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Behind the kitchen counter rather than behind bars
He was an "enfant terrible": as a teenager Roger von Büren was going off the rails. An apprenticeship as a chef saved him from landing in prison. Now he is a top chef at the Roter Bären in Basel.
Visitors to Basel's red light district are generally after just one thing, but for four years now there's been something quite different to go there for, namely top-class cuisine. The Roter Bären restaurant is on the corner of Ochsengasse and Sägergässlein and is Roger von Büren's domain. "The place used to be a pick-up bar," the chef tells us, and the working girls had their rooms upstairs. Nowadays the Bären is a popular venue on Basel's gastronomy scene.
Roger doesn't offer his guests a traditional menu with starters, mains and desserts. Instead they order a variety of different plates, veggie, fish or meat – all of which are the same size – and the chef recommends they select at least three. "When I took over here I wanted to do something different," he says.
The idea for the small plates came from his business partners Madeleine and Cécile Grieder, while Roger is responsible for translating it into reality. His style is popular, although there was some criticism when he first started. "A guest once told me I was serving up overpriced child portions," says Roger, shrugging his shoulders with a laugh. "The concept allows me to play around a bit and be more creative." It's impressed the GaultMillau critics, who have awarded the 35-year-old chef 14 points – one point more than last year.
Roger skilfully feeds pasta dough into the machine and stamps out the ravioli shapes. He then pipes a mousse of pheasant breast meat onto the pasta, cracks open an egg and places the yolk carefully into the centre, and seals up the ravioli parcel with great precision. This is a task requiring great dexterity as the idea is that the egg yolk will stay intact until the guest cuts into the ravioli. The pasta is served with celeriac purée, spinach and black truffle. Every two or three weeks von Büren swaps out a dish – if it "gets boring" or is no longer seasonal.
If you'd said to Roger 20 years ago that he'd be running a restaurant one day, he'd probably have laughed out loud. Work? As a teen he had absolutely no intention of doing any. An apprenticeship? Far too much discipline! Instead Roger hung about getting up to all sorts of no good. "We stole mopeds, then a car," he recalls. "We were totally out of touch with reality, it was like we were in a film." The peak of his criminal career was at the age of 20, when he smuggled cocaine from the Dominican Republic into Zurich. He was caught and arrested, but they gave him a last chance: "I had the option of going to prison or doing an apprenticeship at the Arxhof training centre for young offenders."
Roger decided to go to Arxhof. "I thought it was the easy way out." Wrong. Instead of prison he was put in the kitchen. Where there's a lot to do. But Roger found out that "work isn't that bad after all." He did his job happily and well, but in the canteen there were no culinary highlights. Not until he started working at the Gundeldingerhof did inspiration strike. "It was a bit like being reborn, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do."
It was a bit like being reborn, but I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
For four months he worked in London at The Ledbury and Murano. "Work and sleep, that was all I did there," Roger says about the hard graft. "I learnt so many new techniques there. But I quickly realised they weren't so very different."
Roger serenely coats mussels in breadcrumbs and places them into the hot oil. He arranges them on top of the turbot before adding a sautéed potato and a braised leek. It's difficult to believe that this young, somewhat reticent chef was once an enfant terrible.
"I'm glad I managed to get back on track," says von Büren. "But if I hadn't made the mistakes I made, I guess I wouldn't be here today." And that would be a great shame.
Text: Kathia Baltisberger, Photos: Olivia Pulver
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