One of the giants of late twentieth-century French cuisine, the Swiss chef Philippe Rochat, died Wednesday morning at the age of 61 after collapsing while riding a bicycle in Cheseaux, just north of Lausanne, Switzerland. Rochat, who brought his cuisine to New York City briefly in October of 2007, cooking banquets on three consecutive nights at the now-defunct Café Gray at Time Warner Center, was an acolyte of the legendary Frédy Girardet, and took over his restaurant when Girardet retired in 1996.
Though his name is largely unknown to today's young TV-generation chefs, Girardet was arguably the most respected creator of contemporary haute cuisine in the latter twentieth century, cooking the most exquisite food imaginable at his restaurant in the old Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) in Crissier, a small town near Lausanne. Rochat, born about 40 miles from Lausanne, worked in a number of other restaurants around Switzerland before landing at Girardet in 1980. Nine years later, he had become Girardet's number-two, and when Girardet decided that he should retire (a decision he later bitterly regretted, incidentally), he sold the place to Rochat.
Girardet was a tough act to follow — his fellow chefs called him "Le Pape," The Pope, in intimation of his culinary infallibility — but Rochat was up to the challenge, and quickly made the restaurant his own. A year after he took over, he had three Michelin stars of his own.
Rochat's food was lapidary. Diners might start with a little glass cup of jellied celery and chayote consommé concealing a minuscule orb of foie gras, topped with slivers of very crisp white celery and a scattering of sea salt. Next perhaps some meltingly tender, subtly flavored baby scallops from Brittany, almost raw, wrapped in a film of spinach, topped with a bit of oscetra caviar and surrounded by a lightly creamy and surprisingly delicate sauce of sea urchin. Then marinated sweetbreads roasted on small metal skewers in a sauce made with sweet piquillo peppers, with a silky, saffron-scented potato purée on the side.… It was all prepared with precision and good sense; it was real food.
In 2002, Rochat's wife, Franziska Rochat-Moser, a famous international marathon runner (she placed first in the women's division of the New York Marathon in 1997), died after being swept down a mountainside by an avalanche while ski-trekking. Rochat set up a small museum dedicated to her accomplishments next door to the restaurant.
Rochat himself decided to retire in 2012, passing the establishment along, in turn, to his own number-two, Benoît Violier. "We were like father and son," an obviously devastated Violier told Radio Télévision Suisse. "We've lost a member of the family."
Frédy Girardet, whose relations with Rochat were strained after his own retirement, called the news of his death "a knockout blow," adding: "For 15 years, I had a wonderful time with him. His passion for things well done was the reason I chose him to replace me."