Michelin-Star-Rated Chef Christian Nickel

posted on | updated on | by Zuri Girl

We can stand the heat, so let’s get in the kitchen! Last week Zuri Girl had the chance to sit with Spice restaurant head chef Christian Nickel and beg for some fantastic cooking tips, plus hear all about ask how Spice came to be so fabulous! And Christian is no ordinary chef – this young, up-and-comer has a Michelin Star, 16 Gault Millau points, and a recent ranking as the #3 restaurant in all of Switzerland.

Zuri Girl: What is your advice for anybody who wants to be a great cook, at home or professionally?
Christian Nickel: It’s only fun to cook for someone who understands and appreciates your work. For example, if you cook for your children and they eat it in two minutes but it took you an hour and a half to make it…. [Cooking ] for and with friends is really personal and good because you can show them your favorite dishes and what you like and it shares a lot about you. Another piece of advice: it’s never too late to start. My parents never had enough time to cook [when they had careers] and now they have all the right machines at home and are starting to learn how to cook.

Zuri Girl: Do you have any secret chef tips about cooking that will make us masters in our own kitchens?
Preparing meat can be intimidating but it’s not necessary to feel this way. For example, sometimes you aren’t cooking it wrong, just the meat is wrong.  If you follow these 3 to 4 rules, for sure you will make the perfect meat.

  1. Salt the meat and put it directly into a pan to brown it quickly [to seal in flavor and ensure the meat doesn’t get too dry]– don’t wait too long to put it in the pan!
  2. Then [take it out of the pan and] put it into the oven directly onto the rack so that the air can flow around the meat as it cooks. You need a thermometer to watch the temperature inside the meat. You can look on the internet to find the exact temperature you want, depending if you want to cook your meat medium, rare, and so on.
  3. Many new ovens have a place directly underneath the oven to keep the plates warm {between 50 and 60 degrees C). Just put the meat on the warm plate, put both back inside the warming area and leave it there for 10-15 minutes. If you don’t have a plate warmer with your oven, take the meat out for 5 minutes (but don’t leave it on a hot plate!). In that time, turn off the oven and open the door partially to bring down the temperature. Then put the meat and the plate back inside the oven to stay warm but without cooking it further.
  4. Prepare a pan with fresh butter, herbs, salt. Once the butter is foamy from the heat, put the meat inside, quick one side and then the other quick, then take it out and cut it. That’s it. So easy!

And please don’t tell your butcher you need meat 1cm, your filet needs to be at least 4 to 5 cm so it can cook well.

Zuri Girl: How do you select the ingredients for your menu?
Christian Nickel: I think seasonal and local. We work very closely with local farmers to source our foods and Bistro [the more casual restaurant downstairs from Spice] is a very local Swiss kitchen. We always try to get even as close as possible to Zurich with our suppliers, not just [locally sourced] across Switzerland.

Zuri Girl: How can we get the best fresh, local foods for our cooking?
Christian Nickel: Always buy what’s fresh and in season. You don’t need to buy strawberries in December – it doesn’t make sense.  Try to buy your meat from someone you can trust, not just in a grocery store chain. Talk to your local Metzger [butcher]. If he knows that you know something about meat, or if he comes to know you as a regular customer, then he will give you the best meat. [Remember that your filet should be at least 4 to 5 cm!]

Zuri Girl: Where do you find inspiration for new menu items?
Christian Nickel: It’s all about flow. It’s the idea of the plate as a whole. Maybe I see a picture or decide all elements have to be red. I also start by thinking what should be the main thing on the plate, for example should it be fish or meat?  We change our menu every 5 to 6 weeks because we don’t always want to repeat the same foods so we’re always looking for inspiration.

Zuri Girl: What makes the food at Spice unique from other restaurants?
Christian Nickel: I can’t yet describe my kitchen because I’m not yet finished in finding my way. So many chefs describe their kitchen as light and fresh and seasonal and Spice is that, of course, but more than that. We start with small amuse-bouches in the front, something warm, something cold, so the guests can get an impression of the flavors, the structures, the temperatures. We also add small items at the end because it should end like it starts. Of course, the food should not be the main thing talked about for the evening, but it should be on the same level of importance because the food and the way you like to talk to your partner or with your friends in the evening should fit together.

Zuri Girl: Does Spice cook using some of the heavier traditional Swiss foods such as cheese, potatoes and cream?
Christian Nickel: Especially in summertime, I don’t use potato. You don’t need this classic way of building a plate with meat, potato, vegetable. It’s not necessary. With all these small courses at Spice, you don’t need to have spaghetti in the main course. Of course, there are quite a lot of courses [here at Spice] in the end, but we always wants to ensure that our customers don’t leave with a stomach ache at the end of the night or the next morning because it was too heavy or full of fat.

Zuri Girl: How does the Spice menu work?
Christian Nickel: We are soon changing to one menu where a customer can choose up to 9 courses but 2 of the courses are a surprise from the kitchen. We also have a special dessert menu where we actually give you information so you can read about our pastries. Our pastry chef bakes very seasonally and changes her desserts every 3-4 weeks. And on the menu it only says one dessert, but we like to provide a pre-dessert, as well as some other little treats like pralines in addition to the main dessert.

Zuri Girl: What’s the most unusual dish you have ever created?
Christian Nickel: All of our menus have 2-3 courses that I really like a lot. Last summer we made scallops with strawberry and celery chutney –using large celery not the root – and with a curry crumble. That fit together quite well.

Zuri Girl: Any last advice about food for us?
Christian Nickel: Of course, I think everybody should try Spice at least once!  Many people want to eat out and spend only CHF100 so they eat pizza and pasta and are nervous to spend CHF200 for good, nice food. I know in the last few years it has changed a lot, but people should really think about what they are getting. You can make a pizza at home!  Start thinking about that you don’t need to pay 20CHF for pasta linguini with olive oil. Go out once a month for a really good meal and enjoy it instead of going more often for worse quality food.

 

Interested in learning to cook like Christian? We’ll soon be featuring one of his recipes as our Recipe of the Week plus hosting a Girls Night Out event to learn how to cook with Christian.

 

Curious for more? Mention Girlfriend Guide when making your reservation at Spice and your party will receive a complimentary glass of sparkling Chardonnay during the months of February and March.

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Contributed by Zuri Girl: Lisa Christen. Lisa’s blog The Real Housewife of Zurich chronicles her mishaps and sarcasm as she transitions from being an American career-woman to a Swiss Hausfrau in Zurich. She often embarrasses her husband in her posts, so enjoy! 

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