Three Gault & Millau toques, 18 points – at only 31 years the Brit James Baron managed to completely win over the restaurant guide 2017. Which makes him the shooting star of top gastronomy. With great passion, exquisite cuisine and creative twists James Baron has been indulging demanding gourmets at hotel Tannenhof since 2015. In his talk with La Loupe the Brit speaks the secrets of ‘Creative Alpine Kitchen’ and tells us what British dish he misses in St. Anton.
L.L. / Mr. Baron, at only 31 years you are one of the world’s best chefs. However, after your A-levels you’d actually planned on studying architecture. Why is it that you chose cooking over studying in the end?
J.B. / While I was in high school I worked as a waiter in a restaurant with one Michelin star. I found the work there very inspiring. My parents were rather shocked though, when they found out I didn’t want to go to uni and had decided on becoming a chef instead. It all turned out quite well in the end though.
L.L. / Now you work at hotel Tannenhof which is an architectural highlight.
J.B. / Yes, Tannenhof is a wonderful place which is why we’re always trying to offer our guest extremely high quality.
L.L. / You used to work in London, Canada, Switzerland and since 2015 you’ve been chef de cuisine at the luxury hotel Tannenhof in St. Anton. What experience has been the most forming for you in your career so far?
J.B. / You have to take something with you from every stop along the path. In western Switzerland I worked at Didier de Courten’s restaurant which has two Michelin stars and 19 points; it taught me a lot about typical French cuisine. After that, with Andreas Caminada, I encountered a completely different style. You learn a lot and take something with you from every kitchen. No matter if that’s good or bad.
L.L. / Are there certain tricks you learned from other chefs that you’ve adopted?
J.B. / Well I do try to go my own way. And I let myself be inspired everywhere, be it by nature or architecture. Tyrolean tradition is very important to us but we don’t copy from other chefs, we’re letting ourselves be influenced by other things. I just had a meeting with an organic farmer whose products we’re going to use as inspiration in order to make them into dishes. I’ll give everyone in the kitchen a sweet potato, for example, and ask them to make something out of it. And then I’ll see how that goes with our menu.
L.L. / Tannenhof is known for Creative Alpine Kitchen. What does this mean and how do you develop new dishes?
J.B. / We’re always looking for new products and new suppliers. The aim is to keep it as regional as possible. But, of course, the products need to meet our standards which is why we sometimes have to expand that radius.
L.L. / What facets of Austrian and Tyrolean cuisine can be found in your creations?
J.B. / We’re drawing inspiration from the roots of Austrian cuisine – from sauerkraut-doughnuts to fried calf’s head. And then we think about how we might integrate these dishes into our menu.
L.L. / Congratulations are in order: You were just awarded three ‘toques’, 18 points, by Gault & Millau. When you started working at Tannenhof in 2015 you had to step into big footsteps. Your predecessor was also decorated with three ‘toques’. Was that a motivation for you or were you sometimes worried you’d not meet the high demands there?
J.B. / It was no pressure for me and that’s a good thing. As soon as there is pressure and you strive for those stars and ‘toques’ you’ll never make it anyway. We cook for our guests and we put all our passion into the creations. When that earns us an award we’re happy about it, of course. We do our job as well as possible and are always thinking about how we could improve. And that’ll lead wherever it leads – we can’t really influence that. The guest is always most important to me.
L.L. / What do these awards mean to you personally?
J.B. / I have worked in this industry a lot and for a long time. Which is why it makes me very happy, of course. The award is only the beginning though. We have to look at how we can keep developing, be it as a team or with regards to the cooking style. We have a long way to go…
L.L. / At hotel Tannenhof you have gourmets and epicures come and go every day. How do you try to keep surprising demanding guests? What makes the culinary experience at Tannenhof so unique?
J.B. / We keep trying to surprise our guests. The organic farmer that I just talked to is trying to plant ginger and sweet potatoes in Vorarlberg. I think that’s really exciting. We have to keep coming up with new dishes and in that respect it’s very important to have colleagues like him who offer great products and work with a lot of passion. We can then use these products and work with them and offer them to our guests. Of course, that requires time and people who have a great passion for their products.
L.L. / Would you say that cooking shows and the great number of hobby chefs that work at a high level make it more difficult to keep surprising the guest?
J.B. / Actually, I think that this development benefits all of us. It means that food culture and know-how are spread. Guests know their way around high-end cuisine and they know the quality of good food. And, as a consequence, we want to keep increasing our level of quality.
L.L. / Gourmet cookbooks are a great trend in bookstores. What do you think about them? Are these books more of an inspiration for other top chefs or do you think that nowadays hobby chefs can handle them too?
J.B. / I think these books inspire both hobby chefs and professionals. Finding a good cookbook that will help you make haute cuisine at home is very difficult. The differences between the two worlds are simply too big.
L.L. / It’s becoming increasingly difficult to find good chefs and motivated kitchen staff. How do you try to revive the atmosphere in the industry?
J.B. / I really try to create an atmosphere that isn’t aggressive – discipline is very important nonetheless. And the creative exchange that the entire house participates in also is crucial. Nowadays you really have to offer a nice atmosphere to make sure the staff can flourish and develop.
L.L. / Only good ingredients make extraordinary dishes. What signs of quality are particularly important to you when you choose your products?
J.B. / I mostly see the quality in the farmers’ commitment. If you feel the passion the product tastes better and it’s easier to process. But of course, you have to look for and find these kinds of products first.
L.L. / In St. Anton you’re surrounded by unique nature and a breathtaking view of the mountains. How does nature influence your creative process?
J.B. / In summer we had a dish that was typically St. Anton: sorrel tortellini with mountain herbs, mountain cheese in fine beef broth. All ingredients were local, we went and got the herbs directly from the meadow outside. That’s a dish that was inspired by nature. It’s crucial to keep one’s eyes open when walking through nature and exploring the landscape.
L.L. / What places do you find particularly inspiring?
J.B. / I find my inspiration everywhere. London is my home so it’s particularly inspiring. But if I were to spend all my time only in London or here it would be difficult too. It’s all in the mix, really.
L.L. / Mr. Baron, you’re from Great Britain, a country that is not exactly famous for its cuisine. Would you say that reality is as bad as the reputation? And is there a British dish you miss anyway when you’re in Austria?
J.B. / 10-15 years ago the level of quality was really bad. Because of Jamie Oliver and the media, food culture has developed a great deal. His style is very different from mine but he does incredible work and the development really is very positive. In London you can really eat extremely well nowadays – from Sunday lunch to Sushi. London has a very cosmopolitan flair.
I miss my mother’s Sunday roast, that’s something I can’t get here, unfortunately. She makes the mustard and honey glaze herself. Her Sunday roast is unique, not even I manage to make it as good.
At home I like making: Sunday roast.
This chef is my idol: Sergio Herman, Andreas Caminada, Alain Passard.
My cooking style in three words: regional, alpine, tasty.
Fondue chinois or fish and chips? Fish and chips.
When something is oversalted you can…do nothing.
I love spending my free time on the Arlberg….on the golf course with colleagues.
In 2015 James Baron became chef de cuisine at Tannenhof St. Anton, Europe’s smallest five-star superior hotel. The only 31-year-old Brit was trained at the 1-star restaurant J.S.W. Peterfield in Great Britain. Sustainability and regional products are his greatest priority. After his training is path led him to Canada, Austria and Switzerland where he also worked as sous-chef for internationally renowned chefs like Andreas Caminada and Didier de Courten.