For German-born Stefan Heilemann, he knew he wanted to be a chef since he was a toddler. After a short stint at university, he pursued that goal by starting his career at the Traube Tonbach under Harald Wohlfahrt. Heilemann is now the executive chef at Ecco Zürich, which earned two MICHELIN stars in December 2015. He describes his cooking style as "French-based, uncomplicated, product-focused and Asian-inspired." At Ecco this translates to dishes such as buffalo tartare with poached oysters, radish foam and mustard; white asparagus and crayfish with peas, calamansi and hazelnut; and a dessert featuring rhubarb, coconut, ginger and pandan.
In crafting his menus, "The process for new dishes is running 24/7," Heilemann shares. "Sometimes I wake up at night and have an idea about a new dish." Once the idea has been planted, "Then it takes a week or two to create and finalize the dish." This even extends to his recent partnership with SWISS airlines where first and business class passengers can enjoy inflight dishes from the acclaimed chef for a limited time, such as saddle of veal with braised onion sauce, mascarpone polenta, broccolini and pearl onions. Heilemann seeks to "use the best products and, if possible, always from the region," regardless of whether it's for Ecco or his dishes for SWISS, which is why he uses dry-aged beef from Luma in his inflight dish of beef patties with red wine and balsamic jus, potato gratin and kohlrabi.
And for anyone that wants to dine at Ecco, he assures that "you will experience a journey around the world," all nestled within the Atlantis by Giardino hotel at the base of the Uetliberg mountain.
The following interview has been lightly edited.
What was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
After two years of university I decided to quit my studies and become a chef. I didn't really know a lot about the MICHELIN Guide at the time, but I Googled it a bit and in my research I found a chef named Harald Wohlfahrt at Hotel Traube Tonbach's Schwarzwaldstube restaurant in Germany with three MICHELIN stars, which was said to be one of the best in the country. Right away I applied and started my apprenticeship. I cooked there five years, which is where I learned a lot about the magic of MICHELIN stars.
What were your thoughts when you learned your restaurant received a MICHELIN star for the first time?
We hoped for one star but when we received two in the first year I was almost crying and totally speechless. After so many years of hard work my dream came true. It was an indescribable feeling.
How did you celebrate?
I got a call from MICHELIN the day before the big launch event that we would receive a star, but I wasn't allowed to talk about it until it was published. You can imagine it wasn't really easy to keep that to myself, so I opened a nice bottle of Champagne and called my parents in Germany to tell them the news. The next day we did not get one, but two MICHELIN stars. We celebrated with the whole team in the kitchen but it was brief as we had a fully booked restaurant that night.
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How does having two MICHELIN stars at Ecco impact the direction of your restaurant?
It gives you international recognition. People travel far just to experience your restaurant, which is amazing.
How much influence does the MICHELIN Guide have on your career?
When I decided to become a chef I told myself that I want to earn a MICHELIN star one day. I planned my whole career to reach that goal. To reach that goal I worked only in two- and three-starred restaurants, which meant long days and nights for many years—that gave me the knowledge and experience to reach my goals. Over the last 15 years MICHELIN was, and will always be, a big part of my life.
What advice do you have for young chefs?
You need a lot of patience! Cooking is fun but it's also very hard and a lot of work. Take your time to learn as much as you can and to see the world with all its special kitchens and chefs around the globe. With each experience, you find your own style of cooking and more and more love for the small details.
Headshot by Jürg Waldmeier (courtesy of Salz & Pfeffer/SWISS).