When Swiss chef Florian Trento travelled to Hong Kong – accepting a sous chef role at the Peninsula Hong Kong – for the first time in 1987, he was surprised to find himself “at home” halfway around the world.
“When I stepped inside Chesa for the first time, I couldn’t believe it,” says the now-executive chef of the Peninsula group, sitting at the hotel’s 57-year-old Swiss restaurant.
“It was like I was back home to the point that if you go to Switzerland nowadays, you can still find a few of these charming mountain restaurants exactly like Chesa,” Trento says.
If there was a picture to define the word cosy, Chesa would probably be that picture.
Little has changed since the chalet-like restaurant opened its door in 1957, with reclaimed wood from an old restaurant in Switzerland, skis on the wall and a dark wooden cabinet.
“I think what makes Chesa very successful after all these years is that we don't do many changes. We evolve, and we do new things, but in essence, Chesa remains what it is -- a place where people enjoy the food, the beverage, the company and the environment. It’s about sharing and that's very important for the Swiss people,” says Trento.
One of the restaurant’s signature items for sharing is its cheese fondue.
There are two types of cheese fondue on its a la carte menu: fondue moitie-moitie, with gruyere and vacherin fribourgeoise cheese, and fondue montagnarde, with Emmental, appenzeller, gruyere and parmesan.
The former is served with baguette and the latter with smoked mountain bacon, macaroni and boiled potatoes.
“If you go to Switzerland, I’d say most households have a fondue set at home – except the Italian parts of Switzerland where people don’t believe in fondue. It’s very filling and it can warm you up in the cold weather. It’s a specialty of Switzerland that has been exported to many countries. We are very proud of that,” says Trento.
The simmering pot of molten cheese is important in Swiss food culture because of the way it’s eaten, too.
“It brings people together. It is about sharing a meal. You have this pot in the centre and then you stir it. If you lose the bread when dipping it in the fondue, you have to buy everyone drinks. It’s a fun social event.”
If you don’t drink alcohol, Trento adds that tea is a great alternative drink to go with cheese fondue.
One of the Swiss chef’s fondest fondue memories was when he tried to make cheese fondue with his group of friends when he was young.
“We were like 12, 13 years old. We had a little group of four or five. And once a month, we’d do fondue. I still vividly remember the first time we made our fondue, we were all scared to make mistakes. Then we realized it’s quite easy to do,” says Trento.
He adds, with a big smile, “My mother wasn’t a particular fan of fondue as the whole house would smell [of cheese fondue] for a week. So, you know that’s a little bit of the downside.”
Open your windows for a few hours and wash the curtains are two pieces of advice Trento offer for anyone who wants to attempt it at home.
On the right: raclette is another signature dish of Chesa.
The Swiss chef also shares a few tips to make a good fondue.
“It’s very easy – I don’t mind sharing the recipe with you at all,” says Trento.
To make the classic Swiss dish, you need a dry white wine with good acidity, garlic, cornstarch, kirsch (a type of liqueur from Switzerland) and, obviously, a mix of cheese.
Each household has its mix of cheese so Trento encourages you to experiment and try.
But you should always get fresh cheese from your local cheesemonger.
“You can go to the supermarket to buy fondue mix in an aluminum pouch – but it is not so nice. Those cheese sticks to the teeth. Instead, go to a cheesemonger and tell him you need the fondue mix. He will give you fresh cheese. In terms of timing, it takes the same time to cook fresh cheese fondue as a pre-made fondue so why not get the fresh one,” says Trento.
After you get your cheese, rub the garlic around the inside of the pot after it’s heated – but do not add the garlic to the actual cheese and wine mixture. The ratio between white wine and cheese is about one to two.
After the mixture is thickened, a splash of kirsch and a bit of cornstarch are added to the mix.
There are various items you can dip into the cheese pot, but bread is the most classic ones.
Failed to scrap every drop of cheese with the bread? No problem.
Trento says that there are two ways to enjoy the last bit of cheese.
You can add an egg to the remaining cheese and scramble it up. Or you can let it burn till it becomes crispy and hard like chips.
“It’s very intense and, personally, I am not a big fan of [the second way],” says Trento.
After his 35-year stint at the Peninsula Group, Trento emphasizes that he has “no favourite children” amongst all the outlets in the group around the world.
“But, as the only Swiss left, I still work with the head chef and do the special menus every two months by adding foods from different cantons, different areas and different seasonality,” says Trento.
“It holds a bit of a special place in my heart.”
The current dinner menu includes a unique non-cheesy fondue called fondue Chinoise, which means Chinese fondue.
“It is one of the classic Christmas dishes from the German parts of Switzerland,” says Trento.
The fondue’s base is a bouillon.
It is served with dips including sliced beef tenderloin, chicken breast, pork loin and angel hair pasta, not dissimilar to the Chinese hot pot Hong Kongers are fond of.
Different parts of Switzerland celebrate Christmas very differently.
Trento also has his own Christmas tradition.
“In Switzerland, you would decorate the Christmas tree and gift exchange on Christmas eve. Then you go to the church’s midnight mass. It is beautiful.
“But being in our business, we had to change that. So my family spend our Christmas morning doing gift exchanges. We have a nice little hot chocolate and a couple of Christmas cookies for breakfast. Maybe a little bit of smoked salmon and caviar with champagne to toast the season. Then I go back to work,” says Trento.
As for cheese fondue, Trento says that my wife and two sons also are a fan of cheese fondue.
“But we don’t make it at home – the smell is one reason. We would go out to have it,” says Trento.
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