Photo by Nick Lobeck.

This Trio Is Remaking Swiss Cuisine, One Pig at a Time

Zurich's Hood Food pop-up dinner series aims to reshape how Swiss people approach their food. The latest dinner celebrated the Swiss tradition of <i>Metzgete</i>, a pig slaughter and roast in nothing goes to waste.

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May 11 2015, 4:37pm

Photo by Nick Lobeck.

It's the middle of night and I am in Switzerland's French-speaking region of Fribourg, waiting to meet an eccentric apple cider producer named Jacques Perritaz. With me is Laura Schälchli, one of the founding members of Hood Food, a pop-up dinner series based in Zurich.

Hood Food's current slogan is "from the woods to the hoods," which perfectly describes this bucolic adventure. As cats meow around my ankles, and the smell of horse manure permeates the air, our cider producer rolls up in his truck.

Perritaz is the founder and owner of Cidrerie du Vulcain, a cider company that works exclusively with the local orchard fruits of Fribourg, only using ancient varieties of apples, pears, and quince that are not normally consumed and typically go to waste. These heirloom fruits are grown on the high-branched, untreated trees, and are emblematic of Fribourg's rich biodiversity.

Perritaz, who had lost a finger a few days prior while bottling his cider, seems unfazed by his accident. He cheerfully gives us a tour of the cellar, and holds forth about his philosophy and practice, as we sample his crisp and tart ciders.

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Photo by Nick Lobeck.

With its cool climate and diverse soils, the Fribourg terroir yields ciders that are complex and aromatic, unlike the sugary versions one often finds in the supermarket. Perritaz follows the French cider tradition of production most closely associated with the northern areas of Normandy and Brittany. He takes the pure juices and ferments them with their wild yeasts to create his flagship cuvees.

Reflecting on our visit with Perritaz, Schälchli tells me, "You can really taste the terroir. This is what I love." And it is this love and support for local agriculture that distinguishes Hood Food in Switzerland as a pop-up restaurant.

Schälchli founded Hood Food in 2014 with Valentin Diem—a self-taught chef who cooks under the pseudonym "Vale Fritz"—and Fanny Eisl, a designer. Since its inception, it has achieved a unique niche in Zurich's underground dining scene.

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Photo by Nick Lobeck.

The pop-up dinners revolve around a certain theme, and are staged in different spaces over a five-week period. One previous dinner series took place in an abandoned garage, and because the meals were all cooked with wood fires, the dinners were referred to as "Wood Food."

Hood Food's most recent series celebrated the Swiss tradition of Metzgete, a pig slaughter and roast in which nothing is wasted.

Valentin Diem says that he was drawn to the theme of Metzgete because it exemplified the ingenuity and frugality that made everything usable and even deliciously edible. He noted that in centuries past, the pig slaughter feast was the only time Swiss people could eat meat. Since pigs consumed the same food as people, they would slaughter pigs in the winter when food was scarce. The tradition is probably the first embodiment of nose-to-tail dining, where even the blood was used.

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Photo by Nick Lobeck.

Diem notes that our access to pig is different now. "You can eat pig every day."

"With Metzgete, you also use the offal and the blood, because it's a tradition. But, the rest of the year, these products are thrown away."

Metzgete has a reputation for being a bilious feast; most conventional Swiss people approach it with trepidation.

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Photo by Nick Lobeck.

This only emboldened Diem further. Heavily influenced by the Japanese minimalist approach to cooking, Diem combined his love for Swiss cuisine and products with a more refined approach. Diners can go whole hog, but don't have to leave feeling stuffed.

"[Swiss] people have this mentality when they come to restaurants that they are paying for quantity." says Schälchli.

"They don't take into account that they're paying for service, to be in a nice atmosphere. This is what needs to change—people need to realize that quality is more important than quantity. It's a gradual process."

And she's right.

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Photo by Nick Lobeck.

After her tenure in New York, Schälchli enrolled at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, associated with the international grassroots movement known as Slow Food. Over the course of her study, she was exposed to a variety of different food cultures and traditions, in and outside of Italy, and learned how to interact and work with a whole range of producers like the fingerless Perritaz.

"Working with producers is my strength," she claims, "I always find myself in the service of chefs, who really don't have the time to make visits, or even nurture these relationships with the producers. Chefs work crazy hours, and have enough responsibilities, like planning a menu, managing other chefs, etc. But now there's this expectation with the whole local and organic movement for chefs to be making producer visits. It's much harder than people think."

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Photo by Nick Lobeck.

While Schälchli is cultivating producer relationships, Diem stays rooted in the kitchen. "There is no better or worst part of a meal," he says. "I think it is important for us to show that everything is good—so as to reflect the quality of the product."

Although the Hood Food team celebrates the pig from nose-to-tail, they also celebrate root-to-leaf when it comes to vegetables. "We use the whole animal as well as the whole vegetable, but we won't shove it down your throat. For example, the radish leaves are incorporated into the butter Vale makes," notes Schälchli.

The Hood Food menu is eight courses, through which Diem aims to show customers that eating the face or lung of a pig should not be scary. "People will order steak if they have a choice between steak and, say, a pig heart. So, we just don't give them the option. We have a very stable menu that at its core is very Swiss. I am extremely proud of my Swiss culinary roots and our local products. We have some of the best in the world—amazing dairy, meat, and wines."

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Hood Food's Laura Schälchli, Valentin Diem, and Fanny Eisl. Photo by Lukas Lienhard.

His unconventional approach to Metzgete has shown diners that this traditionally heavy meal can also be refined and enjoyable, as well as make people think about what they waste the rest of the year. Ideas about seasonality and locality are subject to change, but the Hood Food team remains connected to certain traditions and food cultures. Metzgete could not be more fitting for the Hood Food team, allowing them to introduce new ideas about slow food and possibly widen the conversation, while bringing attention to local producers such as Perritaz.

Diem, who started hosting impromptu dinners during his university years, has only been working as a chef for four years. He's not trained, and prior to his catering business he claims he could not even make a mayonnaise.

Now, Diem can do much more, whether it's radish butter or a modern interpretation of a pig feast. The pop-up model has enabled him to work with beautiful products and improve as a chef.

"It's hard work," he says, "but I don't think I could see myself doing anything else."