Classically Raised: How My Swiss-American Roots Have Shaped My Cooking



What we grow up eating, how we grow up eating, and where we grow up eating has a great impact on the kinds of foods we enjoy. Our family and cultural histories, thus, have a profound influence on our preferences and our notion of "quality" in food. What we enjoy is, more than anything, a subjective experience unique to us. This certainly holds true for me as I feel incredibly lucky to have been raised in a French speaking household in Switzerland and also to have grown up in central NJ next to one of the most incredible food cities in the world: New York City. In the next couple paragraphs I will share a little bit about my own upbringing and I will break down what I feel makes my palette unique and versatile. I should also mention that I studied cultural anthropology and have a passion for learning about different cultures and food traditions.  

The Swiss Side: 

Switzerland, not to be confused with Sweden, is a small nation at the heart of Western Europe. Bordering Switzerland are Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Lichtenstein (tiny country). Historically, Switzerland shares many cultural and linguistic similarities with these surrounding regions. Switzerland, as a result, has four national languages (Swiss-German, French, Italian, Romanche). In addition to having unique regional dialects and accents, the different linguistic sub-regions in Switzerland have their own food traditions and food cultures. It should also be noted that Alpine culture and cuisine has played a major role in shaping the different regional cuisines in Switzerland. Alpine cuisine relies heavily on the use of butter and dairy in food preparation. Finally, Switzerland is also very fertile in terms of agricultural land (in the valleys) and has some of the best quality produce in Europe. 

 

I'm from the French Speaking part of Switzerland in a region called la Suisse-romande. My family is from a small city called Neuchâtel. I grew up eating a mixture of Classic French home cooking, Alpine cuisine, German style fair, and Mediterranean-Italian cooking. Wine and beer are the preferred beverages in this region and are commonplace in our cooking. The latter help create rich sauces and are also excellent compliments to our meals.

Cheeses are huge. Throughout the country there are over 450 different varieties of cheeses. Some of these cheeses are extremely flavorful. For many they are considered a sensory overload, because they are so strong, salty, and umami. Even a small slice of one of these cheeses will make you think twice about giving your loved one a kiss on the cheek. I, personally, love the cheeses that smell super, super, strong and as a result I have become accustomed to eating really bold and flavorful cheeses with different European wines (Swiss, French, and Italian). Thus, bold flavors are preserved in the making of local cheeses but also in the tradition of "nose-to-tail" cooking.  

Switzerland, while known for chocolate and luxury watches, was, before the World Wars, an agrarian society, relying heavily on dairy, potatoes, and using every part of an animal for sustenance. My family continues to eat organ meat from beef and pork, preserving some of these past traditions.

Being from Neuchâtel, French cuisine has shaped my palette tremendously. Contrary to the belief that French cooking is extremely filling, fatty, and buttery, my experience has been very different. Vegetables, fresh salads, herbs, vinaigrettes and light-assertive flavors are predominant. Portion sizes also tend to be smaller. Thus, the combination of fresh produce, quality protein, dairy, and reasonable portions helps create a balanced diet.

So what does this mean for my cooking?

Switzerland's cultural diversity and central location in Europe has allowed me to discover many aspects of French, Italian, and German cuisine, from home cooked meals to fine restaurants. This understanding of different regional cuisines from around Europe allows me to offer balanced, often subtler dishes which are flavorful, but not too heavy. I try to bring this approach to a lot of my food. Consequently, my lived experience in Switzerland has created a foundation of recipes, techniques, and tastes, that I believe give me a true sense of authentic flavors from across Europe. 

The US Side (the other half): 

I'm a Jersey Boy and have lived here for the majority of my life. New Jersey is an incredible place to be when exploring different cuisines and learning about different cultures. The shear diversity of communities across the state has encouraged me to befriend people from all over the world. Moreover, many of these communities also cater to their own tastes, seeking to cook and preserve food-ways from their native regions. This, for an aspiring chef who wants the real deal, is a huge blessing and an advantage when creating new and innovative cuisine.

Not many people can drive within a 10 mile radius and literally try hundreds of different cuisines. I can have Korean food, shop in a Korean super market, and learn to cook from Korean friends. I can eat dosa and palak paneer, and go to a South Asian store and try to make similar dishes at home. I can have Pani Puri handed to me one at a time while hanging out with my Gujarati friends. I can be fully immersed in a small Oaxacan taqueria eating homemade tortillas and fresh salsas. I can walk down the street and eat a full spread of Ethiopian stews with injera. Throughout my life in Central NJ, it has been my passion to meet new people and learn about their culture and how they eat. It is from this place of sharing and curiosity for others that I have been able to make friends, eat ridiculously good food, and learn how to cook a lot of different foods. 

It does not end there. Since the age of eight I would spend many weekends going to the City (NYC) to visit a museum with my mom and then try a different cuisine. I would bring these experiences back to our kitchen table, trying to recreate what we had tried in the restaurant. On other weekends my mom would bring me to her colleagues' homes for dinner. Luckily for me, my mom had friends from India, Cameroon, Columbia, and other parts of Asia. Once I tried some of these home-cooked meals, I dedicated my time to learning about the ingredients found in the aunties' pantry and developed a whole new appreciation for bright and bold flavors. So I have the Swiss food, the international food, and last but certainly not least my Dad's food (US boomer). 

My Dad grew up eating classic US and Italian-American food. Similar to British cuisine, the meals were simple, meat-centric, and often served with boiled vegetables and gravy. These are comfort foods, that I have also grown up eating, albeit in moderation. My Dad is also great on the grill. His BBQ Chicken wings with grilled corn and a fresh garden salad remain some of the best summer dishes I can remember. While I prefer cooking foods which contain a lot of garlic, chilies, citrus, pepper, and spice, it was important for me to taste, cook, and learn about more subtle aspects of food in the US. Additionally, cooking the last couple years in a township whose tastes remained in the area of Italian-American cuisine (like my Dad's family) allowed me to bridge these different palettes to create tastes and dishes that were accessible to many people. 

 

I see myself as a bridge between different food worlds: someone who cares deeply about respecting and preserving cultural traditions and also someone who tries to create new dishes. I never claim my food to be from a specific region or place, but see it as a collage of my experience with food and friends from around the world. I'm inspired and delighted that so many people have shared their culture and food with me and look forward to doing the same for you!