Nenad Mlinarevic – Chef of the Year 2016



Nenad Mlinarevic creates dishes made exclusively with regional products, and his cuisine inspires the entire gourmet scene. Yet, embarking on a career in a kitchen was pure coincidence. Ending up being the best chef of all, however, is not.

Next to the Michelin Guide, Gault Millau is the most important French restaurant guide. Michelin awards stars and Gault Millau awards toques (chef’s hats) and points for distinctive and innovative cuisine. A meticulous preparation of the ingredients is also taken into account. Three Michelin stars and 20 Gault Millau points are the highest ratings possible.

Competitive ambition

It would be easy to confuse the media release that accompanied Nenad Mlinarevic’s selection as “Chef of the Year 2016” with a sports commentary: “In record time,” “makes the running,” and “pushes forward into the top league” are some of the expressions employed. This doesn’t sound like hands using tweezers to delicately place miniscule leaves onto plates, nor does it evoke images of small saucepans simmering softly on the stove, exuding an absolutely delicious aroma. Nor does it sound like somebody who drives for miles on bumpy roads to visit farms in the Lucerne hinterlands in order to try their local potatoes or lentils – as if he had all the time in the world. But the sum of this is precisely what makes Nenad Mlinarevic exceptional.

Just joining in – that’s not my thing.

Before sitting down, Nenad Mlinarevic brushes away two stray pebbles from his seat on the lakeside terrace of the Park Hotel Vitznau. He has a calm, attentive manner and speaks in a quiet voice as he explains that his work is not all that dissimilar from being a top athlete. “The drive to want to achieve more than others, the stamina, and the self-discipline required is similar to that of an athlete.” When compared to earlier photos, Mlinarevic seems to have shrunk by about a third. Leaning back, he folds his hands behind his neck and says: “Forty minutes of cardio training in the morning, a shower, and then coming here. It’s a great feeling,” revealing that his slimmer appearance didn’t happen by chance. When he was younger, Mlinarevic loved playing ice hockey, soccer, and basketball. “It’s been a year since I started doing sports again seriously,” he tells us. Another case in point: When Mlinarevic sets a goal, he achieves it.

He has always been ambitious: “Just joining in – that’s not my thing. I play to win,” he says, and paradoxically appears completely laid back. “Maybe it is part of my mindset. My parents came from Serbia and always worked hard. The passion to achieve something by doing good work comes from within.” His parents, however, are not quite so radical: “They’re more relaxed, not quite as driven. But my brother’s just like me.” Zeljko, six years his senior, completed an apprenticeship in the same establishment as Nenad did – in the restaurant business. “But unlike me, he didn’t stay in the profession and now works in the public transport sector.” Both young men found their apprenticeships through their father, who worked in the driver’s cabin of the Dolderbahn, the cable car that shuttles between downtown Zurich and the Grand Dolder hotel. Through his work, the elder Mlinarevic got to know the manager of the Dolder restaurant. Nevertheless, until Nenad Mlinarevic went for a trial run at the restaurant, he had no clear vision of what his future held.

Self-imposed constrictions fuel fantasy

“Cooking was never my dream. I don’t have any stories about how I always helped my mother in the kitchen,” he reveals with a wry smile. “My father is a very good cook, my mother was at home and did everything by herself. We always ate warm meals – and good food and sitting down together at the dinner table were important to us. But like any other kid, I was always thrilled if we got an unexpected snack: After all, I like eating. But I never had a favorite dish or a favorite recipe.” Atypical for a chef? He considers. “What I can say is: I prefer fish over meat. When my father made chops I used to always cut away the tendons and fat because that bothered me even back then.” But after 15-year-old Nenad’s first day in a professional kitchen, everything changed: “The pressure, the creativity, the well-coordinated team, the camaraderie: I instantly knew that this was all I ever wanted to do.”

We spend more time with our team than we do with our families or partners. So I want to work with people who have personality.

Mlinarevic has been cooking at the Park Hotel Vitznau’s restaurant “Focus,” located on Lake Lucerne, since 2013, where he handpicked the team of five he works with day in, day out. While giving us a tour of the empty kitchen, he stops to wipe two miniscule crumbs from one of the steel worktops that have been adapted to his height. He always schedules his team to arrive with only a few minutes to spare, so that no time remains for them to be idle. “Less time is better and leads to more intense, concentrated, and faster work. This way, too, everybody has more free time in the morning, which is extremely important to offset the strain of working in the kitchen,” is how Mlinarevic explains his management style. “I hate waste. In every aspect of life. If somebody wants to goof off, count me out. I always feel I have too little time as it is.”

I hate waste. In every aspect of life.

Mlinarevic and his team ascribe to the philosophy of cooking exclusively with regional and seasonal products. Thus, with the exception of chocolate and coffee, all the ingredients used in his kitchen are sourced locally. “Despite having a reduced selection, I find working this way easier. Choosing a definite direction creates a clear framework, and constraints sometimes fuel creativity.” Stringent adherence to this philosophy has significantly contributed to his strong image. He has also become known for the fact that his kitchen uses neither olive oil nor pepper.

My fish is caught half an hour away from here. And it has a very different flavor from a frozen block of tuna that has had to travel over 72 hours.

“I am 100 % convinced of this strategy; otherwise I wouldn’t do it,” he says and explains: “My fish is caught half an hour away from here. It naturally tastes very different from a deep frozen block of tuna that has traveled 72 hours to get here.” There are numerous fantastic regional products, and he is convinced that those who visit Switzerland also want to experience what Switzerland tastes like. “We don’t go to Thailand to eat pizza, do we?”

Chef with rock star allure

Today, food is an omnipresent topic and probably more cooking programs are watched than music clips. This is also evidenced by the changes in sponsoring and testimonial advertising. Companies now regularly knock on Mlinarevic’s kitchen door, and his sponsoring partners – these include Victorinox, V-Zug, Maserati, and most recently IWC – are all carefully chosen. “It has to be a 100 % match.” Asked about the sports car, he begins to laugh and his eyes light up. With his jet-black hair swept back artfully and his muscular, tattooed arms, Mlinarevic seems rather exotic in idyllic Vitznau – and in the neighboring village of Gersau, where his fast car is parked in the garage. “That coincides more with a private passion. I love fast cars!” He throws up his hands. “To be offered a Maserati as a chef would have been completely unthinkable just a few years ago.” But he hastens to point out that the partnership with Maserati is absolutely appropriate. “What we produce is not for the masses. Neither is a Maserati.”

Mlinarevic, who loves traveling, is looking forward to having some time off. “I want to go to Los Angeles or South Africa and rent a place there, drive around, switch off my phone, and not have to do a single thing.”

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