Sandra Knecht is just about to fire up the grill when we arrive at her mobile kitchen at the harbour. She has christened this converted 1970s mobile toilet block Chnächt, imitating the Swiss pronunciation of her name. Originally, she wanted to prepare and sell hamburgers here. Instead, she now cooks sophisticated meals for about 30 guests once a month. The event is called “Many a time on a Sunday”.
The aim of this cooking project is to get to the bottom of the issues of home and identity – themes the concept artist has been examining for several years. “I want to explore what constitutes the essence of home. What does it taste like? That’s what I want to find out with my dishes,” she says.
On our visit, the main course on the menu is grilled wild boar, shot near the ruins of Farnsburg castle. “It’s important to me that the meat I cook comes from the region where I live,” Knecht says.
Home doesn’t just fall into your lap
She grew up in the mountains near Zurich and today lives in Buus in the Canton of Basle. “I’ve lived in a couple of different cities: Zürich, Berlin and Basle. But I only ever feel really good when I’m in the country. It’s always been that way,” says Knecht. So it is only fitting that her work revolves around the differences between town and country.
“I think home is something you have to negotiate,” she adds. “That’s why I chose Klybeck harbour for my current project, because the different parties here are constantly negotiating over the ongoing redevelopments,” she says.
She learned to fry herself an egg when she was only four years old, because she wanted to stand on her own two feet even as a child. As an adolescent, Knecht, who is now 48, worked in bakeries and a butcher’s shop. She learned how to make sausage and debone a joint of meat a long time ago. “I learned a lot about living with nature and animals when I did my voluntary service in the country,” she says. Respect for the animals and the vegetables she processes in her kitchen are enormously important to her. She has even given a pet name to the wild boar she is grilling today – Eugen.
“I’m grateful for the privilege of being able to cook meat from humanely raised animals for the dishes I prepare. I prefer to eat meat from free-range animals. It simply tastes better than meat from factory-farmed animals that are exposed to stress.” For “Many a time on a Sunday”, she only prepares meat from butchers she knows and likes. “But I prefer to buy whole carcasses from farmers or hunters,” she says.
Ingredients from field and forest
Knecht also sets great store by regional vegetables. “Above all, the vegetables and plants have to be the ones that the animal I’m cooking used to eat. Ideally, they come from the environment in which the animal lived.” So today’s starter is soup made from moss, pine needles and cep mushrooms.
As her second course, Knecht serves pumpkin that has been smoked and grilled over an open fire, blue potatoes with Canadian Renette apples, black sausage and vanilla onions. Other items on the menu are kohlrabi, smoked Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, beetroot with pear chutney, cream cheese, tahini and pear syrup. The grilled wild boar is served on a bed of buckwheat with sweet and sour chili sauce enriched with spruce resin.
As dessert, Knecht has prepared orange jam. “The jam is meant to taste like the very essence of an orange. The essence of an ingredient is the most important thing,” she says. And it has become a tradition that “Many a time on a Sunday” meals usually wind up with a schnapps. This time, it’s gin with a home-made “a thousand-and-one herbs tonic syrup”.
The switchover to concept art happened all by itself
Here’s how cook Sandra explains the theme of identity, which also plays a key role at Chnächt: “When people eat food I have prepared, they become part of what I am. I believe the energy we ingest when we eat makes us what we are.”
Knecht has always delved deeply into the issues that interest her, not least during her many years as a theatre director. “I have always searched for the suitable medium for my subjects. I take a conceptual approach to my work. Switching from my role as theatre director to that of a concept artist wasn’t a conscious decision, it just happened,” she says.
In the widest sense, Knecht sees her current gastronomic project as an extension of her work as a theatre director. “I’m still interested in how things are staged. That is the basis of my work,” she says. Soon, “Many a time on a Sunday” will acquire another piece of home - another slice of identity, so to speak. Sandra Knecht has brought an old barn from the Swiss Canton of Jura to the harbour. This barn is to provide a cosy ambience for her meals, five times a week from 1 May, with specials of the day, barbecue and a bar. But “Many a time on a Sunday” will continue to take place one a month.
“I plan to stay here for another five years. Maybe then I’ll move on and take my barn with me, like a snail with its shell”, says Knecht.
This article first appeared in TagesWoche.