I can’t be the only British expat to have moaned about the lack of good brunches and burgers in Switzerland. Nor can I be the only expat to have considered writing a novel. I’m certainly not the only one to have done nothing about either. Richard Williams, on the other hand, is a doer.
The 43-year-old from Wales moved to Switzerland in 2004 and has not only opened a successful burger chain, a brunch café, a diner and a gastropub, he has also just published his first novel, Mostyn Thomas and the Big Raveexternal link.
I meet Lausanne-based Williams in Bern to discuss the book – a crime thriller set in the early 1990s, featuring Welsh farmers, ravers and debt collectors – but soon find myself explaining my grail-like quest for a decent Swiss burger.
“That was me ten years ago!” Williams says. But instead of complaining, in 2009 Williams and his English-Swiss wife founded the Holy Cowexternal link burger chain in Lausanne, which now comprises 15 restaurants throughout Switzerland (burgers pictured above). They followed it up with the three Blackbird eateriesexternal link, the Blackbird Coffee & Breakfast Club, the Blackbird Downtown Diner and, most recently, the Blackbird House gastropub.
However, setting up a business in Switzerland is not without many challenges, as Williams explains with good humour. Their first venture lasted an hour before the police shut them down: “Our neighbour upstairs called the police because he had smoke coming through his toilet…”
Ventilation woes aside, he thinks opening and running a restaurant is “far easier” in “pragmatic” Switzerland than in the European Union, giving the chilling experience – it involved fridges – of opening three Holy Cow franchises in France.
Williams and his wife sold the Holy Cow in 2014 but he’s now back “as an employee” looking after the brand and quality. When he’s not doing that, he’s working on his second book. While Mostyn Thomas and the Big Rave had nothing to do with Switzerland, The Sheriff of Geneva obviously does.
Williams explains how some of the staff in the Holy Cow in Geneva were sons of high-flying bankers and UN workers. They had gone to international schools but they didn’t do particularly well there, they didn’t speak much French and their friends had gone off to university abroad. “Although they had been born in Geneva, they felt like strangers in their own city. I thought it would be a very interesting demographic to write about,” he says.
The main character belongs to this demographic and ends up working in a gourmet burger bar, where he gets mixed up with a dodgy man of mystery and a stash of Venezuelan gold bullion hidden in the restaurant’s grease separator.
What happens next? Williams isn’t sure, but he says he’s about halfway through what he describes as a “dark comedy about the international community in Geneva”.
Community is important for Williams, who, like Mostyn Thomas, grew up on a farm in Pembrokeshire. Indeed, he stresses that what he wanted to convey in the book was “how peripheral and often overlooked characters in a community are generally the ones who hold it together”.
When he arrived in Geneva, where he got a job writing technical reports at the newly formed Global Fundexternal link, he said he immediately loved the outdoor opportunities of “one of the most beautiful countries in the world”.
When it came to integrating, however, he admits language was a barrier. He has since learnt French – essential, he says, for dealing with butchers and bakers – but says he can understand why Switzerland is sliding down expat surveys owing to the difficulty in settling in.
That said, he believes you only get out of Switzerland what you put in. “Get your toes in the earth. Appreciate the physical beauty. Just get out and meet people – it’s quite straightforward,” he says.
“Things work here! The trains are on time – it’s remarkable! There shouldn’t be too much complaining if you come here as an expat. It’s probably your own fault if you’ve got any problems because there couldn’t be an easier country to live in!”
Richard Williams, 43, grew up on a farm in Wales and, after travelling the world and working in various restaurants, he did degrees in International Development Studies at Exeter University and the London School of Economics.
While studying, he met his English-Swiss wife. They moved to Switzerland in 2004 and got jobs in Geneva at the newly formed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, where Williams wrote technical reports.
His first novel, Mostyn Thomas and the Big Rave, is published by Graffegexternal link.
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