Sixteen years ago, The New York Times called Frédy Girardet "The World's Greatest New Chef." This and other accolades made the Swiss cook famous. Like pilgrims flocking to a shrine, gourmets from around the world began to beat a daily trek to Girardet's restaurant in Crissier, a farm community turned suburb outside Lausanne and a 45-minute drive from Geneva.
But what about today? Does the legendary Swiss cook live up to his reputation? Is he still great? Yes, he is. The 57-year-old Girardet is still creative and driven, and he continues to serve a daring and inventive modern cuisine that defies easy description. Three-star Michelin chefs like Paul Bocuse and Pierre Troisgros have hinted that Girardet is the best.
Everyone seems to agree. In the last year alone, the restaurant served 20,000 patrons. They spend an average of 250 Swiss francs ($200, including wine and tip) a person. Girardet accepts cash only and no credit cards. Even in a recession, Girardet books dinner two to three months in advance for Friday and Saturday nights, although it's easier to find a table during weeknights and lunch on short notice. A table often opens up at the last minute due to a cancellation. Girardet is closed Sunday and Monday, three weeks at the end of July and August, and three weeks around Christmas.
In an era when many great chefs are away from their kitchens to develop restaurants elsewhere or lend their fame to various causes and money-making ventures, Girardet hovers like a mother hen over each dish that leaves the kitchen. The word "perfectionist" doesn't do justice to the almost maniacal attention Girardet brings to the task of serving 40 to 60 people for lunch and the same number for dinner, 220 days a year.
An example of his rigorous control over the kitchen is his demands placed on the timing of dishes. He notes when the order was placed, when the kitchen received it, when the chefs finished the dish, when the waiter picked it up and when it was placed on the table. His theory: No guest should have to wait more than 20 minutes for a dish.
To first-time customers, Frédy Girardet, his staff and his food can be intimidating. Although the restaurant decor is surprisingly low key and unimpressive, with salmon-colored tablecloths, comfortable wood chairs and an unassuming multicolor wall-to-wall carpet, entering this restaurant is like walking into an artist's studio. It's best to let Girardet reveal his work, dish by dish. Thus, it is unwise at Girardet's to order à la carte. When you go to Girardet's choose the menu. Or better yet, just ask the chef to do whatever pleases him. Girardet will return the compliment by throwing all his fanatical devotion into a meal that should dazzle you. (And he won't gouge, but charge about the price of a regular five-course menu.) There are customers who have been at Girardet's 50 times and eaten 300 dishes and swear that they haven't been served the same dish twice.
He is constantly tasting and touching up dishes, improving them and sometimes creating new ones as they are being prepared by his team of chefs. Between tastings, Girardet cleanses his palate by eating big chunks of bread. "You must taste, taste and taste. Many chefs have stopped tasting. That's horrible. You must keep your palate fit," he says.
The wine list reflects the methodical mind of its creator. It's not a large list, but well-chosen. Among them, Domaine Jacques Parent in Pommard, Georges Mugneret in Vosne-Romanée, Leon Beyer in Alsace, Domaine de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Château Grillet, also in the Rhône Valley, Domaine Leflaive and Pierre Morey for white Burgundies.
Cigar smokers are welcome to light up after the meal and when other diners have finished their main courses. Girardet offers a good selection of only Cuban cigars. In total, there are some 20 different cigar brands in the restaurant's humidor.