Frank Haas in conversation with Richi Kägi
Paying more attention to food
Richi Kägi has been on the road for 30 years, collecting culinary gems worldwide. In our interview, he talks about locating a unique delicacy - and his everyday life in the kitchen.
Richi Kägi, you have been a guest at places all over the world, so you can judge: What defines a good host?
Good hosts do everything in their power tomake their guests truly happy. That naturally requires a lot of effort – for the guests as well, who first need to show up, and maybe even devote some time in advance deciding how they can contribute or what they could bring. In other words, you need to be willing to go to some lengths instead of just half-heartedly putting something on thetable. The worst thing is a lack of attention. And being stingy! You don’t have to invite people over every third day; it’s fine if it’s a special experience for both parties.
But some people always cook the same thing when guests come over. Their philosophy is that they want to be there for their guests, and be totally relaxed. They would argue that it’s about the company, not the food. You take a different approach, don’t you?
Yes, I do. That’s one reason my kitchen is so open. I’ve done that deliberately so I can be part of the gathering when people come over, even if I’m cooking. If I make dinner for 20 guests, I do everything myself; I only have two people helping with the serving and arranging the food. But it’s not like there’s any chaos involved. The main thing is your mise en place – if you’re very well prepared, you won’t get stressed in the evening.
For a logistics company like Gebrüder Weiss, planning and timing are paramount – especially for food transports. What have your own experiences been when buying food?
Logistics have always been an issue – something that has both driven and challenged me. Whether a food is a plant or an animal, it needs to get to the consumer as fast as possible. So logistics also plays a key role in cooking. In Tokyo I once visited one of the world’s best sushi chefs. I had a menu made up of 30 different dishes. One of them was a sushi with not only fish, but also with a bundle of tiny green beads about the size of caviar. I put it in my mouth, and the beads burst when I crushed them with my tongue. I had the feeling I had the entire ocean in my mouth, it was such a tremendously full taste – the taste of the sea, pure and unadulterated. I was over the moon. After those 30 dishes, the chef asked me if I was still hungry – which I usually am, even after a meal like that. I answered that I definitely wanted more of those beads. He explained to me that they were actually a type of algae that came from Okinawa and only Okinawa, which is located four to five hours from Tokyo. And he gave me the contact details for one of only two fishermen who harvested this particular type of algae. The very next day I booked a flight to Okinawa to meet this man and see how he worked. I learned from him that, once it’s harvested, this alga is only good for a maximum of 24 hours. You can preserve it in vinegar, but that’s something different. So there went my dream of selling it in European shops. Just goes to show that it doesn’t matter a whit that you’ve found some incredible product if you can’t get it to the right place at the right time. But there’s a good side to that, you know? It stays exceptional.
So there are things you don’t necessarily want to see in a supermarket?
Sure there are. Berries, for instance. You can buy them all year round. And obviously in the winter they’re grown in greenhouses, and sometimes in the summer, too, unfortunately. The demand is too strong, consumers’ expectations are too high: everything has to look perfect. Zucchini and eggplant are other good examples: they’re grown in greenhouses even in the summer, because the demand is consistently strong and everything always needs to look exactly the same. Outdoors they're exposed to rain, spots form etc. People don’t want that. On the other hand, you could be happy that you didn’t have to worry about what to cook in wintertime. If everything is cultivated in greenhouses anyway, everything is always available. For me, though, seasons are very important – for my recipes as well. I always say I never limit myself, except seasonally. After all, seasonal almost always means regional. Or the other way around: regional always means seasonal. If I want to cook turbot, I have to get it from the sea, because they don’t live in Lake Zurich. So there are also things that simply can’t be sourced regionally. As a basic rule, though, people could make a small sacrifice, for instance, only eat things that actually grow within Switzerland’s borders. That actually works very well.
Where do you get your food supplies? Where do you shop?
I shop at farmers’ markets and wholesale markets; these are quite good in Switzerland. That said, I do differentiate: I seldom buy fresh things like vegetables from major distributors, because everything there has been transported a long way. At a street market, you get products that the farmer harvested just the day before or during the night. And naturally they look quite different. Where I get my meat depends on a few factors. I have local producers I buy from. But I also purchase meat and fish from specialty providers. As far as daily routines go, I cook for myself almost every day and tend to keep things simple. I usually eat pasta; you don’t need many ingredients and canned tomatoes are sometimes better than fresh ones. I don’t need to be constantly hunting for specialties.
And what kinds of things do you always have on hand at home?
There’s one category of staples that will easily keep for a long time. That includes pasta, rice, dried beans and grains, but also things like anchovies, capers in salt, olive oil – I always buy that directly from Italy and I need a whole liter every week, just for me. I’m not stingy with butter, either. I always have coffee on hand and of course lots of wine, that lasts quite well too. I also tend to have loads of Asian spice things on hand; they add umami. I always have enough things like fish sauce, soy sauce and palm sugar at home. Along with drycured meats, ham, a range of salamis that I bring back from Italy or Spain, plus parmesan. I vacuum-pack that; then it easily lasts a year.
What is the simplest meal you make if you’re pressed for time? Do you have a classic go-to dish?
It’s always pasta.
Aglio e olio?
For one, yes. But I must say I never cook anything in ten or 15 minutes. It always takes at least half an hour, because I enjoy the process and take care with my ingredients.
Do you tend to eat your main meal at midday or in the evening?
In the evening. I hardly eat anything during the day and everything I do eat is within an eight-hour period.
Yes, I’ve always done that. I’m just not hungry in the morning – I only drink coffee. The first time I eat anything is around noon, and then it’s a small meal, maybe some granola that I make myself, or poached eggs and yoghurt. At some point around 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. I make dinner. This rhythm harks back to my first life: for twelve years I had a bar – a club – and then your whole life shifts into nighttime mode.
In your opinion, what is the most underestimated food?
Bread? I think it’s still underestimated. Although a lot has happened in recent years – more care is being taken again, and there are specialized bakers. On the other hand, more and more of the traditional bakeries are closing. Instead of using the term “underestimated food,” I’d rather say: foods that you don’t pay enough attention to. Tomatoes, for instance. It doesn’t take much to make them taste so much better.
I always stock up on tomatoes and let them sit in the kitchen, sometimes up to a week. If they’re the right kind, they profit immensely from having a few more days to ripen. Many people don’t know that, and too few even think about it. People just go to the supermarket and buy the cheapest tomatoes they can find, the ones that are uniformly round and red. I think there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to paying attention to food. And that’s something I always argue for – in my columns, in my articles, in my recipes and the social media.
How about the other way around: what food trend could you easily dispense with?
What I really detest are those substitute products. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing that they exist. If the point is to get people to stop eating so much meat then, in my opinion, almost anything goes. But I can’t imagine eating those things myself.
Are you referring to vegan sausages?
Exactly. And all those other things mainly made from plant-based proteins and shaped to look like animal products. That seems totally alien to me. Many people don’t even check to see what other things they contain, all the additives, for instance. And I can certainly do without those. I have never been a big meat-eater and in recent years even less so. But when I do eat meat, I know where it’s from and how the animal lived. If you only have meat once a week or every two weeks, it’s possible to do that.
What food trend do you see currently emerging?
In our circles it’s certainly eating less meat. Even though, unfortunately, world meat consumption will rise. That said, methods like vertical farming will be further evolved – and wean us off using even more land. On the whole, I think that people will try to achieve healthier diets – it obviously influences people when they’re constantly told how unhealthy so many things are. And, naturally, I also see it as a good thing that more and more people are rethinking their diets. Young people above all are often
willing to show a greater interest in what they eat.
Assuming you had to open a restaurant again here, what kind of place would it be?
I would open a place that specialized in just one thing and did it very well. For instance, potatoes or pasta. I mean, why do pizzerias work? Because people know exactly what they’re getting. Pizzerias are specialists. And that makes sense for the people who operate them. Who needs a hundred different dishes on the menu? For which you need thousands of things in your storeroom … it’s a lot of work. You need staff, everyone has to have a skill. I would really like to see more restaurants that are specialized. Here they serve the best spare ribs, there the best chicken. For a long time now, I’ve been hosting my dinner club once or twice a month. People can register and about 20 come. There’s always a substantial menu with six or seven courses, various wines, my own recipes. These aren’t complicated; there are never more than eight or ten ingredients, but they are the very best products and obviously prepared with due care and attention.
Talking about cooking: what is an indispensable kitchen utensil in your opinion?
A good knife, of course, and good pots. I also use a pair of long tweezers for nearly everything. I have two of them, and one I’ve had for more than 40 years. I wangled that off a doctor once; he was a surgeon. Back then you couldn’t buy things like that. But I saw it and thought: I need one just like that!
You eat pasta almost every day – is it dried or fresh?
I rarely make my own and if I do, I use eggs. I always buy durum wheat pasta – you can get good pasta everywhere and it doesn’t cost a fortune. It’s quite difficult to find good egg pasta. And the difference between store-bought and homemade egg pasta is really huge.
Apropos pasta: In your opinion, where do you think is the best cooking in the world? In Italy?
Well, that’s hard to say and completely subjective. If you like the taste of something, it’s good. You can eat very well in Spain, I think, particularly in the Basque region up north. And if you really want to experience something new when it comes to food, you just have to go to Japan. That said, for someone like me who is so focused on the product and preparation, Italy is still the most exciting country. Although I have been there quite often and know Italy like the back of my hand, I keep happening upon some valley I’ve never seen and discover something new. A type of lentil you’ve never heard of, for instance, or a pasta shape you’ve never seen. The regional differences there are enormous.
You weren’t able to import those algae from Japan, but is there another food you would definitely like to introduce into your home region?
No. You know we have really tried almost everything, even horrible things. I once wrote an article about my five worst food experiences, and they included fermented fish from Iceland and canned fermented fish from Sweden. It keeps on fermenting in the can; sometime the cans even explode. Those are flavors that are not for everyone – but they make for good stories! If you have a unique product you need a unique story behind it to make people at least try it. And fish in a can that can explode at any time is obviously a great story. Still, you wouldn’t want it in your pantry.
At the other end of the spectrum, what has been your best food experience recently?
In November I was in Spain, in Andalusia, visiting a cook named Angel León in Cádiz. I went to see him ten years ago, too. At that time he already had a Michelin star, and he now has three. He’s a total nerd when it comes to the sea, and only serves foods that come from the sea. He works with algae and plankton, too; back then he gathered it himself. A decade ago he told me that he spent a full week at sea, ten hours a day, just to catch a small pile of plankton with a tiny net. In the meantime, a method of cultivating plankton has been discovered. And it’s incredible, the number of things he can make, just from fish. For example, he lets tuna age for about 20 days in a special environment with a certain temperature and humidity. This alters the fish so much that it turns into something like ham. And that’s the way it’s served: sliced up like ham. Obviously; it doesn’t taste like ham – it still tastes like tuna, but in a whole new way. So … fantastic food, great guy. That was my highlight of last year.
Frank Haas is Director of Brand Strategy and Communication at Gebrüder Weiss – and, as Editor-in-Chief, responsible for ATLAS.