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Adding passion and soul to Swiss cuisine

Helen Calle-Lin stands proudly in front of the new Halles de d'Ile restaurant in central Geneva swissinfo.ch

Helen Calle-Lin is a woman of many talents: a lawyer, Chinese culture specialist, clothing designer, concert promoter, jazz singer and restaurant owner.

This content was published on May 31, 2009 - 17:11
swissinfo.ch

The trilingual (Mandarin, French and English) American expat last week opened the doors of her latest venture, La Brasserie des Halles de L'Ile restaurant, on an island in the middle of the River Rhône in central Geneva.

"My voice is getting a little better," the 40-year-old told swissinfo.ch in a low husky tone. "I'm taking high doses of cortisone. I have very sensitive throat, as I'm a singer and I've been talking too much to about 200 people a day."

The past few weeks and months were a hectic time for Calle-Lin, as she prepared the high-profile new restaurant – her third after Le Comptoir in Geneva's Paquis district and Le Lötschberg opposite the parliament building in Bern - for its official opening, while juggling her other projects and looking after her six-year-old daughter.

But the hard-working restaurateur was in her element, chivvying her 40 new staff along, attempting to find order in the chaos of the new 750-metre-square restaurant before the hordes arrived.

"Everything is now on computers – like the drinks and orders to the kitchen. We have eight computers running at the same time with nine printers. You need the chaos and inconsistency of human beings to see if there are any bugs – and there were a lot. But I'm used to all that," she said.

Born in Taiwan, Calle-Lin emigrated to the United States at the age of three. After completing studies in Chinese culture, she moved to Geneva with her architect partner, Laurent Lin, at the age of 22 and fell in love with the city.

"I've got a real interest in the city and invest myself in it. I really love Geneva - it's one of the most diverse places I've ever lived in," she said. "New York has a lot of cultures, but everyone stays to himself or herself."

But the Swiss capital, Bern, also has a place in her heart.

"The Swiss Germans are more reserved but also direct. That corresponds to me quite a lot. They have a very sensitive side to them and are very open," she said.

Successful outsider

Calle-Lin hopes the modern but affordable new Geneva brasserie will reflect the city's multicultural background and attract an interesting mix of businesspeople, "moms with kids and students who just want to hang out".

As well as its restaurant, the newly renovated building, which can hold up to 850 people, will be open seven days a week and put on concerts, plays, exhibitions, and conferences, among other cultural offerings.

By winning the new proposal to manage the desirable location, owned by the city of Geneva, she has demonstrated that it is possible for an outsider to succeed as a young entrepreneur in Switzerland.

But Calle-Lin doesn't really see herself as a businesswoman - more as an artist who loves to cook. But she admits her experience as a lawyer in Geneva and her university arts degree help "balance her artistic creative side".

"I would love to be a cook but I'm not physically built to cook in a big kitchen. I'm too slow and meticulous," she said.

Running a restaurant is like looking after a big family, she added.

"We are very close... I know them [the staff] and listen to their lives and problems."

Secret ingredient

She is convinced that opening a new restaurant at the height of a recession is not such a crazy idea.

"The last recession was 2002 and my restaurant Le Comptoir worked really well. I didn't feel it at all. In a recession people need to see other people and get out the house. And we're not expensive. We're for everybody," she said.

So, what is the special secret ingredient to her success?

"Everything has to have passion and soul. When you do things with passion and soul they always work as other people feel that," she said. "Some places you go in you feel like it's a business."

"Most restaurant owners here in Geneva unfortunately are business people. They don't do this as they love it but because they want to make money."

Her successful restaurants, a lounge bar called Lola, an online clothing boutique and the annual ten-day electronic music festival – Overground Festival - held on a 19th-century boat moored in Geneva's harbour, have garnered respect and attention, but Calle-Lin remains unfazed.

"I get quite a few people who literally throw money at me and say, 'I want a club from you; we can invest SFr2 million'," she said. "But I'm not going to take on things that I'm not passionate about. I have to feel there is a love for this thing."

As an entrepreneur you have to ask your heart first before starting your project," she said.

And Calle-Lin has plenty of projects to realise.

"I would love to run a refuge in the mountains and cook there and ski in the afternoon. I would also love to have a small spa looking after people's well being."

Simon Bradley in Geneva, swissinfo.ch

In brief

Helen Calle-Lin was born in Taiwan. At the age of three she emigrated with her family to the United States. She moved around the US, living in various cities including New York, Boston and San Francisco. Her father is a lawyer and businessman. Her sister is a New York artist.

She studied Sinology and French at the University of Texas, before pursuing post-graduate studies at the University of Beijing.

She moved to Geneva with her architect partner, Laurent Lin, at the age of 22. While a student at Geneva University, she used to cook for young people at a squat in the city.

She made a name for herself through Le Comptoir, an Asian restaurant in Geneva's Paquis district that she owned for almost a decade.

She also runs a lounge bar, Lola, a clothing boutique, a restaurant in Bern, Le Lötschberg, and organises the Overground Festival, a ten-day electronic festival held every August on a 19th-century boat in Geneva's harbour.

La Brasserie des Halles de L'Ile restaurant in central Geneva opened on May 27, 2009.

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