Queen of comfort food
She is one of Zurich's youngest chefs: Michaela Frank is the head chef at Kulturlokal Rank in Zurich's Niederdorf district. A place known for music, informal get-togethers and Michaela's comfort food.
Kulturlokal Rank is where the beat is – as the slogan of this young restaurant suggests. This can be taken both literally and figuratively. National and international artists perform here, especially jazz musicians. However, Rank is also a restaurant that has its finger on the pulse. Sustainable, but not stubborn. Cool, but not cold. And no one could embody this simple nonchalance better than the young lady standing in the kitchen, Michaela Frank, who took on the role of head chef at just 25 years old. «When I first got the call, I turned it down», says Michaela. She was still in the middle of her chef's training at the time and so her first reaction came not from a lack of self-confidence but rather a realistic assessment of the facts. The team behind the Rank project is the same one that runs Rechberg 1837 in Zurich. «They wouldn't let up and told me I can learn everything I need to know on the job. And so I said to myself: Fine, I'll do it! And if it doesn't work out, I'll leave.» Michaela is still here and that says it all.
Michaela refers to her food as feel-good food. It's meant to make you feel happy. She may not plate up with tweezers and a ruler, but she does place great importance on precision when it comes to product selection. «We use a lot of products from the Rheinau estate. The people who run it have become friends of ours», she explains. The Demeter farm in Zurich's winegrowing region is a pioneer of biodynamic agriculture. «We recently acquired a Herens cow from them. Their method of keeping and utilizing animals is the only one that's right for us», says Michaela. Naturally, it's important to her that all parts of the animal are used. She makes pastrami with the heart, and paté with the liver. She braises the shoulder in a sauce made from coconut milk, ginger and chilli.
Michaela needs the latter for her congee. «This is comfort food from China. You can eat it at any time of the day and especially if you're poorly. And you can use any topping you like», she explains. Michaela's mother comes from Shanghai and congee brings back lots of childhood memories. «The dish is perhaps something of an acquired taste at first.» Congee is a type of rice porridge. Michaela tops it with kale, black radish, winter spinach, Swiss chard kimchi, spiced nuts and tender shoulder of Herens beef. She uses mushroom ragout for the vegan alternative. The guests are now very familiar with the dish and congee has become a signature dish at Rank.
Food played a role in Michaela's life from a very young age. «Food rituals are extremely important in China. My mother always placed great importance on us eating together.» Her mother cooked classic Chinese food, however sometimes they would also have Swiss dishes. «She would make spaetzle with strips of veal in a ginger sauc», recalls Michaela with a smile. «»Of course, it tasted very different to what my friends would have at home.» Michaela completed her culinary apprenticeship at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen where she cooked in a staff restaurant with very high standards. «This is where I learnt the basics. They have sufficient resources there to look after the apprentices and they have the necessary expertise too.»
After completing her apprenticeship, Michaela worked as a chef at the Waldhaus in Flims and became a member of the Swiss Junior Culinary Team. She undertook a placement with Nenad Mlinarevic at Park Hotel Vitznau. Shortly afterwards, the then «chef of the year» called and asked whether she would like to join the team as a permanent fixture. «Absolutely!» was Michaela's answer. After Vitznau, she followed Nenad to Zurich where she helped at a pop-up restaurant in the Stadthalle and got a taste for the Zurich scene. She worked at Soi Thai and helped with the opening of Gül. After this, she received a scholarship for Andreas Caminada's development programme, Fundaziun Uccelin. Meanwhile, she was also working as a barista. And during the Covid pandemic, she set up a delivery service and cooked in her father's kitchen for customers in the Baden area. «That's when I realized that comfort food is my thing.»
A year and a half after Rank opened, Michaela is well and truly in her stride. In addition to music, lunch and dinner, the restaurant also offers a takeaway option – toasties from the Rank kitchen with pulled pork and miso mayo, picanha and coleslaw, or the «Cheesy Bites» with Jumi cheese and onion chutney. Despite flat hierarchies, she is the boss and she's also responsible for HR. «It's not easy. But I do it with a humanity that people also see. If I don't know something, then I find out. If I'm in the wrong, then I apologise.» Plus Michaela has a back-up team in place. «I can call Carlos Navarro from Rechberg at any time if there's a problem. It's nice to know that there's always someone who can help you out.»
Text: Kathia Baltisberger, Photos: Olivia Pulver, Date: 08.03.2023
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