So, about the other night in Lausanne. It turns out that hope is the new dope. Under normal circumstances, a gala dinner celebrating the 160th birthday of a luxurious Swiss hotel might have been just another elegant and cosseting event among many others on the calendar of a privileged international crowd.
But these are not normal times. This particular event, held on December 2 in one of the most beautiful ballrooms in Europe, the Belle Époque Salle Sandoz at the Beau-Rivage Palace in Lausanne, crackled with the hilarity of people briefly recovering the missing pleasure of conviviality.
This began with the relief of removing one’s mask to sip champagne and the delight of seeing the faces of a crowd of beautifully dressed strangers. Then dinner broadsided the usual lukewarm catered menu—did someone say creamed chicken in puffed pastry?—so often served at such soirées.
Between each of the six courses, a cast of talented musicians performed musical interludes. When young soprano Sophie Negoïta, accompanied by pianist Guillaume Hersperger, sang Charles Gounod’s “Je veux vivre” (I want to live), there was barely a dry eye in the house.
The meal was nostalgic by nature. Michelin three-star chef Anne-Sophie Pic created an absolutely wonderful contemporary interpretation of the menu originally served to celebrate the opening of the hotel on March 25, 1861. As such, it put the evolution of European gastronomy on delicious display. (Pic, who runs the Maison Pic restaurant in Valence, France, that was founded by her grandfather, also has a Michelin two-star restaurant at the Beau-Rivage Palace.)
Gastronomically, the feast of 1861 was an extravagant but predictable tour de force of 19th-century Gallic culinary classicism.
The 14-course calorie avalanche began with potage Cressy (carrot-and-potato soup) and puff pastry filled with ham, then turbot with Hollandaise sauce, beef filet à la Bretonne, roast Bresse chicken, roasted venison en poivrade, and truffled turkey. The super-spreader factor at that meal was most likely gout.
Pic’s poetic menu was by turns lyrical, politely sensual, and knowingly cosmopolitan. It was an homage to her grandfather, André Pic, who created chausson à la truffe noire, a whole truffle baked inside a chausson (slipper) of golden puff pastry and a saffron sabayon.
Then she raised the flag of her own nuanced style with a dazzling revision of another of her father’s dishes, sea bass in champagne sauce with caviar. In her version, the fish came to the table in a cloud of sake-seasoned cream sauce, the Japanese spirit proving to be a brilliant pairing with the glossy black blaze of caviar and the floral sweetness of a sprinkling of pretty pink powder made from dried roses.
Peering back 160 years, Pic combined the original cheese course and ice cream by creating a Tomme cheese popsicle encased in white chocolate and seasoned with absinthe, a dish of real genius.
Though it was never overtly stated, the themes of this sumptuous soirée were human ingenuity and progress, beginning with the fact that guests had to show proof of vaccination to access the Salle Sandoz. Though the word “progress” today often has a quaint 19th-century ring to it, the Hôtel Beau-Rivage Palace has been a purring machine of innovation and excellence for 160 years. It had, for example, electric lighting from its own generator six years before the city of Lausanne did, and it was general manager Jacques Tschumi who founded the École Hôtelière de Lausanne in 1893 to train professional hotel staff.
The Swiss have always understood the pleasure-inducing effects of perfectionism, which is why guests at the gala left with a very precious gift—the hope that comes from a renewed sense of perspective. So yes, we’re living through a very difficult moment, but a thoroughly charming evening reminded everyone that the world is in many ways a better place than it was in 1861. The majestic eternity of the surrounding Alps whispered that this too shall pass.
This winter’s smart travel prescription isn’t a big carbon-footprint trip to some remote tropical islands where you might get stuck in the age of the coronavirus, but a week in a perfect Swiss luxury hotel on the edge of a lake. What most people need most right now is a good rest and a time out from turbulence, and here everything is luxe, calme et volupté.
So pack up the cashmere and some sturdy walking shoes, bring a couple of good books, and prepare for the hypnotizing pleasures of watching the snow-capped peaks of the Alps and the shore of Lake Geneva sporadically disappear behind veils of mist or snowstorms. And enjoy the happiness of letting others take care of you.
Alexander Lobrano is a Writer at Large for Air Mail. His latest book, the gastronomic coming-of-age story My Place at the Table, is out now