An autumnal encounter of two masters – the first of gastronomy, the second of Swiss timepieces – celebrates the great yellow gentian. This seasonal plant can be used in cuisine, liqueurs, even watchmaking.
Forty-nine minutes. That’s the time it takes to reach the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, a Relais & Châteaux member with three Michelin stars, to drive from the Blancpain watchmaking facilities overlooking the village of Le Brassus – a proximity that has also led to an unexpectedly close relationship between these seemingly disparate disciplines.
We sit down with Chef Franck Giovannini and Relais & Châteaux partner Blancpain to enjoy a lunch featuring the great yellow gentian. This bloom, known as ‘The Yellow Fairy’, is native to the region, can be picked every fall throughout Switzerland’s forest-covered Jura canton – and is found in the immediate surroundings around Blancpain’s watchmaking facilities. Used to flavor one of the Chef Giovannini’s signature game recipes, it is also used in watchmaking to polish miniature components in Blancpain’s intricate movements.
What ties do your establishments have to each other?
Maison Blancpain: Our ties stretch back decades. Frédy Girardet, Chef at the Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville de Crissier from 1965 to 1996, received a specially engraved Blancpain watch when he won the ‘World’s Best Chef’ prize in 1986. And ever since, our establishments have collaborated during the biannual Swiss Bocuse d’Or competitions.
Franck Giovannini: We also produced a video showing the similarities between our professions. I did a two-day visit to Blancpain’s manufacturing facilities to see its watchmakers at work.
You both use great yellow gentian. What does it work well with in cuisine?
Franck Giovannini: We have found it works wonderfully in desserts and game dishes. Today, I’m using it to season a sauce for a cold-pressed chamois. We infuse a broth or gravy with the stem and root. You can grate it, too. Its bittersweet flavor is one-of-a-kind.
And how is it used in watchmaking?
Maison Blancpain: Gentian wood is used in chamfering, which is one of the important finishes in fine watchmaking movements. This technique enhances the shapes of components by smoothing sharp edges at a specific angle. During the final polishing phase, this wood gives the components an exceptional degree of shine.
Where do you find this plant?
Maison Blancpain: In the immediate surroundings of our Manufacture in Le Brassus. Gentian is easy to recognize – the plant is native to the region.
How do you prepare the wood for use in polishing?
Maison Blancpain: We saw the stems by hand, then remove the leaves and bundle the stems together with string, before storing them in a dry place. Once the gentian has cured, our watchmakers cut the stems into 23cm segments, which are then split lengthwise. One stem yields up to six pieces of wood. These pieces are whittled to leave a pointed end, and the hollow tip is then filled with a polishing paste called diamantine, mixed with a drop of essential oil.
What do you think about when preparing a dish or crafting a watch?
Maison Blancpain: Watchmaking takes tremendous concentration, coupled with great meticulousness and dexterity, so you simply cannot let your mind wander. Ceaseless rigor is a must.
Franck Giovannini: It’s similar for us as chefs. My team and I serve about 1,000 plates a day, and each type of dish must be identical to the next and impeccably prepared – in appearance, in cooking, in seasoning. Our days involve two sittings, each service lasting three hours, and we must stay completely focused throughout.
What values do you share?
Maison Blancpain: Savoir-faire, attention to detail, the search for excellence, celebrating our heritage, product quality, and a deep desire to astound.
Franck Giovannini: The desire to progress, to constantly improve while staying authentic, all while respecting the base ingredients as best we find them so as not to distort the flavors in what we cook.
How is gastronomy influenced by time?
Franck Giovannini: In the culinary world, time is essential, especially for cooking times and ensuring each sitting runs smoothly. There’s a certain harmony between every dish on the menu, and a rhythm between the team – the precision of how we prepare a particular dish, even how we all move between and around each other. Each session must run like clockwork.
Do you consider your professions an investment in time?
Maison Blancpain: Yes – developing a new timepiece takes years. Watchmaking is rooted in the long term and the resulting intricate creations beautifully illustrate this. Adapting and evolving mechanisms is a labor of love, a process of small changes that progressively come together, using skills honed over centuries and shared down the generations.
Franck Giovannini: My days start at 8a.m. and aren’t over before midnight. Cooking is a profession driven by passion, which means making some personal sacrifices. There’s also an instantaneous side – handling service for each sitting, because you have to be ready twice a day. And, for the past eight years, I’ve devoted weekends to preparing for competitions. Sharing skills and knowledge is essential to keeping our legacy alive and passing on our heritage.
What is your vision of luxury?
Maison Blancpain: Luxury is not a matter of necessity, but of pleasure, as there are so many details to observe. It also includes a notion of longevity. A Blancpain timepiece is, so to speak, eternal.
Franck Giovannini: It is a feeling generated by the products, by the energy that has been invested in their production, by the way they are decorated and enhanced. Quality is essential, as is the story of a dish.