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The Story of a Swiss Hotel:  Rocco Forte's Le Richemond

 

Snow-capped mountains, luminous lakes, window boxes brimming with bright red geraniums. Turrets and spires, precariously pitched weathervanes, eaves jutting out from tiled roofs sloping down the byways of hillside villages.  Time measured by the chiming of church bells, the strident announcements of cuckoo clocks, and (with perfect precision) the ticking of timekeepers engraved with the credit line: "Made in Switzerland."

A land that lends itself to story telling like Heidi, an idyllic tale of a little girl who comes to live with her reclusive and reluctant grandfather in his alpine hut and ends up melting his icy demeanor and awakening feelings he thought were long dead. And the inspirational tale of a 15-year-old boy who leaves home in the Black Forest of Germany to seek his fortune and ends up in Geneva where he founds a dynasty and a establishes a grand hotel.

When Adolphe Rodolphe Armeieder arrived in Geneva in 1875, he had already spent some years in England, Ireland and Italy learning the hotelier's trade. Now, feeling he was ready to operate a place of his own, he rented a pension in a building that had belonged to the famous Swiss artist François Diday. There he worked long hours doing what he could to save money (even mending worn-out carpets himself), improving the facility and building up an increasingly fashionable clientele until what had been a modest boardinghouse with room for 25 guests had been transformed into the Hotel Le Richemond, one of the great hotels in Switzerland. Through four generations of the Armeieder family, it would be handed down from father to son.

A wide and pleasing-looking building, le Richemond remains a stately presence among  Geneva's row of lake-front, largely 19th century structures with a stone façade that takes on a rosy hue and tall windows that open onto little balconies enclosed by wrought iron railings. Across the way is a small park, the Jardin Brunswick, with an imposing Gothic structure at its center. This is the Brunswick Monument, a mausoleum built for Duke Karl II of Brunswick who left his estate to Geneva. Beyond the park is the magnificent waterfront where Lake Geneva meets the Rhone River.    

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"This hotel was the place where my parents and their friends would meet after work; my wife’s parents and their colleagues from the United Nations would come here for cocktails," says Patrick Mossu, who has been telling us this story in the lobby of the recently renovated le Richemond. A native of Geneva with an engaging intellectual air, Patrick has been general manager of the hotel for only a month; his memories, however, go way back.

"For a long time, le Richemond was an institution in Geneva," he tells us. "When I turned 18, in a typical coming-of-age ceremony, my parents brought me here for dinner, and my father presented me with a Rolex watch.

"But then, some time in the 1990s, the Armeieders ran into financial difficulties. They managed to raise some cash, and the son bought a number of fine hotels in Switzerland hoping to create his own group. But he did not make a go of it. Finally, he decided to sell the group off, piece by piece. By then, le Richemond was in decline. It had gotten old and tired. People were saying it had lost its appeal."

General Manager Patrick Mossu - click to enlarge
General Manager Patrick Mossu

Patrick paused, warming to the climax of his story. "It was at that point -- in July 2004, that the Rocco Forte group bought the hotel. It was, in a way, a continuation of a legacy -- the moving of a family business from one family to another family."

It would also be a continuation of the Rocco Forte approach: taking over an existing structure -- be it a legendary hotel, a former bank, a building that housed television network offices -- and creating out of it a five-star hotel of high design that shares in certain brand motifs while, at the same time, is deeply rooted in the history of the property and its locale.

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Late in 2005, the hotel closed for a complete renovation. When it re-opened in September 2007, it contained 109 rooms including 26 suites, each of its own distinctive design. In place of the former and formal French antique furnishings was an eclectic décor combining modern, Art Deco, and mid-twentieth-century- retro pieces of fine materials and in vivid colors with Art Nouveau-type lighting fixtures, Murano chandeliers in the ballroom, many mirrors, and sizeable flower arrangements blending blooms, straw, greens and grasses in stunning abstract design. Overall the aura was suggestive of post-war Hollywood glamour. But distinctive pieces from the original hotel had been retained, and on every landing and in each of the suites, individual treasures: an antique clock or vase, piece of sculpture, book, painting, a particular piece of furniture are strategically placed, connecting yesterday to today.

Although the interior has been dramatically re-imagined, the exterior remains unchanged except for the addition of a seventh floor. Only swaths of red bunting are now wound through the wrought iron and up the sides of balconies. They serve as signposts that can be seen from blocks away. "You see the red, and you know you where you are," says Patrick.

"When I walk in each day, I feel the vibes of this hotel," he continues. "Our style is not only to be found in the décor but in the staff and their level of service. The French- Swiss are sometimes perceived as stuck-up. Not here. Everyone smiles, everyone is warmly greeted. That is the le Richemond style."

lobby - click to enlarge
Lobby

Flower arrangement of stunning abstract design - click to enlarge
Flower arrangement of stunning abstract design

"Le Bar" - click to enlarge
"Le Bar"

Before the grand stairway: Personal Assistant to the G.M.: Raymonde Croisier  - click to enlarge
Before the grand stairway: Personal Assistant to the G.M.: Raymonde Croisier

 

Having visited other Rocco Forte properties, we had come to see how style and service are constants throughout the collection. So is cuisine. Reflecting the Forte family's ethnic origins, every hotel has an Italian restaurant and chef.

“My father is a chef; I started working with him in Palermo where I grew up," Chef Pietro Amato told us. "Some of the recipes I use, I learned from him. That may be why my vision of the kitchen is to respect the tradition.”

On a beautiful evening in early July, we were seated on the street-front dining terrace of Sapori, le Richemond's Italian restaurant, having a glass of sparkling Rosé and tempura Italian-style (broccoli, carrot, zucchini and a huge olive stuffed with meat, all dipped in batter, fried and pierced with a toothpick) when the handsome Sicilian chef, who looks even younger than his 35 years, stopped by our table. He wanted us to know he is a staunch traditionalist, he said – in the kitchen at least. “I am not looking to be creative, to make original combinations. I try to appeal to diners by the quality of the food, the lightness of the dishes. We consider such questions as why this olive oil, why this fish? Every ingredient is important.”

Pietro was dressed in dark burgundy instead of the expected white. It was more in keeping with the decor - this is a Rocco Forte property after all. But when it comes to presentation of his dishes, he stressed, he will not add a sauce simply for the color. “A dish is not a painting.”

He went on, “I have a team of 24 in the kitchen; they are all in their 20’s, and they all share my philosophy. We are aware of the new demands of clients, the new technology.  But we don’t speed up the process. For our minestrone, we cut the asparagus, the beans, all the vegetables by hand. No machine. We respect the ingredients. You will recognize what you eat here, and everything will be true to a specific region of Italy.” He smiled. “Wait. You will taste and be the judge.”

So we did. While people strolled by on the sidewalk below and through the Jardin Brunswick across the way, we dined at what reputedly is the most authentic Italian restaurant in Geneva relying on the advice of Maitre d' Pasquale Giordano, another charismatic Italian import, who helped us limit our choices from a menu of irresistible options. He suggested we begin with the chilled and refreshing gazpacho, the first fulfillment of Pietro’s tradition-oriented approach. “We peel fresh tomatoes, add salt and pepper, fresh basil and olive oil,” he’d said. “Then we quickly steam some scampi and langoustine and add it to the soup.” An aubergine appetizer followed, the eggplant having been lightly fried in olive oil, then baked with mozzarella imported from Italy and flavored with basil.

“The sea bass is excellent today,” Pasquale told us. “It can be made a la plancha  with mascarpone made with white eggs and celery root -- the chef does not use cream. Or it can be cooked whole – a little spicy, with a granite of sautéed sweet chard, and roast potatoes.” But the clams were excellent as well. So while one of us opted for the grilled sea bass which arrived with a platter of chanterelle mushrooms, bak choy, thin string beans, red peppers, and a  sauce of fried tomatoes, pignoli and olive oil for the fish, the other, typically, went for the clams with  spaghetti in a  sweet and tangy sauce. Both dishes exemplified the credo Pietro articulated: the wholesomeness and simplicity of undisguised natural ingredients of excellent quality: olive oil, parsley, basil, a little white wine, fresh fish. . . all hallmarks of one of the world’s favorite cuisines.

"Pietro is linked to the land," Pasquale said. "He prides himself on knowledge  of Italian cooking. There are other Italian restaurants in Geneva, but this is the real thing."

For dessert, the effusive maitre d' convinced us to throw caution to the winds and splurge on the sinfully decadent but unquestionably delicious Moelloeux au Chocolat – a kind of chocolate soufflé with coffee ice cream and pistachios

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At the time of our visit, Sapori had been open for less than a year. Yet already it seemed to have attracted a large local following. When we stopped in for lunch, nearly every table, both inside and out, was taken with people seemingly involved in some kind of business. We ventured to guess those associated with the many international banks and corporations in Geneva as well as United Nations and Red Cross-related organizations have found their way to what a diner at a nearby table told us is the best Italian restaurant in town.

She was part of a large group from Caterpillar headquarters which is located in Geneva and starting lunch with gazpacho ladled out from a huge tureen with a little dollop of sour cream added to each serving. Wine had been poured. Without a tasting, a toast was being made. Sommelier Sébastien Humbert told us it was a traditional Swiss red, similar to a Beaujolais or Pinot Noir, not aged, suitable for the summertime.

He brought us a bottle. It had the taste of blackberry and was so perfect an accompaniment to a light lunch of raviolis the size of a quarter filled with spinach and ricotta in a sauce seasoned with sage, or linguini with chunks of fresh tomatoes. We took a look at the next table – everyone was having pasta as well. If, as some say, Geneva still retains the Calvinist ethos, the Italian spirit provides a healthy counterpoint.

Chef Pietro Amato - click to enlarge
Chef Pietro Amato

Sommelier Sébastien Humbert - click to enlarge
Sommelier Sébastien Humbert

When the hotel opened after renovations, local people were interested," Patrick told us. "They said 'We'll come and see,' and that's where it left off.  But then, little by little, le Richemond became the place to visit. The décor is an attraction; also we present  a different kind of offering in Geneva. And we are the only five-star hotel in the city with a full service spa with a hammam and sauna with a range of aesthetic treatments based on both Eastern and Western philosophies."

He continued, "I look at my arrival form each day, and each day I see more and more Rocco Forte clients. They know the quality of Rocco Forte hotels; they're interested that this building is a monument. They come, and then they become repeat guests. But I also see people who had been le Richemond clients in the past who were unsure but then decided to try it. They are returning too which leads to my conviction that this will become the rendezvous for the Genevois. 

"For me, however, the towering moment was when I told my father I was taking over as general manager of le Richemond, and he said to me 'Then I will go back.'

"He and my mother came for dinner, and -- as I expected -- they liked it very much."

Maitre d' Pasquale Giordano - click to enlarge
Maitre d' Pasquale Giordano

Le Richemond|
Jardin Brunswick
1201 Geneva, Switzerland

Phone: +41 22 715 76 22
Web:  http://www.roccofortecollection.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer    

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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