with a red meat dish, such as pigeon, lamb or venison, before the cheese trolley is gracefully wheeled across the restaurant, offering guests the chance to indulge in some of Switzerland’s—and its neighbouring countries’—finest exports, before ending with a harmonising finale. “I don’t end with chocolate if I feature foie gras.” Knogl explains: “I prefer something lighter to end with, such as the yoghurt, clementine, tapioca and ginger.”
Although Asian influences are subtly woven into the menu, Knogl doesn’t bow to international food trends. Thankfully, there isn’t an edible flower or ‘burnt’ cabbage component in sight. He’s an intelligent chef who cooks from the heart. “It’s simple. I cook what I like, with my heart. Cooking from the heart is the only way to reflect your personality. The menu needs to be interesting and something needs to happen in the mouth.”
Knogl says he thinks a six-course meal is just the right amount of dishes and that “the period of having 20 different dishes on a tasting menu is over”.
“It’s no good having your waiter at your table every two minutes [presenting a new dish] and then you, the guest, don’t feel so good afterwards. What’s important is that people feel well after good food [and] good service,” Knogl says.
When Knogl arrived at the hotel, he built the entire kitchen and restaurant brigade from scratch, mentoring, teaching and growing the team. “We have about eight chefs in the kitchen and many different nationalities: Japanese, Portuguese, Swiss, German, Italian, French, Spanish. It’s a very international team and that’s very important. If we were all German [in the kitchen] it would be boring!”
While Cheval Blanc might not have had any Michelin stars when Knogl arrived at the restaurant, he was more than familiar with the style of cuisine favoured by the red guide; himself mentored by the famous German-Italian chef Heinz Winkler—the youngest ever chef to be awarded three Michelin stars—at Restaurant Tristán in Mallorca. “To be a great chef, you need a great mentor,” he says.
Knogl advises other chefs not to rush to the top of the kitchen chain, to be patient and experience all aspects the kitchen has to offer. “Slowly work your way up and around restaurants, don’t rush it,” he says.
Outside of the kitchen, Knogl says his favourite places are Spain and Holland.
“I like to go to my friend Jacob Jan Boerma [Restaurant de Leest] in Holland, [he is] a very good chef. And I love the weather in Spain, the mentality, and the way of life. I spent seven years in Marbella and then in Mallorca so it is very close to me.”
Cheval Blanc closes during August and every Sunday and Monday. The rest of the time, Knogl can be found in the kitchen. “It’s a small kitchen with a small team and I always have to be here. If the restaurant is open, I am here. The guests want to see me and if they don’t see me they complain.” True to his word, Knogl enters the grand restaurant towards the end of service and spends time chatting to all of the guests.
And on a rare day off, what does the chef like to do? “Sleep!” he jokes. “That or fly to Barcelona and spend the day in a tapas bar! Although there’s a restaurant in New York I really need to try, called Brooklyn Fare, but I think it’s difficult to get a table. I have to go to Denmark, too. I’ve known Heinz Beck for a long time and I also need to go to his restaurant in Rome.”
While running a three-Michelin-starred restaurant mustn’t be easy, Knogl seems happy and stress-free, though he is still in shock by the death of his good friend Benoît Violier, the French-Swiss chef of the three-Michelin-star Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Lausanne, Switzerland. The gastronomy world was also stunned when just three days prior to our interview, Violier committed suicide. “I am still in shock. It’s absolutely crazy. Nobody understands why this happened. He was a very friendly and also a very successful person. I last spoke to him for maybe one hour just two weeks ago and he seemed fine,” he says.
Like most professions, the life of a chef isn’t without stress. “[As a chef] you’re always nervous around the time of the Michelin Guides, and there’s always stress, but you have to manage it,” Knogl says.
I ask Knogl if anything has changed about Cheval Blanc since gaining entry into the elite three-star club? “No,” he answers firmly. “I think you get the third star for the kitchen that is in place, so it’s not necessary to make changes.” Although he says the small details are as important as ever, and “we must look at these [details] to always improve,” he finishes.
Find out more about the culinary career of Peter