EHL Hospitality Business School is a leading hospitality university with locations in Switzerland and Singapore. EHL’s Institute of Nutrition Research & Development is conducting a series of interviews with world-renowned chefs to explore the current challenges and innovations in their field. The first in this series of interviews is with the much lauded Swiss chef, Franck Giovannini, the fourth executive chef at Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier (CH) - a distinguished restaurant in the former town hall presenting refined, seasonal cuisine. Here he describes how he faces the constant changes and demands facing the restaurant industry today.
Passionate about his profession and benefiting from a long experience in the world of gastronomy, Franck Giovannini has been working with enthusiasm at the Restaurant de l'Hôtel de Ville de Crissier for 27 years now. After his apprenticeship at the Auberge de la Couronne in Apples, he had the opportunity to travel and work in North America, first on Victoria Island in Canada and then in New York at the St. Regis Hotel, and has subsequently worked with all his Crissier predecessors: Frédy Girardet, Philippe Rochat and also Benoît Violier at the highly-awarded Restaurant de l'Hotel de Ville.
A lot has changed in the restaurant industry since Chef Franck Giovannini began his career in the 1990s. He has had to rise to a number of challenges, whether it is accommodating guests’ dietary preferences and allergies, sourcing fresh ingredients, or ensuring that young people who enter the profession find a welcoming place to work. In each case, Giovannini has had to adapt and innovate. And his hard work is paying off.
Dietary preferences: New trends in consumption and allergies
There is a stereotype that gourmet restaurants prepare meals only with up market ingredients — those that are rare, the most tender, of the highest quality — like lobster, or asparagus. But that is not always the case, Giovannini states. He has created main courses with less lofty vegetables, such as green beans in the summer. And he has put rib steak rather than a beef filet on the menu.
However, getting guests to try everything can be difficult, especially with the rise in customer requests to modify a dish due to dietary preferences, such as vegetarianism. He does what he can to accommodate these requests. But the real challenge is modifications for allergies. It used to be primarily nuts or shellfish, but lately it has expanded to everything from garlic and onions to tomato skins.
“A little bit of customization is OK,” Giovannini says, “but now it’s getting ridiculous, because at every table, it’s something different. The other day, I had a client who didn’t want lactose and said, ‘Remove the lactose for everybody (on the table). It’s easier.’ ” But in reality, it is not easy. Customers don’t understand the time and effort it takes for the kitchen to modify each dish, he continues. Fortunately, with 25 people working in his kitchen and each person responsible for a specific part of the menu, his staff are able to adapt to most requests.
Sustainable menus: Local, regional and seasonal products
At his restaurant, Giovannini sources only ingredients that are local in Switzerland or from neighboring countries, like France or Italy. “We hardly have use anything that crosses the ocean anymore, except for spices, pepper or coffee,” he says. He would like to offer more seafood and fish but refuses to serve fish that has been trawled, because trawling destroys the environment. Instead, he will serve line-caught fish. Sometimes he can get lake fish, but there is rarely enough volume to serve the 100+ guests his restaurant serves daily.
Naturally, Giovannini's reliance on local and regional ingredients impacts what he puts on the menu. Chefs used to create four menus, one for each season. At the Hôtel de Ville de Crissier, the restaurant also offers a menu for a 'fifth season'. It is a brief one: the month of June, when spring products like asparagus or morels are no longer available, but some of the summer vegetables are ready, such as peas.
He has also designed menu rotation to ensure repeat customers can always try something different. And he supplements the rotating menus with two regular menus as well as an a la carte menu. “It’s a little bit of a performance to offer all this choice, but it’s my thing, it’s my mission,” he explains. “I like the diversity. Moreover, it’s for guests who come to the restaurant 25 times a year, so they continue to be surprised.”
Kitchen culture: Better communication, better hours
Adaptation doesn’t pertain only to customer requirements and product availability. It’s also necessary in a restaurant’s kitchen culture.
I have enormous respect for my predecessors in cuisine, who are geniuses, but on the human side, there was a lot of yelling and they didn’t pay attention if people were miserable. In my kitchen, I need to know that people are happy, that they like being there. I don’t scream, I don’t yell. I’m accessible.
How Giovannini communicates with his staff is part of the equation to creating a congenial, supportive work environment.
The other part is hours and scheduling. Restaurants are known for long hours. But the younger generation entering the profession - rightly - want more work/life balance. They have seen their parents work crazy hours and burn out at their jobs, and they want something different. To keep the schedules manageable for some, he has hired five more employees and implemented a rotation system every three weeks. That way, each employee has to work one full week per month. And no one ever works two shifts in a row. “In our business, it’s life changing,” he claims.
The changes Giovannini has put in place at the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville have so far met with success. “We have shown that we are capable of maintaining quality. We have continued to evolve. We have improved the working environment. We are profitable. I can always manage to do better, but I’m convinced this will keep people around longer.”