The Haeberlin family culinary dynasty dates back almost 150 years; Food and Travel sent Sarah Price to speak with Michelin Maestro Marc Haeberlin.
“My whole life I have thought about Michelin stars. In my family we have Michelin blood running through our bodies”. While such a statement could be considered presumptuous, for chef Marc Haeberlin it is entirely apt and completely warranted.
The Haeberlin family is quite simply a culinary dynasty to be reckoned with. Four generations of chefs have run a restaurant on the river Ill in Alsace, north-eastern France, in a timeframe spanning well over a hundred years. It all began back in the early 1880s, when Marc’s great-grandfather and his wife established a small country inn where they cooked simple, Alsace-style dishes using local produce and ingredients. Over time, they were joined by their son Frederic and his wife (a talented pastry chef) and the restaurant became increasingly successful.
Years passed and in 1945 disaster struck – or perhaps fate intervened – and the inn was destroyed. Five years later though and in that very same spot, Paul Haeberlin (Marc’s father) a classically trained chef who had already started to make something of a name for himself in the kitchens of Paris and his brother Jean-Pierre (who took exquisite care of the front of house) opened L’Auberge de L’Ill to almost instant acclaim.
The restaurant quickly became known for its innovative yet respectful interpretations of classic French dishes and Paul established himself as something of a culinary legend. They were awarded their first Michelin star in 1952, a second followed in 1957 and a much-coveted third star was given in 1967.
While this is a huge achievement in itself, what sets this restaurant and the family behind it apart is that they have held on to those hard-fought for three stars for so long. In September of this year they celebrated the restaurant maintaining that rating for fifty consecutive years, an achievement that Marc lists as one of two career highlights (the second being a decade earlier when they marked the forty year anniversary and both his father and uncle were still alive).
“The Michelin stars awarded to L’Auberge de L’Ill under the leadership of my father and uncle are an important part of the restaurant’s history. Not only have they enabled us to welcome guests from all over the world, but also they have driven us to continue innovating the French cuisine,” he explains.
Marc says that as a child although it was his dream to race cars for a living (“I probably would’ve crashed!”) but there was something about life in the kitchen that simply felt right. “ I was lucky enough to train under some highly esteemed chefs during my career. This started when I was very young under the watchful guidance and mentorship of my father who taught me many things,” he explains. “My formal training started at hotel school in Strasburg before I went to work in Lyon and Paris.
I was lucky enough to learn from some of the most celebrated master chefs in France, including Paul Bocuse, who I greatly admire. I also learned from René Lasserre and Gaston Lenôtre as well as Jean and Pierre Troisgros.”
The pull of family and home proved strong for this young chef though: “At the end of 1976 I came back to Alsace, and have lived opposite L’Auberge de L’Ill ever since. I love being there and to this day my favourite dish to cook is one of my father’s from fifty years ago: frogs legs mousseline made with cream, eggs, chives and spinach.”
When his father retired Marc seamlessly assumed the mantle, and while Paul Haeberlin’s name will remain firmly on the list of French culinary greats, today Marc is a hugely well-respected and very much admired chef in his own right. Like his father before him he too is credited with pushing culinary boundaries and says that these days travel is a major source of inspiration.
“I love to travel and experience new spices and flavours and different types of cooking. There are many techniques that I have transferred to French cuisine from places like Thailand, Morocco, India, Italy and the Arabian countries, while still keeping to our French culinary roots. My style is classic French with some inspiration of other types of cooking. There is a mix of modern and traditional techniques, flavours and styles and, of course, mousseline!”
In synergy with this innovative, forward-thinking approach is a core belief that good food and cooking is rooted in getting the basics right: “Very importantly, great food needs great ingredients. To make good cuisine you have to have quality in every ingredient and the chefs must know how to extract the different flavours and textures.”
It might sound simple but his observation that when it comes to great cooking quality and skill must combine makes the upmost sense and crucially is not always recognised: “A successful kitchen makes a successful restaurant and the key to that success lies in two things: first the chef and the chef’s team. Secondly, the way the chef uses products and how they are transferred to the plate can define and influence success.”
Haeberlin is generous in his praise for the talent and dedication of his staff: “We have an excellent team, some of whom have worked here for up to 30 years”. He also says that he feels the longevity of the restaurant and its continued success is very much down to the passion and commitment of those that work there. “The most important thing is to give soul to a restaurant. You cannot do that with money, it comes from the people who work with us”. In an industry rife with egos, it is wonderfully refreshing to hear a chef, particularly one of the calibre of Haeberlin, being so humble.
Having achieved so much already, his latest endeavour sees Haeberlin taking on the role of Signature Chef for RitzCoffier at the Palace Hotel, Bürgenstock Resort Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. As the name suggests this is a restaurant of great heritage, playing homage as it does to Auguste Escoffier (regarded these days as the first celebrity chef) and César Ritz, the man responsible for pioneering the idea of the luxury hotel. Both are revered as innovators and industry giants and shared a career-long association that saw huge success at the Savoy in London and the Ritz in Paris.
The décor inside the RitzCoffier is designed with a reverent nod to the 19th century kitchen, thanks to the majestic restored fireplace from the Grand Hotel at the Bürgenstock Resort, a vast array of decorative copper pots (similar to those famously favoured by Escoffier), oak floors complete with herringbone mosaic and the Grand Hotel’s lovingly salvaged original fridges and oven.
Haeberlin says that running the kitchen will present a new but very welcome challenge, both for him personally and for the carefully selected, esteemed team he will be ably supported by. “At RitzCoffier, which will innovate traditional fine dining in Switzerland, we have Bertrand Charles as Chef de Cuisine. He has worked as Chef de Cuisine under Michelin-starred chefs such as Jean Pierre Vigato of Apicius and Jean François Piège at the Hotel de Crillon. Chef Charles has also directed the kitchens of luxury hotels in Morocco, Mauritius and the Philippines.”
It is, he explains, a fantastic opportunity particularly because of the location and the quality of ingredients that his kitchen will have access to, as well as the discerning nature of the customers. “Swiss people care a lot about proximity of products. This interest is very strong here compared to other countries and the tastes and demands of the clientele are also based on the quality and the origin of the products. In Switzerland you have excellent produce: wonderful ingredients of the highest quality that is unmatched in other countries.”
This is a man who shows no sign of slowing down, resting on his laurels or surrendering his hands-on approach. While Marc admits the in order to achieve a true work-life balance he should probably spend a little more time with his family and grandchild, he counters this by adding that for the Haeberlin’s work and family continue to be as tied together as they were a century ago and a number of relatives work at the restaurant today.
Marc rises at 6.30am every morning and after breakfast with his wife, spends the day at the restaurant where he continues to be involved in all areas: testing new dishes, preparing vegetables, sorting deliveries. Haeberlin allows himself a short rest in the afternoon, but returns to the kitchen for evening service and often doesn’t finish until midnight. It sounds a gruelling schedule, yet it is clearly one he loves. When asked what he would like the future to hold, his answer is a simple one: “I hope that we can keep our three Michelin stars a little longer – we work everyday for that – and I hope that I can stay in good shape and cook for a few years more.”
WORDS BY: SARAH PRICE