Notes From Klosters

Tuesday, February 28, 1989 5:50 AM

Most of the time the snow conditions on the Parsenn--up the mountainside from the Chesa Grischuna--are spectacular. At the moment (February 12th, 1989) the snow here in Klosters is far from spectacular. Elsewhere in Switzerland, alas, it is a 5-star disaster. According to reliable informants with whom I am in day-to-day contact, the snow at my next stop, St. Moritz, is virtually non-existent. It seems that St. Moritz, less than an hour away by train, is on “the other side of the Alps”, whatever that means. In any event, there is no snow to speak of--either in the town itself or on the slopes. February and no snow in St. Moritz? Shocking.

Today I telephoned The Eden, my old world “hotel garni” overlooking the lake, and asked what they would suggest I do when I arrive in St. Moritz this weekend. Handgliding and the Cresta Run were the answers. I have done the Cresta--a head-first, one-man toboggan run unique to St. Moritz--for two seasons as an SL, a guest on the “Supplementary List”. I love the English characters and the German Schickeria who dominate the Club, but the Cresta Run is not my first choice as a winter sport. First, it is too dangerous for my tennis elbow. Second, you have to get up at the crack of dawn. The Run shuts down at noon.

As a beginner, I often fly out of control at Shuttlecock--a tricky wide turn, and end up in a pile of fluffy Engadine snow and haphazard bails of hay. But with no snow, I will wake up in a ditch. Hand gliding? I took a course in Austria, but that was ages ago, and it did not involve landing on skis in a frozen lake, after gliding over the Palace Hotel. More danger to my tennis elbow. Pass.

Back in Gstaad, they were paragliding off the Wasserngrat when I decamped from there a week ago. Gstaad had reverted to a cow pasture. No doubt about it, St. Moritz has company in the absence-of-snow department. It has not snowed anywhere in the Alps in two months. Day after day, there is not a cloud in the clear cerulean sky. It is as sunny as Acapulco, and the streets are dry.

But not, I hasten to add, in Klosters. Here and in nearby Davos, which shares the same ski terrain, you can find the only decent skiing in Switzerland, Austria or France. The snow up on the slopes of the Parsenn, left over from the big fall in early December, is still more or less intact. 

It had to be. Otherwise I never would have left my comfortable chair on the Chesa Terrace yesterday after lunch, and headed skyward on the Gotschna Bahnen. That I managed to ski all the way down from the Weissfluhgipfel with only one unspectacular fall, arriving safe and sound in time for cocktails at the Chesa Bar, means the snow is good enough. My skiing, please understand, sometimes isn’t.


That was the problem in Gstaad. If you are an average skier, like myself, you require beautiful snow and plenty of it to get you going, and keep you going. Gstaad is a dream all right--when there is snow. Under the present circumstances, however, when one has to deal with ice and grass instead of snow, one is apt to get in trouble. An unattached male is likely to après-ski himself into oblivion. Even with good snow, Gstaad is après-ski to the max. 


After a painful two-year hiatus, I have returned to the Alps. Coming back to the Chesa Grischuna in Klosters was like coming home after a long journey. Just one unfortunate surprise: my old friend, the second head waiter, Monsieur Ernest, has departed. I was flabbergasted when Monsieur Claud, the maître d’hôtel, tactfully broke the news. “Yes, he felt that he wanted a change after ten years. He’s gotten a job in Zurich.” A change? Egads! What is the world coming to?

Change or even the suggestion of change, is the very last item a Chesa habitué is looking for. We want and require continuity. To hell with change. I was very much looking forward to seeing Ernest again--a prince of a man, small in stature, big of heart, and gigantic in outlook. 

Every evening about nine, when I had recovered from cocktails and skiing, upon appearing at the dining room entrance, Ernest’s irrepressible banter commenced loud and clear over the piano player and across the crowded room. “Ah, good evening, Monsieur Patrick...and how was the skiing this afternoon, Monsieur Patrick?...your table is here as usual...and the news from America? is life, Monsieur Patrick?” 

I honestly cannot recall giving Ernest a gratuity in my life. It’s sad and crazy, but there it is. So you may wonder what I possibly could have done to merit such a fond hello. The answer is, well, nothing. I was a familiar and a friendly face, a loyal client who had made the effort to travel a long way. That was enough. As such, I merited Ernest’s respect and attention. 


Did he bestow this treatment upon others? I do not know, but I cannot imagine that I was a unique case. Ernest was not looking for a gratuity. In fact, he may have been puzzled if I had tried to slip him one. We were on equal terms. Or rather, I was his pupil. You see, on top of his kindness, Ernest was a genius. He was interested in everything and seemed to be acquainted with everyone. Like those concierges at the grand hotels in Venice, Ernest possessed an informed opinion on virtually any topic, from Shakespeare to the economics of Hong Kong. During the course of a single evening, we took the diplomatic affairs of the world apart and put them back together again half a dozen times. 

If Ernest was a Prince, Monsieur Claud is a Prime Minister. Claud was less expansive, less familiar than Ernest. In a word, more Swiss. In fact, for several years I mistakenly assumed that Monsieur Claud owned the place. I don’t ask a lot of questions. No, it turns out that he is in charge of the restaurant, the maître d’hôtel, no small task to be sure. He and Ernest made the perfect duo, if there ever was one.

The owner, Herr Hans Guler, I have met and said a passing word to, now and again. Guler built the Chesa. He stays in the background. No doubt he is aware of who I am and I know who he is, and there is nothing more to be said about the matter. Did I say, in the background? That is not easy, because the Chesa is a preciously small establishment, inside and out, and Hans Guler is a mountain of a man. His handsome son, Christian, to the contrary, is as sleek as a greyhound.

Christian is a tall, handsome and fair-haired fellow. Unfortunately, he’s not here, either. Claud informs me that Christian has opened up a restaurant on Lake Zurich called Bellevue. The location is a good one: on the “golden coast”,  just south of financial capital of the world. Claud showed me the business card. On the flipside, it reads: “Fur Verruckte Anlasse: Rent a Restaurant, Cook yourself”. You might guess that Christian was a trifle too innovative for the Chesa, and you would be right. I recall him talking about wanting to open a gourmet restaurant in New York, a Manhattan branch of the Chesa. It might work. Probably it would be buried by Cipriani and the rest of the Italian invasion. 


The Chesa Grischuna is 50 years old. The anniversary celebrations took place in December, 1988. Among other activities, the restaurant served the same lunch, at the same price, three and a half Swiss Francs, as on opening day. A replica of the December 23rd, 1938 menu reads: Steinpilzcrèmesuppe, Gemischter Salat, Englisches Roastbeef gebraten, Ofenkartoffeln, Erbsen und Rüebli, Gebrannte Crème oder Gemischte Glace. Certainly a good value for 3.50 SF, even back then in the late 1930’s. I learned of the anniversary when I inquired of Monsieur Claud what was the meaning of the swastika above the number “38” next to the wooden gargoyle located in back of the piano. It had escaped my observation on previous visits.

Claud informed me that the symbol was not a swastika, but was the architect’s initials over the year in which the building was completed. The architect was a man named Hans Schneider, who was from Zurich. It would be of great interest to know where Herr Schneider went to school and what his grades were, what was he in the habit of drinking at night, and whether or not his wife, assuming he was married, was a difficult individual. In brief, what is the explanation for his bizarre masterpiece, the Chesa?

The Chesa Grischuna is not like any building anywhere. It is part Hansel and Grettel, part Swiss chalet, with a distinct pinch of Venetian gothic thrown in for good measure. The wooden sculptured head downstairs in the Chesa Bar rivals those macabre masterpieces found on the second floor of the Scuola San Rocco in Venice and is almost as grotesque as the stone head found at the base of the campanile in the Campo Santa Maria Formosa

Back in 1984, one side of the Chesa was elongated two and a half meters, less than ten feet--more space was required for the kitchen--in such a way that the finished product is absolutely seamless. You cannot tell the new from the old. Everything is timeless and in harmony with Hans Schneider’s original lines. He could not have anticipated that the cuisine of the Chesa would become famous.

Like its architecture, the food of the Chesa is a mixture of elements and a constant surprise. And difficult to classify. It is part French, but there is also a Mitteleuropa and Viennese quality about it, solid yet light. I sometimes think of the Chesa cuisine as Nouvelle Autrichienne, but that sounds absurd. Speaking as a consumer and not as a cook, I don’t have a clue. The eccentric architecture of the hotel and its old world atmosphere would not be sufficient to create and sustain Chesa habitués. Ultimately, the food does that. The possibility of consuming a disappointing meal at the Chesa Grischuna ranks alongside the possibility that the planet will spin off its axis tomorrow afternoon.

All this, plus the azure sky and the seemingly endless sunshine. What more does anyone have a right to wish for? Just one thing. The return of Monsieur Ernest....

Postscript from St. Moritz. I absentmindedly looked up from lunch here at the Chesa Veglia a week later, and what did I see? The same HS letters carved into a wall. Yes, indeed! Hans Schneider also designed, renovated and created the Chesa Veglia, which is now an annex or outpost of the stupendous Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. Can you imagine St. Moritz without the Chesa Veglia? Chalk up two legends for Hans Schneider. Could there be a third somewhere? Ça ira!

--Copyright 1990 Patrick Foy--