Wagyu beef from Japan is on the menu of the “Ecco” in Zurich. Stefan Heilemann selects a thin-cut piece of entrecôte. “Now we're going to grill it. In Germany, the verb is “grillen”, in Switzerland you have to say “grillIERen”. That was one of the first things I learned when I came here”, says the German.  Originally from Baden-Württemberg, Stefan has been cooking at the foot of the Uetliberg mountain for the last two-and-a-half years, and feels very much at home.

“I really like it here and the diners have made me feel very welcome.” Of course, it's not just Heilemann's relaxed and friendly manner that draw the regulars here, but his cooking. The 37-year-old is one of a select few chefs to be awarded two Michelin stars from the off. Along with 16 GaultMillau points, initially, but Heilemann now has 17. “Of course, we have Rolf Fliegauf from Ascona to thank for the “Ecco” concept. Structure and service are really important factors too, but we didn't expect to be quite this successful, it’s been mind-blowing.”

Foraging wild garlic in the woods

Heilemann loves traditional cuisine, but using modern techniques and preparation methods. He likes to take diners on a culinary world tour, and Asia is his spiritual home. “But it's important to me that a Thai dish is also authentic.” 

Heilemann's dishes have a distinctly tangy edge to them: The tuna belly is served with fresh and pickled cucumbers as well as a yuzu crème and a cucumber and yuzu dashi. The suckling lamb (cutlets, loin, belly, sweetbread and tongue) comes with glazed green asparagus and a jus made with salted lemons.

Heilemann himself foraged the topping of fresh wild garlic blossoms and bulbs a short while ago, in the woods behind the hotel. “We may be in Zurich, but we're still surrounded by nature. Although our food isn't herb-based, I often go outdoors to look for edible plants for my dishes.” Every now and then, the 17-point chef likes to present his diners with an unfamiliar ingredient. Says Heilemann: “I like to provoke a reaction with my dishes.”

From business student to top chef

If I have fun in the kitchen with my team, diners will sense this on the plate.

Heilemann took a little detour en route to the “Ecco” kitchen. After finishing high school, he initially embarked upon a business studies degree. “It didn't really interest me, but I just thought I had to study something!” But Heilemann soon realized that the sedentary lifestyle is not for him. “I wanted to do something creative.” Not being one to do things by halves, he got himself hired by Harald Wohlfahrt at the “Traube Tonbach”. From a humble apprentice, he worked his way up and spent almost ten years at the restaurant, before joining Fliegauf in Ascona.

The tough environment in Harald Wohlfahrt's kitchen shaped him, although Heilemann runs his team very differently. “I have a very small team and everyone responds differently in a particular situation. So I try to solve problems individually, rather than lording it over the kitchen. There's a fine balance between relaxed leadership and tightening the reins at key moments.”

Text: Kathia Baltisberger, Photos: Lucian Hunziker

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