Klaus Leuenberger, pioneer of alpine cuisine, has reinvented himself once again: as village baker. The chef who once cooked for princes, sheikhs, heads of state and luxury cruise passengers now devotes himself to his passion: local delicacies.
At the “St Georg”, everything has changed. This historical wooden house in the heart of the village of Ernen has hosted hungry locals and travellers since 1535, but the restaurant tables have now disappeared, the chairs are stacked in a corner, and the smart black waistcoats of the waiters and waitresses are hanging on the wall, awaiting their owners’ return. Only the heavenly aroma of fresh bread, yeast and flour shows that life goes on here. This former temple to gastronomy has become a bakery with delicatessen and take-away service; its star chef is now a baker and maker of preserves and other delicacies.
This transformation has less to do with Covid than with the building’s medieval structure and Klaus Leuenberger’s philosophy. He believes passionately in his adopted home region and the gifts nature provides there. In his kitchen/bakery, he uses local ingredients as much as possible. Now in his late fifties, this gastronomic wizard has chosen the old building dedicated to the dragon-slayer St George to pursue his dream of more than 20 years to its logical conclusion: following the principles of the Slow Food movement without compromise, conjuring exquisite delights using local produce.
The rye that he uses for his bread, for example, comes from the neighbouring municipality of Grengiols. “This rye is like a by-product of the famous Grengiols tulips, a wild variety that doesn’t grow anywhere else in the world,” Klaus says. “The tulips flourish alongside the rye that farmers plant between the flowerbeds. For many years, the grain wasn’t harvested, it wasn’t worth the effort. But today, a friend does it for me.”
His assistant is a soulmate: Andreas Weissen, Valais born and bred, green to the core, legendary storyteller and president of the Alpine Initiative. Klaus takes the 200 to 300 kilos of rye harvested every year, turns them into flour, and once a week makes it into loaves of bread of a pound and half-a-pound. The other days, he bakes biscuits including hazelnut sticks – “sold out while they’re still warm, a real best-seller” – and various types of sourdough bread. In this way he fills the void left when German Ruppen, the previous village baker, closed shop three years ago. Klaus makes his own sourdough, which he sets aside to rest in the depths of the vaulted cellar. For his new profession, the veteran chef gains excellent advice from Robert Turzer, one of the gardeners at the Ernengarten, who was originally a baker.
The concept of “terroir” – the combination of climate, soil, terrain and traditions that gives a region its unique flavours – may now be a feature of every self-respecting restaurant menu, but Klaus embraced the idea long ago. He already sourced his ingredients locally when he first moved to the Goms valley 24 years ago and took over the St Georg. “After living many years abroad, I was amazed at the abundance of superb produce I could find just a stone’s throw from my restaurant,” he says: a revelation.
All the same, Klaus was used to cooking with the finest ingredients, having worked in top-class kitchens around the world: for the Sheikhs of Qatar for example, organising banquets for guests of state. Soon after the fall of communism he joined the Hotel Bristol in Warsaw, before boarding the Queen Elizabeth 2, the Cunard Line’s luxury transatlantic liner. Here, the finest, most exotic and most expensive delicacies passed through his hands in a buzzing kitchen with 100 cooks. He also displayed his skills in prestigious residences in Canada located more than 300 kilometres from the nearest shops.
After many years working around the world, this farmer’s son from the Emmental decided to put down roots in Valais, where he could find the finest produce almost on his doorstep. And here, in the Goms valley, he was able to develop a unique cuisine by exercising his virtuoso skills on the gifts of nature. Following only his instincts, he decided to serve authentic but subtle “terroir” cuisine at the St Georg. Success came quickly: his talent for sourcing and combining the finest ingredients soon drew gourmets from far and wide. GaultMillau awarded him 16 points and heaped him with praise.
The sale of the building in 2016 changed everything. The kitchen and dining room could no longer stay on the first floor. But a new opportunity arrived just at the right time: the chance to be involved with the opening of the Ernengarten hotel, with a focus on sustainable development. Klaus ran it for three years, able to stay true to his principles – even in a such a large venue, with 25 guest rooms and restaurant seating 80.
However, economic reality caught up with him. “Business was good in high season, but much less so in low season. And then the first lockdown was a fatal blow. I had to accept too many compromises.” So he returned to the St Georg, now reduced to a single storey. “I’m not really allowed to cook here. The fire service authorised only two hobs and an oven. So the obvious thing was for me to become a baker!” He has not completely given up cooking, however. Using ingredients from the surrounding Binntal Nature Park, he makes delicacies for a website that he set up 10 years ago: preserves, sausages, venison terrines, mustard, aspic and soups. Since the arrival of the pandemic, he has also made dishes to take away. All have one thing in common: they reflect his love for Ernen, his adopted home.
Text: Anita Lehmeier
Photographs: Sedrik Nemeth
Published: October 2021