Considered one of the best chefs in the world, Léa Linster experimented with the humble potato on a recent Monday afternoon at her one-Michelin-star restaurant in the Luxembourg town of Frisange. She intently examined the thinly sliced potatoes, looking for clues about their starchiness. "People underestimate how difficult it is to achieve the perfect combination of crispy and chewy," she says.
A favorite vegetable in Luxembourg, the potato appears in many forms in Ms. Linster's home-cooking eatery called the Kaschthaus. At her signature Michelin-starred Restaurant Léa Linster, the potato incarnates in more noble ways fitting for a French gourmet. In fact, the dish that won Ms. Linster the Bocuse d' Or prize in 1989 features the tuber and remains on Ms. Linster's menu to this day: a saddle of lamb wrapped in a crisp, wafer-thin potato pancake. Ms. Linster browns the potato pancake on one side before she wraps it around lightly breaded lamb and bakes the duo.
At her two restaurants, Ms. Linster has long made a showcase of her native Luxembourg cuisine, which includes specialties such as flour dumplings called kniddelen and bouneschlupp, a green bean roux-based stew garnished with pork sausage.
Now, some 20 years after Ms. Linster became the first and only woman to win the coveted Bocuse d' Or prize, she has become a formal ambassador of Luxembourg's cuisine. This year, for the first time, Ms. Linster will officially represent Luxembourg abroad at the ITB Berlin, the world's largest tourism trade fair from March 10-12. She will prepare Luxembourg dishes at the country's stand at the fair, which draws more than 170,000 visitors.
The Grand Duchy's tourism authorities hope to position the country as a culinary destination, given that Luxembourg has more Michelin stars per capita than any other country in the world. Starred restaurants include Manoir Kasselslay, known for the creative use of regional products and its setting inside a natural reserve; Toit pour Toi, with its eclectic interpretation of French gourmet cuisine; and Restaurant Yves Radelet, also focused on regional ingredients, including some organic products.
For Holger Gettmann, a restaurant critic and the publisher of the Guide Orange food resource, Ms. Linster's official appearance is long overdue. "Ms. Linster embodies Luxembourg's charm and peculiarities. You can see it when she's on German television. She's highly skilled and recognized for her experience," he says. Ms. Linster appears frequently as a guest chef on channel ZDF's cooking shows "Lanz kocht" and "Küchenschlacht."
Ms. Linster, 55 years old, has trained alongside the world's best chefs, including Paul Bocuse, Joël Robuchon and Fredy Girardet. Yet, she hasn't let go of her down-to-earth principles that manifest in her personal style and cooking. She says she prefers dishes without overbearing sauces, such as scallops grilled with perfect brown trim that are tossed in a salad of endive and artichoke.
She strives to let individual ingredients speak for themselves and retain their original character, describing molecular cuisine as a trend to which she refuses to adapt. "If you change food too much, you kill the soul of it," Ms. Linster says.
Her choice of décor and the way she runs her kitchen speaks to her philosophy as well. She offers guests a sleek environment that isn't pretentious, and she says she avoids waste -- not an easy feat for a gourmet.
While sticking to her principles, Ms. Linster is in the process of expanding and transforming her culinary empire, which includes her two restaurants in Luxembourg, her media brand (TV appearances and a food column in the German women's magazine Brigitte), and her publishing efforts, which include six cookbooks. She is looking for a partner to open a restaurant in Manhattan, where she has an Upper East Side home, and is remodeling her 60-seat signature restaurant.
As part of the transformation, Ms. Linster has increased her marketing efforts. Years ago she wouldn't have been so bold, she says, but now she has draped a billboard-style photo of her face on the facade of her restaurant in Frisange, a village of several thousand people that is a 20-minute drive from the city of Luxembourg. Ms. Linster laughed with a hint of irony as she commented about the oversized photo that contrasts starkly with the rural environment. "It's big enough so that people won't actually take it seriously," she says.
Ms. Linster grew up playing hostess at the family's restaurant in Frisange. She often helped her parents cook and serve. As a 16-year-old girl, the first meal she ever prepared for guests was chicken in a Riesling sauce with a prune pie.
Ms. Linster began studying law but abruptly ended her time at the university when her father fell ill nearly three decades ago. She says she acquired her good taste and her intuition for cooking from her father, who was also a chef. "He had the palette of a God," she says, adding he had a knack for refining Luxembourg specialties with French touches.
Connoisseurs will point out what gives Luxembourg's cooking its own character: Fresh-water delights, such as frog legs and pike, Riesling sauces on chicken or fish and a good dose of garlic to honor the country's large number of Italian residents who immigrated more than a century ago, as well as Portuguese new arrivals.
Don't be mistaken. Although Luxembourg cuisine resembles potato-rich German cooking, with a dab of French finesse, it is more than a mélange. Maximilian von Hochberg, the general manager of the Hotel Sofitel Luxembourg Europe, says, "The French are attracted to Luxembourg because of its continental touch, while Germans appreciate the French overtones."
At the same time, the business crowd is increasingly an Anglo-Saxon troupe, says Mr. von Hochberg. Luxembourg is expanding its niche from a hub for the banking sector and European Union institutions to a center for information technology. Skype, the Internet-telephony company that was acquired by eBay, and the e-retailer Amazon.com both have their European headquarters here.
For business lunch, diners typically seek out restaurants in the Kirchberg district, home to the European Court of Justice and the European Investment Bank. Those interested in nightlife and cozier, smaller restaurants explore the cobble-stoned alleyways of the Grund area of Luxembourg's ancient city center, which holds the distinction of Unesco World Heritage Site for its Vauban fortifications.
This expansion as a haven for high technology (and low taxes) bodes well for restaurateurs such as Ms. Linster. Back at her signature restaurant, Luxembourg's patron chef continued working on her potatoes, which she dramatically drizzled with sea salt. As she performed her magic, Ms. Linster mused about people and her own journey from girl hostess to celebrated chef.
She says the way people evolve is more important than first impressions: "I love to give people a chance. I love it even more when they know how to take it."
—Rhea Wessel is a writer based in Kronberg, Germany.
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