Dario Cadonau

Dario Cadonau

A force of nature

He grew up in the mountains, has made a hotel out of the forest and draws on nature to work his culinary magic. Top chef Dario Cadonau has created a unique jewel in Engadine – and his creativity is not yet exhausted.

A house doodled on a sheet of paper. On the building is emblazoned, in big letters, “Hotel”. In front of it stands a little boy. It is a child's drawing that  37-year-old Dario Cadonau can still clearly picture. From earliest childhood, he has dreamed of having his own hotel. Today, that child's drawing has become a reality. Cadonau is a top chef, with 17 GaultMillau points and a Michelin star, and the owner of the hotel “In Lain” in Brail, Graubünden.

I always saw myself in this profession

, says Cadonau of his long-held ambition.

A family project

It has been a rocky road, as the saying goes, but woody would be a more accurate description. Wood has always been a part of Cadonau's life. His parents ran a joinery business in the municipality of S-Chanf in Graubünden, which has now been taken over by Dario's brother. The scent of pine hits you as soon as you enter “In Lain”. Everything is made of solid wood: the interior trims, the furniture, the decor. There’s no lacquer and no flimsy wood panels here. It is a real family effort. “I chose the design and the colours with my mother. My brother made it all a reality.” Only his father wasn't convinced, to begin with. “When I told him I wanted to train as a chef, he said “What a waste!”. But nowadays, he's the one who’s most enthusiastic about what I do.”

Dario Cadonau trained at “Suvretta House” in St. Moritz, before broadening his geographical horizons. He learned from the best, such as the late Philippe Rochat in Crissier. “He was very strict, but I learned a huge amount there”, says Cadonau. His next stop was with Daniel Bumann in La Punt and then with German chef Harald Wohlfahrt at the hotel “Traube Tonbach”. But his talents extend beyond cooking alone. Cadonau went on to graduate in hotel management in Zurich.

A woodcock beneath chocolate ‘paper’

Aged just 26, Dario embarked upon his project. He converted his mother's house – an old farmhouse – then added an imposing new building. “Lots of people in the village thought I was mad!” The location isn't ideal: Brail is home to 100 people and it’s a half-hour car journey to St. Moritz. Over time, Cadonau's eccentricity has really come to the fore! The Engadine native has taken on a crazy workload. He is a hotel manager and, from one kitchen, runs three restaurants at once. His eccentricity is also showcased in the dishes in the gourmet restaurant “Vivanda”, where diners are served stories from nature. To give an example: “I serve woodcock – head and breast –  beneath a stack of chocolate paper. This symbolizes the foliage beneath which the birds like to hide in the forest.” When Cadonau goes for walks, he picks lichens in the forest. “I boil them and use them to make a kind of pasta.”

This is where my roots are, I’m a child of the mountains.

Dario Cadonau spends his mornings working in the office, makes Capuns at lunchtime and conjures up gourmet meals for diners in the evening. He also has his wife, Tamara, to thank for keeping everything running so smoothly. “None of this would be possible without her”, he says. It wasn't an easy decision for Aargau-born Tamara to up sticks to Engadine ten years ago, says Dario. “She works incredibly hard!” For Tamara , eleven hours in the hotel is “part-time”; after all, the Cadonaus have a 4-year-old son, Jan. Dario likes to do the nursery drop-off sometimes before work. “Of course it's all hard work, but it isn't stressful. This job is our passion and our lifeblood.”

Text: Kathia Baltisberger, Photos: Joseph Khakshouri

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