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«I cook better when the pressure's off»
Bernese chef Markus Arnold won't be forced into anything and is constantly reinventing himself. It's a bold approach and one that is welcomed by his guests.
Markus Arnold found his work experience placement at Swiss Post so boring that he fell asleep on the job. As a result, the teenager wanted to learn a different profession and so tried his hand at cooking. "The time I spent in the kitchen flew by", Arnold said as he recalled his apprenticeship at "Bim Buume" in Wikon, Canton Lucerne. More than 20 years later, Arnold is now working in his own kitchen at "Steinhalle" in Berne. Lunch is simple yet delicious – homemade ramen, tartare or the best burger far and wide. Guests pay before they even sit down so that they can go on their way as soon as they've eaten. Service is quick. Even though the odd guest may have been sceptical at first, after two years it's clear that good food and efficiency are not mutually exclusive. Evenings are more dignified but by no means stuffy. The tables are not set. Guests simply take their cutlery from the centre of the table and pour their own water. This is what's known as casual fine dining. The menu changes every couple of weeks. Arnold adopts themes such as On Fire, New York and – most recently – Asparagus. Sea bass ceviche and thinly sliced asparagus with red onions, chilli and coriander.
Arnold prepares mini broccoli on a Japanese tabletop grill – just one centimetre above the coal. He places a slice of lardo on top which begins to melt, before adding a drizzle of Ponzu sauce. Done. "Our guests always want top-quality food but in a relaxed atmosphere without pomp and circumstance", explains the chef with 16 Gault Millau points. If you reserve a table online, you pay for your "ticket" in advance, just as you would for a concert. "What we do here is unique, very relaxed and yet of the highest standard. But we don't follow rules. If it's fun and it works, then we do it anyway". Arnold doesn't force anyone into anything. Guests who book over the phone and wish to pay after the meal are free to do so. If other Bernese eateries adopt parts of the concept – for example, bar seating – this confirms that Arnold is on the right track.
Markus Arnold worked hard for the freedom to manage Steinhalle in the way that he believes is right. "I have always tried to iron out my mistakes, to learn and to improve". After completing his apprenticeship, he began work at "Schloss Falkenstein" in Niedergösgen. Arnold began his professional career as a complete fledgling: "I had no real plan, I was sinking fast and got a dressing-down on a daily basis – and quite right, too". And yet Arnold struggled through, learnt and held his ground. Life was even harder under Philippe Chevrier at "Domaine de Châteauvieux". "I could just about manage Yes and No in French. Most of the team were French and I had to fight tooth and nail to keep them under control". During his time at Confiserie Bachmann, Arnold honed his pâtisserie skills until he had mastered the art. "I would be making Kirschstängeli cherry chocolate at 6 a.m. – and eating my failed attempts".
You cook better when you're not under pressure in the kitchen.
After his first post as chef at the "Meridiano" at the Kursaal in Berne, Arnold was eager to find a restaurant that would meet his needs. It took him almost four years to find the right place. He spent this time with temporary businesses such as "Mr. Mori" and "Brother Frank", which earned him the name of "Mr. Pop-up". "I did it out of boredom and curiosity, but I also learnt an awful lot in the process. I learnt about accounting and marketing, too". All this is now part of his job. Arnold is not just a chef, he manages a business with twelve employees. And everything is done the way he wants it. Especially when it comes to the food. "I make no compromises here. Each day I cook what I would most like to eat", he says. This also suits his guests. And one thing is clear to Arnold: "You cook better when you're not under pressure in the kitchen".
The only pressure Arnold is under is the pressure to constantly reinvent himself. Before Christmas, he conjured up the Sternenmarkt out of thin air – the Christmas market will be back again in 2019. Now he's taking his guests to the red light district of Shinshuku in Tokyo. Arnold did his own research on location and sampled top-quality products in the many small eateries. And how does this look in the "Steinhalle"? "Guests cook the meat themselves on a small tabletop grill. That results in quite a production!" But don't worry, the meat is cut in such a way that you can't go wrong.
Text: Kathia Baltisberger, Photos: Olivia Pulver
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