“I cook for the enjoyment of my guests”
When half the kitchen staff left all at once, the future of Alexandra Ziörjen’s gourmet restaurant hung in the balance. After years in the office, the former LSG Group apprentice got back into the kitchen, a move that marked the start of a small gastronomical miracle.
The last of the sun’s rays shine down over Charmey. With around 2000 inhabitants, the picture-postcard village located at the foot of the Alps is the largest municipality in the Swiss canton of Fribourg; where snow enthusiasts find satisfaction in winter, summer sees mountain bikers and hikers make the most of the panoramic views and lush meadows. It’s here that the cows graze whose milk lends the famous gruyère cheese its irresistible flavor.
Alexandra Ziörjen relaxes on the bench in front of Chalet Buvette Hautachia, an Alpine lodge at 1458 meters above sea level. It’s the end of the day for the trained chef, who runs the Romantik Hôtel de l’Étoile in the center of Charmey. The former LSG Group apprentice actually wanted to focus her attention solely on managing the hotel and restaurant and had already hung up her wooden spoon. But things turned out quite differently.
On the table in the chalet, a cheesy fondue extravaganza bubbles away the Swiss way: moitié-moitié, so half gruyere and half vacherin cheese. “Whoever loses their bread in the cheese has to buy a round,” says Ziörjen as she spears a piece of bread and dunks it into the creamy cheese mixture. Her bread sinks straight into the steaming pot. Ziörjen heartily laughs out loud. She does that a lot.
Reaching for the stars
Moments like this are a rare treat in the life of the 39-year-old. When the single mother isn’t looking after her two sons (aged six and nine), the Frankfurt native’s life revolves around her Alpine guesthouse. She has been running the Romantik Hôtel de l’Étoile for nine years, and since 2014 has done so entirely on her own. Could it be a wonderfully crazy coincidence that “étoile” translates as “star”? “We are a listed building with eight bedrooms and a family suite,” explains the Swiss resident, who mostly speaks French when at work. There are also two restaurants. “Our bistro offers local, seasonal cuisine. Then we have the jewel in our crown, Nova, for foodies and connoisseurs, which was awarded a Michelin star this year.” Ziörjen says this almost nonchalantly, but her eyes give away just how proud she is of this recognition.
Ziörjen is a trained chef, but she used to leave the cooking at L’Étoile to others so she could focus on her role as manager. Returning to her original passion as a head chef after many years in the Swiss hotel industry certainly wasn’t part of Ziörjen’s plan. “We had a small team of kitchen staff comprising a head chef, sous-chef and two assistants,” recalls Ziörjen. Then the head chef and sous-chef both left unexpectedly within a short space of time, and Ziörjen had to decide whether she should close the gourmet restaurant or pick up her wooden spoon again, 14 years after leaving the kitchen.
Proud of her craft
She opted for the latter and straightaway hit the jackpot. The Michelin Guide awarded Nova a star in February 2019. Ziörjen is proud of her craft, for which she has a clear definition: “For me, ‘craft’ is solid expertise, and something that you continually apply and improve over many years of experience.”
She learned her craft with the LSG Group in Neu-Isenburg, near Frankfurt am Main. She remembers her time there time fondly. “LSG in Neu-Isenburg was famous across all of Germany for its unique form of training. That laid the foundation for everything. In a pristine training kitchen, we cooked for the office staff that worked at the company’s headquarters.” Ziorjen again praises the quality of the training, which she believes is essential for any chef. “You shouldn’t open a restaurant without specialist knowledge.” Ziorjen learned her craft with the LSG Group in Neu-Isenburg. After a few detours, she made her way from the training kitchen all the way to a Michelin star in 2019.
It wasn’t always easy as a trainee. “We were very much whipped into shape, but in a good way. A lot was asked of us, but we benefited from that hugely.” One of her teachers was Karl-Heinz Philippi, who was responsible for LSG Group trainees until April 2017. When Ziorjen talks about him, the stories start pouring out. Philippi himself also still remembers his promising apprentice well, having entered her into numerous competitions. “Success only comes with hard work and dedication. You have to take people as they are, and there will always be the odd gem among them. Alexandra was one such gem. And it is your job as a teacher to make these gems shine.”
The Michelin star has certainly changed everyday life at the Romantik Hotel de l’Etoile. A new clientele has discovered Nova in the last few months, sending Alexandra Ziorjen skyrocketing to fame in the region. But her feet remain firmly on the ground: “I cook for my guests, with or without a star. I’m not just the head chef, I’m also the owner here. I have wages to pay, a family to feed and I have a reputation to maintain. I cook for the enjoyment of my guests. If the Michelin inspectors like it too, that’s even better. But it’s not my primary focus.”