Nenad Mlinarevic, one of the best chefs in Switzerland – highly talented, ambitious and perfectionist – always has surprises in store.
But what drives him? A portrait of the gastro-entrepreneur, who is also a fan of IWC watches.
Testing the limits
The use of salt as a topic of discussion? It’s worth listening closely to celebrity chef Nenad Mlinarevic, even when he talks about something seemingly trivial like how to salt food properly. This topic reveals as much about his culinary philosophy as it does about his character. “When it comes to seasoning with salt,” he says, “I like to see how far I can go.”
Of course, the highly talented chef does not over-salt his dishes. But he likes to add as much salt as possible. Even one percent more salt would be too much, his colleague Peter Knogl once remarked, but the way Mlinarevic serves his food is perfect. And he likes to push himself to the limit in other ways, too – we’ll come back to that.
Mlinarevic is one of the truly great chefs in the country. In 2016, at the young age of 36, he was named “Chef of the Year” and was awarded 18 Gault Millau points. Today, he is a creative and successful gastro-entrepreneur. IWC fans will be interested to learn that he is also a Friend of the Brand.
Mlinarevic is a man of grit, ambition, determination and energy, who puts everything into achieving his goals. All of this naturally appeals to IWC CEO Christoph Grainger-Herr: “Our target group consists of people with a strong entrepreneurial spirit who give their all for their passions and for the fulfilment of their dreams,” he said in a recent interview. That sounds a bit like a description of Mlinarevic.
It’s no coincidence that the chef likes to talk about seasoning with salt. He puts the spotlight on the surprising interplay of different flavours, such as salty and sweet, sour and bitter and umami. Diners in his restaurants are meant to experience new taste sensations with every bite; the food is creamy at times, crispy at others, sometimes hot and sometimes cold – offering an exciting journey through the menu, an astonishing ballet of flavours.
CULINARY CREATIONS MEET “BRUTALIST ARCHITECTURE”
Mlinarevic is sitting in his culinary studio at Feldeggstrasse 88c in Zurich – a large loft with an industrial ambience and a lounge character. Here, he cooks for small groups, provided there is no lockdown. This is also his home base, where he works with his business partner, Valentin Diem, to develop ideas, review offers and create new menus – and cook up new projects.
For the “Leuehof” on the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, for instance. A place where, as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung admiringly remarked, “culinary creations encounter opulent yet brutalist architecture as well as art”. This pop-up in the former banking hall of Bank Leu was a cross between a bar, a restaurant, a venue for art and a wine cellar. And another success story for the chef already spoiled by success: 13,000 reservations were made before the lockdown forced the doors to close earlier than planned.
— Nenad Mlinarevic feat. the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun “SFTI” (Ref. IW389104) (image by Juerg Kaufmann)
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOING LOCAL
Anyone who assumes that Mlinarevic always wanted to be a chef and was already watching his mother in the kitchen when he was a kid is barking up the wrong tree. “That’s not my story,” he laughs. As a teenager, he still didn’t know what he wanted to do for a living. Because his father worked as a driver for the Dolderbahn, a trial apprenticeship could be arranged in the kitchen of the Dolder Grand hotel.
Mlinarevic was immediately galvanized – his passion was ignited. This in turn fuelled a culinary creativity that has never ceased to deliver surprises – for instance, when his cuisine garnered two Michelin stars at the Park Hotel Vitznau. There, too, he pushed himself to the limit, by choosing to use only local products. Pepper, for example, was banned from the kitchen – pepper is not grown in Switzerland, but it could be replaced with homegrown chilli pepper. Mlinarevic also did without olive oil. “There is excellent rapeseed oil in Switzerland,” he says. The young entrepreneur delivers his own definition of luxury anyhow, say, by using rosehip oil. Rosehip seeds are tough and difficult to press, and only two to three litres of the exclusive oil are produced in Switzerland each year – but the taste is unparalleled.
Mlinarevic needs a challenge, as he says, and he loves going on the offence. He likes to win and be the best. But once he has reached a goal, he is in danger of getting bored – and that’s how it was with the Michelin stars.
In Vitznau, diner numbers had exploded, gastro journalists paid homage and gourmets sat down reverently at the table. But the prospect of staying on the same track indefinitely alarmed the chef. So he moved on. Soon people could experience Mlinarevic’s culinary spirit at the “Bauernschänke” or the “Neue Taverne” in Zurich – not necessarily because he was in the kitchen, but because he was the creator of ideas.
WHEN TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Incidentally, the entrepreneur considers his watch a necessity – especially when it comes to cooking. Timing is everything, he says. A professional knows his cooking times, for instance two to three minutes for beans, depending on their thickness and length. And Mlinarevic checks the timing by the IWC on his wrist. He prefers black watch models – when he became “Chef of the Year”, he treated himself to a TOP GUN from Schaffhausen - the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun, to be exact. There, they heard about his interest in a roundabout way and contacted the chef.
Personally, the restaurateur prefers to dine in a good pub rather than in a gourmet temple, where he can easily find the experience too rigid and complicated. Even seemingly simple dishes, he says, can be charmingly refined – take spaghetti carbonara, for example. Of course, it should be properly salted, which in this case calls for considerable restraint: given the nature of the dish, the salt limit might easily be exceeded.
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