The year the second chef became the owner
Yesterday I learned I am one of the 80-85% of people who eat at the Hôtel de Ville Crissier who, as it turns out, are local folk, not tourists from abroad at all. Franck Giovannini, head chef, gave some of us the figure when we spoke after lunch, saying it’s a huge relief to have so much local support, given how many three-star restaurants depend on fine cuisine tourism for their survival. It’s also nice to be able to recognise about one-third of the people, and have a chat with them.
He also confirmed to me, for those who want to know about future meals there, that his wife Stéphanie will join the restaurant in January.
Giovannini has worked at the Hôtel de Ville for nearly 25 years, but he’s been in the news recently for several reasons. He was named Swiss Chef of the Year 2018 by GaultMillau in October 2017, to cap his 19 points, the highest mark the guide gives.
Three months ago he bought out Brigitte Violier’s share of the restaurant and she departed abruptly, or so it appeared. Few details were made public about the change, announced officially in mid-August, which at first left rumours swirling. It was later explained that the restaurant needed to make sure staff were the first to known of the change. The restaurant has five partners who are well-known international business people with local roots. André Kudelski, chairman of the Kudelski Group, is president of the restaurant and a main shareholder with Giovannini now.
A bit of background: when the initial shock wore off after the suicide in February 2016 of the restaurant’s much-honoured and respected head chef Benoît Violier, the international world of haute cuisine breathed a sigh of relief because Giovannini at least had long experience and had managed the kitchen’s operations for years; chances were good that what is widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s best restaurants would be able to maintain its standards. The chef had worked under three of the world’s masters, after all: Frédy Girardet, Philippe Rochat and Benoît Violier.
I had lunch there in January 2018 with a group from the US, the Los Angeles chapter of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin. These are people who regularly wine and dine in the best restaurants around the world, so I wondered, with such high standards, if the Hôtel de Ville would meet their expectations. I was told by more than one of them that this was the best meal they had ever had. Crissier passed that test with flying colours.
Yesterday I ate lunch there as one of a judge for the Lauriers de Platine Terravin. The restaurant is one of the sponsors of this selection process for the best Chasselas wine from canton Vaud. Hôtel de Ville Crissier has been a strong supporter of local wines since the days of Fredy Girardet, who was named Chef of the [20th] Century by the New York Times. Giovannini continues this tradition of working with local wineries to develop special gastronomy wines. The two newest ones are Féchy Sélection 2017 from Domaine de la Colombe, a Vaud Chasselas, and Syrah Sélection 2017 from Cave des Amandiers in Leytron, Valais.
This made our lunch Thursday a bit special because we were not simply diners coming in and selecting from the menu. The meal was designed to show us the restaurant’s capacity for superb food and wine pairings. There was leeway for a bit of experimentation, since wine writers and people in the wine business like to see what new approaches might work.
How the restaurant is faring today
The overall consensus of the people at my table was that the food was simply splendid. It doesn’t get better than this. The service was very good, under the watchful eye of Louis Villeneuve, who is now in his 42nd year at the restaurant where he has served under four world-class chefs.
At the end of the meal Giovannini made the rounds to talk with his guests; this is where his warm, welcoming personality comes through and it’s hard to remember that you don’t get this far in the stressful world of haute cuisine without being pretty tough, too. He answers my neighbour’s question: yes, they are fully booked through March for weekend meals. Better yet, and he smiles happily, there isn’t a slot open between now and Christmas, which is comforting.
Someone asks if the pistachios aren’t a bit of a weird touch in the middle of the airy pistachio-Chartreuse soufflé we just ate for dessert.
“I like them for the texture they give,” he says simply, and it feels like I’m talking to my sister about chocolate chips versus raisins in oatmeal cookies. He doesn’t put on airs, this chef. “I use vegetables for texture, too. That’s something I learned from Fredy Girardet.”
He muses about where he might head – he has said publicly he hopes to be around for several more years, and now that’s he is a major shareholder as well as head chef, at age 45, this seems likely. He muses that it might be nice to simplify, not have so many menus during the year, or so many items, to be able to concentrate on quality and the creative side.
He leaves and we are reassured, for despite a kitchen absolutely at the top level, it has felt as if something is missing. Maybe it is the warm welcome we were given in the past by Brigitte Violier. Or maybe, more simply, it is the lack of a feminine touch. Or more simply yet, one less manager in a business where every detail has to be followed closely. This feels like a brief transition period, so Giovannini is wise to come out of the kitchen and talk to people, because he makes you feel like things will just keep getting better here. That’s quite a challenge, given the level already achieved.
Food and wine pairing, Hotel de Ville Crissier