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Interview with Chef Athanasios Kargatzidis in St. Moritz

Before the 29th St. Moritz Gourmet Festival concluded at the top of St. Moritz in the iconic Kulm Hotel, offering guests a festive and flavor-infused Oriental Closing Night featuring gourmet specialties from the five remaining Guest Chefs of the second Festival Week, I had the opportunity to sample the menu from Lebanon's No. 1 restaurant and meet the Chef Athanasios Kargatzidis, who created this success.

My gourmet journey featuring highlights from the best chefs around the globe began for me at the magical atmosphere of the edgy Kulm Country Club, at an altitude of 1856m in the Swiss Alps where guests indulge in haute cuisine as naturally as they wear haute couture or haute horlogerie. The Gourmet Dinner by Chef Kargatzidis reservation was a true wellness for senses, stimulated by fragrant, colorful dishes and innovative flavor combinations, accompanied by live music from a guitarist from Cairo for the occasion—after all, it is the 29th edition of Gourmet Festival in a world-class ski resort.

Chef Athanasios Kargatzidis, worked in a group of the five Guest Chefs, Alan Geaam, Musa Dagdeviren, Gal Ben Moshe, and Raz Rahav to created the menu for this private and fully booked Oriental Closing Night's gala dinner; the food, presentation, ambience and all details are very carefully selected and presented in the magnificently adorned "Sunny Bar" of the Kulm hotel. It began with an extremely lavish hot and cold mezze prepared by Chef Kargatzidis, who served, smoked cod's roe, doughnut kibbeh lamb neyyeh topped with caviar, kaumouni, arak toum, crisp taboon lamb sujouk and more. I was amazed that Kargatzidis, as a Greek Chef opened this gala dinner, but I was not surprised; as I experienced the night before at his Gourmet Dîner and in an interview earlier that day with the Chef, I understood what motivates his passion for the Middle Eastern cuisine. ©Image David Hubacher.

Before I go into the details of this Gourmet Dinner and one-of-a-kind moments that are served to us not only by nature itself but by great talents like Chef Athanasios Kargatzidis, whom I met on his first visit to St. Moritz as a Guest Chef of the Local Chef Mauro Taufer at the "Kulm Hotel St. Moritz," I invite you to read the interview below and then the article about the Closing Night.

The St. Moritz Gourmet Festival concluded at the iconic Kulm Hotel, with Oriental Closing Night Dinner. All image courtesy of Kulm Hotel.

Athanasios Kargatzidis, who was born in Greece, is rather familiar with the mountain landscapes of Canada where he grew up and attended Vancouver's prestigious Dubrulle Culinary Institute. He compares his first impressions of Engadin to Canada's top mountain destinations. While traveling the globe and developing his own culinary style, he never forgot his Greek heritage and the famous Greek hospitality, something that is reflected in his modern fusion food. We smalltalk about St. Moritz the irresistible destination for the well-traveled and birthplace of winter tourism thanks to hotelier Johannes Badrutt, St. Moritz and its first hotel, the Kulm Hotel, where we stay, gained recognition throughout the 19th century for their avant-garde spirit and Swiss hospitality.

Kulm Hotel's lobby where the interview with Chef Athanasios Kargatzidis took place.

The Kulm Hotel recognized the importance of upgrading the dining experience and providing guests with the latest avant-garde and modernity lifestyle, as it had Switzerland's first electric light in its Grand Restaurant, and today, this legendary resort is flourishing under the ownership of a Greek family, which makes me realize how this makes the Guest Chef feel so well taken care of, something he admits to me later in the interview is very important to him.

The cosy outdoor ambience of the newly opened Kulm Country Club; featuring an alpine-chic bar and a generous sun terrace overlooking the Kulm Park, at an altitude of 1856m is where guests inside enjoyed the Gourmet Dinner by Chef Kargatzidis.

As founder and co-owner of one of the top gourmet venues in Lebanon, Kargatzidis undoubtedly knows the effort it takes to be the best and also the pleasure of having guests and spoiling them with the best of the best. His restaurant, "Baron" in Beirut is placed first in the Middle East & North Africa's 50 Best Restaurants — Lebanon, and 12th overall in the list of the "Middle East & North Africa's 50 Best Restaurants."

Baron is not a Greek nor Canadian restaurant, but something else—a celebration of local Lebanese cuisine, as the Chef shares later. Eclectic small plates characterise the seasonal sharing-style menu that changes every few days. Heavy on the vegetables, the food is modern and innovative, with Mediterranean and Japanese influences. And everything is made and tastes as the Chef himself prefers and experiences the tastes of Lebanon.

Naturally, the first thing I wanted to know was, how did the Chef achieve this high level of success in a completely foreign country and food tradition?

Athanasios Kargatzidis: I have just finished three-year placement thanks to my agent in Chine, and I went back to Greece to see my family. The agent Mr Dubois approached me shortly with a new project, this time in Lebanon. And asked me to go there at least over a weekend, since my plan was to continue working in Fas east and Japan. When I meed the owners of the business in Beirut and understod what they wanted to do I stayed there; it was not a reflection of who I was as a chef, or what I wanted to do as a chef but the managing aspect was appealing. In the end I took over, expanding it from one location to thirty-five locations in the Middle East. At that point I met my wife, and we were thinking about leaving for Canada, but then I was asked to do some consulting, and the consulting really succeeded, so I asked again, "Do we go now or do we stay?" In the end, we ended up staying.

We found an old factory in an area that happened to be in the Armenian quarter of Beirut. It felt right and homelike, and my wife is Armenian. And basically, we built a restaurant because I needed an occupation and somewhere to go every day.

Beirut is a very great area for me. Yes, it is beautiful, the people are amazing, the local food is amazing, and everything, but coming from a structured life in Canada, it was also difficult to adjust to the city. But I was able to build the business that I wanted and do what I wanted to do. Chef Athanasios Kargatzidis

Athanasios Kargatzidis: So the restaurant Baron is always a reflection of who I am. How I want the space and the food to make you feel; comfortable and loved inside. And Baron is the name of the person, in the Armenian sense of someone who knows everything. The guy who you go to and who knows where something is and who can help you out if you need something

My colleagues at the time referred to me as Baron. It is the nobility title for someone who is not related to the monarchy's bloodlines, so it made sense, as I don't feel full-blooded local either. The restaurant is a complete reflection of me. We play the music that I listen to, and we cook the way that I want to eat.

Athanasios Kargatzidis: The way my geast eat is the way that I experienced the local cuisine in the first time. I experienced eating Lebanese food for the first time; it's just all these flavors on the plate mixed together into an amazing dish, and you just want to recreate that for your guests. This dish is a reflection of the travel I went through and my firsthand experience with the local foods.

For an example, the restaurant that I run now in Portugal is, in a similar way, a reflection of the flavors and my experience of Portuguese food. This is simply my philosophy, and this is how I cook.

Athanasios Kargatzidis: I'm just now getting around to calling this fusion cooking. As a chef, I grew up at the time of Peter Gordon and Charlie Trotter, the renowned pioneers of fusion food. I absorbed all of their influences, including how they became chefs and how they lived in multicultural societies. I remember growing up in Canada, in a city with 2000 Greek families who lived very much according to their culture. But at the same time, when my parents took me to dinner we were sampling foods at a local Vietnamese restaurant, I grew up eating homecooked Greek food, but I was also eating traditional perogies with my Ukrainian friends. So it was a complete picture of what was going on for me in terms of food culture. The multicultural composition of urban Canada greatly shaped my experience and understanding of food. It was really natural to me to continue to explore other cuisines as I left Canada to work as a chef abroad. And settling up in Lebanon was very natural for the same reason.

Can you tell us how you selected the menu for the gourmet dinner?

Athanasios Kargatzidis: It's not something that has made us famous, but we knew it would represent The Baron in Beirut. From cauliflower to the lamb shank—even the little mezze, which you wouldn't taste unless you attended the Gourmet Safari—these are things that do not only represent the Lebanese cuisine but are Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. Because everything works in such a way that there are so many cross-references. So these dishes are all on our menu in Beirut, except the hummus.

Kargatzidis mentions this dish again, despite the fact that it was an improvisation for the Gourmet Dinners based on something he experienced and kept well fortified in his memory, "The crabs reminded me of Canada, complete with drawn butter. So we make it fragrant with butter and everything from Lebanon." It was a smart way to introduce seafood, the Chef explains his idea, "The Country Club and St. Moritz make me think of Lake Tahoe and Canadian nature."

Kargatzidis confesses to me that he intends to return to St. Moritz, "but this time with my family," he adds excitedly. It's interesting to learn that there is already a strong connection to Switzerland, in that his brother works full-time in Switzerland for a manufacturer, though not the Porsche that is the Festival's sponsor. Naturally the brother is inviting the Chef to visit with his children the Swiss nature. For now, the Chef is headed to the award ceremony in Abu Dhabi.

St. Moritz followed by Abu Dhabi

The Chef explis how well taken care of he feelt with the programme that was prepared for all the chefs from eating the inavoidabel fondue to taking gondol and toasting at Piz Nair. left St. Moritz after the conclusion of the Gourmet festival to attend inaugural and highly anticipated Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants 2022 list, where his restaurant "Baron" was nominated again. The result was unveiled at a live awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi on 7th February. The brand-new ranking, which celebrates gastronomy, heritage and cutting-edge culinary techniques from across the region, features restaurants from 11 different countries. Nominated this year among 50 Best venues, the Baron, Beirut, was ranked 12th Best in the region, and remains first and highest ranked in Lebanon,, @eatdrinkbaron.

But St. Moritz would surely be happy to see him back soon. After all this is where you would go for the latest trends, and hereby I do not refer to Prada's latest skiing gear. Today St. Moritz offers the visitors to immerse in unique and world-class art, shopping, sport and culinary events. Internationally renowned brands align on Via Serlas, the highest luxury retail street in the world. Art's new mecca is the World-leading contemporary and modern art gallery Hauser & Wirth, which occupies three floors in Palace Galerie, a building owned by Badrutt’s Palace Hotel-another legendary hotel. St. Moritz has long been an enclave of creativity. The surrounding area was home to the Giacometti family and Alpine painter Giovanni Segantini. Over the course of the past two centuries, a range of cultural and intellectual figures have visited and been inspired by the Upper Engadine region. Skiing, shopping or even playing snow polo at 1,856m above sea level is energy consuming, and the resort aptly provides another highlight since 1994, the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival, which has developed into an international event over the years bringing together some of the best Chefs from all corners of the world.

Professor Olga Mroz, Dame of Honour and Konstantin Zeuke, General Manager Kempinski St. Moritz at the opening ceremony of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival on January 20 with the Porsche Grand Opening at the "Grand Hotel des Bains Kempinski" in St. Moritz.

Over the years, the program highlights have changed, but the concept remains the same and successful. Guest Chefs have carte blanche to prepare a bespoke menu for "Gourmet Dîners", to be served at the host property's dining establishment, which is worth a trip all by itself. This is the pinnacle of gastronomic indulgence when combined with Gourmet Safaris for more than a week, and everyone raves about the legendary Kitchen party held in the kitchen of the Badrutt's Palace Hotel, where Executive Chef Maxime Luvara resides.

It is inconceivable to imagine the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival without the Gourmet Safaris, which were completely sold out after just a few days this year. During the gourmet tours through the various partner hotels, guests are cooked for by one of the Guest Chefs or a Local Chef in each hotel and can enjoy a menu course seated at the chef’s table in the kitchen. Guests could go on a culinary discovery tour while traveling in style in a fleet of Porsche cars. Ten top chefs from the world’s most renowned fine-dining restaurants offering the diverse cuisine of the Middle East, delighting the festival's guests at more than 40 different culinary events, with their culinary skills. The response to the Official Events and the Special Events, which have been almost fully booked, has been consistently positive.

"Even the last few Gourmet Dîner evenings are almost fully booked," said Heinz Hunkeler, member of the festival event organisation and Director of the Kulm Hotel St. Moritz.

The Oriental Closing Night, which took place at the Kulm Hotel St. Moritz on Saturday, January 28, marked the grand finale of the St. Moritz Gourmet Festival. With cooking stations representing the Head Chefs and teams of five partner hotels, the lobby of the Kulm Hotel served as the beginning point for the delightful, flavourful, and enjoyable voyage into a 1001 Night's Gourmet experience.

Despite the chaotic state of Beirut, where his restaurant Baron is located, and the uncertainties surrounding supply and inflation. Even though his property was devastated in the disastrous explosion and he lost the restaurant, which is located right by the harbor, he was adamant that it had to be rebuilt, and in fact, it was within three months. This demonstrated to me his commitment to this region of the world.

Personal and dedicated 6-course gourmet menu from Lebanon

Kargatzidis is a firm believer that the success of a restaurant depends on his ability to compose a menu that is strongly appealing to him personally and takes point of departure in dishes that he knows and values as opposed to guessing which dishes guests would prefer. His dishes are not a "replication of Lebanese cuisine and hospitality per se", as I understood from my talk with the Chef, rather it is Kargatzidis' personal collection of favourite flavour combinations, as he introduced to me the idea behind his approach to the Middle Eastern cuisine. It was refreshing to explore the Chef's favourite dishes and his so richly "Gourmet Dîner" menu, where a six-course meal was accompanied by the live music and the best service one could wish for.

The Gourmet Dinner meny by the Chef at the Kulm Country Club.

Third plate by Chef at the Gourmet Dinner. Eryngii girolle skewers, yolk vadouvan tare with generous amount of shredded black truffle.

So, already after dining at the Kulm Country Club my initial experience of the Festival was "awesome" to use the same expression as the Chef used to describe his time in St. Moritz. Kargatzidis was Guest Chef of three-star Michelin Chef Mauro Colagreco, "a legend" is the term he used to describe Colagreco, and told me that he never felt so good being taken care of by another Chef.

Andalusian sounds accompany Gourmet dinner experience.

Interview and article

By Nermin Ahmet

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