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Martin Dalsass: the cook as artist and altruist

Martin Dalsass encourages people to rediscover the true taste of food

Martin Dalsass has been promoted to the premier division of international cooks after being named Swiss cook-of-the-year for 2001 by Gault-Millau, the prestigious French gastronomy magazine.

Dalsass, 44, is a native of Bolzano but has lived in Switzerland for 25 years - the past 15 in Ticino. During that time, he has transformed the Santabbondio restaurant at Lugano-Sorengo into a culinary mecca.

"I became a cook quite by chance. After finishing my compulsory schooling, I was supposed to learn the trade of a tile-maker, but fate decreed otherwise.

It was my father who found me my first job in a restaurant in the Alto Adige region. I was sure it would only be a short interlude, and I didn't even like the job at first: they made me do all the kitchen chores but didn't teach me the basic principles of cooking.

Enthusiasm for the culinary arts came later, with my second job, when I was at last allowed to get near the stove.

I decided to move to Switzerland after finishing my apprenticeship in the Alto Adige, where I was fortunate enough to work in some excellent hotels. In Switzerland, unlike Italy, the occupation of cook was regarded as a real profession, even 25 years ago. And so it was that I had to begin learning all over again.

Fortunately, I loved the job and had received a good basic training. In Alto Adige, I had learned to prepare first courses Italian-style and desserts German-style; now I had to learn French techniques for main-course dishes.

I would define my style of cooking as straightforward and uncomplicated, based on fresh, top-quality seasonal produce, prepared as simply as possible in order to bring out the original flavour.

If this is your goal, you have to be very strict with yourself and not compromise. In my restaurant, for example, we don't serve farmed fish. And this should apply to all your produce if your aim is to offer light, healthy dishes.

Living in Ticino has taught me to value the Mediterranean style of cooking, and especially olive oil.

The region can now lay claim to a great culinary style, of the very highest quality, though we've always been somewhat undervalued. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing because young cooks have been spurred on to even greater efforts to perfect their art.

In Ticino, as in Switzerland as a whole, we need to spread the word about the high quality of our cooking. Nowadays, before they set off on holiday, many people first find out where the good restaurants are, and only then think about hotel accommodation, entertainment and exhibitions.

The profession of cook is satisfying because it has an altruistic element. In exercising our skills we can make people happy. For this reason, I would say that cookery - I mean, cookery of a high order - is an art form.

The good cook also needs to be an artist, with a feel for the produce he uses, the raw material on which he works. I would also say that our task is to help people rediscover the sense of taste - something that has been completely lost.

At this time of year, one of the early vegetables we can count on is asparagus. I would therefore suggest you try an asparagus salad with a nice poached egg - a free-range hen's egg, not a battery one. I would top it with a touch of hollandaise sauce made with olive oil and, if possible, a little grated truffle."

Martin Dalsass


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