I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse: 320 Michelin-starred chefs, a fabulous hotel, an immaculate dining table and your preferred companions. Because a man who doesn’t spend time at S. Pellegrino Sapori Ticino is not a real man.
That’s what Dany Staffaucher, founder of the gastronomy festival S. Pellegrino Sapori Ticino, has probably been thinking for the past 15 years, since the start of his award winning event that has managed to combine some of the best chefs in the world, and deliver exceptional meals allover Ticino and Switzerland. Or at least that was my impression, when I heard that he’s been nicknamed The Godfather of Good Taste. Dany has indeed strong ties and relationships in the culinary – and business – world, and can count on big names. For example on Italian star chef Massimo Bottura (no other festival managed to have him twice), on San Pellegrino, his main sponsor, and on Swiss Deluxe Hotels for the spectacular locations where dinner parties are thrown.
Eat, Pray and Travel
The event has the main goal of making the Ticino region, i.e. the Italian part of Switzerland, on the Southern side, better known to the rest of the country and to showcase its fine dining tradition to as many new people as possible. It has also introduced to the region the idea of enogastronomy – that is, food and wine – especially linked to traveling.
How do people choose a travel destination?
Dany asked me when I joined my first gala dinner at S.Pellegrino Sapori Ticino, while I was dipping my fork in the most fluffy, melting-in-your-mouth truffled appetiser, prepared by 2 Michelin star chef (and Gault Millau Chef of the Year 2021) Stefan Heilemann. I couldn’t think of an answer, because my brain was dumb trying to understand what could give my palate such a pleasure, and what on earth Stefan had assembled together to make it so delicious.
It’s two things: the place, and how well you can eat and drink there.
It’s also a Swiss Deluxe Hotels location, I thought, and wrote an email to join the last two gala dinners of the year, in Bern and Lausanne.
Some Like it Hot
I confess: I decided to join three dinners in total because I wanted to try three hotels of the Swiss Deluxe Hotels group. I didn’t expect that much from the food – I imagined the festival as a kind of wine tasting event with cold finger food, where chefs would turn up five minutes to make a star appearance and thank everybody. So I was more interested in the interior design of the hotels and in two hours at the spa. If a hotel is one of the best in Switzerland, I thought, it means it’s one of the best in Europe. What a good excuse to catch a train and have a mini holiday without leaving the country.
I was completely right about the holiday, and completely wrong about the food. Which was hot, and by the way the chefs were hot too. When I joined the above-mentioned gala, at the Widder Hotel in Zurich, the one where I was presented the fluffy appetiser that made my brain dumb, I sat right in front of the open kitchen. An army of cooks (Mattias Roock, Stefan Heilemann, Frank Oerthle, and Christian Moreschi from the Ticino region) chatted away in a good mood, and then all of a sudden produced a series of intricate and identical dishes at the speed of light. It was like watching Beyonce, Lady Gaga and JLo jam together, and suddenly perform at the Super Bowl half time show. Every dish looked simple, but revealed a complexity of flavours and textures that made me close my eyes for a moment to savour it better – and I mean every single one. It was all very refined, and yet felt like being at home – I even walked to the kitchen to get myself a second portion of the main course. At the end of the dinner guests started to cheer and call the chefs, so they had to come out and a do a tour of the tables. A phenomenal evening that made us forget the outside world.
It was soon time to go to the Hotel Schweizerhof Bern & Spa, and this time I had high expectations and prepared better. I studied the chef’s biographies in advance. I arrived early to make sure I had some time for the spa. I got myself a very Italian dress more suitable for a gala, and …here’s my favourite part: I found out where the official photo session was going to be. I had to get a photo with the crew – I took it as a mission. This time the team was composed by: Lorenz Hoja, Andrea Bertarini, Luca Bellanca, Alessandro Boleso and Giuseppe Buono, the last two representing the Ticino region. I was the first one to arrive in the empty room with the elegantly set tables. When the photographer arrived I clumsily tried to help her with the lights, so she could see that I was a good, motivated guest. After all, all I wanted was a photo with the stars. When the team arrived, like a troop in immaculate uniforms, I sat in front and basically photobombed them. They didn’t understand who I was but laughed and played along, so we got some great portraits. My favourite picture is the one with Lorenz Hoja, who looked grumpy from the beginning to the end of the photo session, and when asked to smile answered:
I am German. This is a German smile.
And went back to work. But I saw he was trying really hard not to laugh!
The Italian Job
The last Gala of the festival was in Lausanne, at the majestic Lausanne Palace. Another great spa, another outstanding team – Domenico Ruberto, Christian Bertogna, Davide Asietti, Claudio Bollini, and Bernard Fournier from Ticino- and another fabulous menu. I felt that people, during aperitive, were a bit stiff and mostly talked about business. During dinner comments were more about the pairing of food and wines. At dessert everybody had really loosened up and the atmosphere was so friendly and relaxed, that by the time dinner was finished we called the chefs by cheering loud and stamping our feet. It was a messy and cheerful mix of languages and oooh, and aaaah that made even the coldest Swiss a bit more Italian – which makes sense because the festival has a different theme each year, and this time it was about the different regions of Italy.
I have a friend, Paolo Nespoli, who is an Italian astronaut. He told me that, when he was a kid and was asked what he wanted to do when he would grow up, he used to answer “astronaut”, like most of his classmates. Now, during his speeches or events around the world, Paolo sometimes asks kids in schools the same question. They answer chef. This always strikes him. I guess I should invite it next year to S.Pellegrino Sapori Ticino…he will feel good among so many stars!
Photos: Giorgia Panzera