A Swiss chef cooks up the forest
'Wizard of Entlebuch' Stefan Wiesner cooks with stone, earth, ash, wood – and ants.
Stefan Wiesner holds out his hand. A plump ant runs between his thumb and forefinger. "I don't use the insects, just the formic acid," he explains. To harvest this precious substance, he dangles a piece of cloth over the top of an anthill. The six-legged creatures secrete a "magnificently acidic" liquid similar to lemon juice, which Wiesner will use to flavour a sauce or dessert.
The chef carefully puts away the cloth and continues on through the forest, his truffle dog, Lévi, at his heels. In this UNESCO biosphere reserve of pine forests, moorland and bogs, Wiesner sources the ingredients for dishes that are attracting gourmets from far and wide to Entlebuch in the Swiss canton of Lucerne.
Secrets of the forest floor
What child has never sampled a mouthful of earth or leaves, or felt the urge to crunch a creepy crawly? Wiesner never lost the curiosity and wonder that drives children to explore the world with their senses. He has turned this elemental pursuit of new sensations into an art form. His relentless foraging turns up herbs and berries, but also a variety of mosses and lichens. He uses pine needles to smoke meat, and stones to infuse soup. The trees no longer hold any secrets: he'll use larch essences as a flavouring, conjure a refined sauce from birch sap, and mix ashes of burnt bark with flour to make bread. Wood, peat, hay, ferns: everything that the forest has to offer can be found in the Lucerne chef's laboratory of flavours.
Wiesner describes his approach as 'archaic'. It sometimes takes on a mystical quality – like the time he decided to imbue a plate of salt with a Mozart symphony by placing it over a speaker. Or when he makes a fire in the open and collects the melted snowflakes that pass through the smoke to use as the base for a broth flavoured with bones and herbs. The theatricality is at least as important as the ingredients. "The salt will not taste any different," he says, but my cooking will be better."
He stops in the middle of a clearing and observes the trees in silence, before removing a small speaker from his rucksack and turning it on. It emits a deep rhythmic sound like the tapping of a woodpecker, which reverberates among the trees. The sounds were recorded by ETH Zurich scientists attempting to detect the sounds of the tree trunks through a stethoscope. "It's the music of trees," says Wiesner. He likes to think that the forest is home to invisible forces which some call elves.
The Nordic trend
In this region of Central Switzerland which prefers wholesome traditional fare to experimental gourmet, Wiesner's eccentricities were bound to make him the butt of some jokes. They call him crazy as he continues to dice with extreme flavours and push the boundaries of the edible. He cooks with fresh peat and hay, and serves ice cream infused with rusty nails. But his persistence has paid off. The 'Wizard of Entlebuch' – who wholeheartedly owns this nickname – starred in a documentary on German-speaking Swiss national TV. With 17 Gault Millau points and one Michelin star, Wiesner's restaurant, Rössli (a small horse in Swiss German), has since made a name for itself well beyond these parts.
Wiesner himself has become a celebrity of the experimental cooking scene. His unorthodox approach has been compared with that of like-minded chefs at the top of their game internationally. Chefs like Italian Massimo Bottura, world's best chef in 2016 and 2018, whose arrangement of "layers of chocolate, spices, foie gras, red wine and the blood of a wild hare" evoke the animal's journey through the undergrowth.
Wiesner's cooking is also growing in popularity thanks to the hype for New Nordic Cuisine, made fashionable by the likes of René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen. Using local, seasonal products and drawing inspiration from the forest has always been Wiesner's thing – it's just that now it's trendy. Wiesner's approach also fascinates beyond Switzerland's borders, in Germany and Austria.
Hopes for French-speaking Switzerland
Stefan Wiesner's approach resonates with a movement that respects the cycle of seasons and advocates the use of local, unprocessed, inventive ingredients. For former head of the Swiss Culinary Society Andreas Fleischlin, Wiesner belongs to the avant-garde of Swiss gastronomy. "Stefan Wiesner's cuisine is extremely complex, as it draws on many influences. He can spend several weeks thinking about a single dish," he observes.
"Cooking is the number one international language," says Wiesner. Nevertheless, in French-speaking Switzerland – just two hours from his restaurant in Escholzmatt – Wiesner is not yet a household name.
Although forest-floor gastronomy does not have the same following among his French-speaking compatriots, he still has hopes. "I don't get many visitors from French-speaking Switzerland, but a few have become my best customers. They have the advantage of enjoying for fine food. In German-speaking Switzerland, we'd first buy a new television and only then go out to eat," he says. He is aware that his method could offend sensitive palates, but he assures us that he knows what is a no-go if he doesn't want to empty his restaurant.
You can't go wrong with rösti and a sausage
A skilled communicator, Wiesner is careful to tell the right story. He gives his guests the opportunity to join him on his foraging excursions. And he isn't averse to a pinch of humour, like when he concocted a themed menu based on his car, an old Citroen HY van, treating guests to dishes such as 'spanner', 'exhaust fumes', 'rear-view mirror' and 'accident'. Even so, and possibly to keep his feet on the ground, Wiesner is also keen to preserve the village bistro tradition, having taken over the establishment from his parents in 1989, at the age of 27. Adjacent to the gourmet dining room, Rössli continues to serve potato rösti and sausage, at a more modest price.
Trained in classical cuisine during his apprenticeship at Hotel Château Gütsch in Lucerne, Stefan Wiesner wanted to get away from the books and translate his ecosystem into food. Today, he is passing on his knowledge to future generations of chefs at his Natur-Akademie in Basel.
This is a translation of an article by Céline Zünd first published in Le Temps in January 2017.
© Photo: Fabian Biasio