A veritable Swiss Army knife  his life is a montage of sepia-toned, European idyll that has taken him from his humble beginnings in the Swiss Alps to sunny Sarasota, from the life of a young, aspiring professional skier to a restaurateur and TV personality on SNN 6, where his big, easy-going personality and culinary skill have turned the former foreigner into a local Sarasota brand. And the brand has a new flagship with the opening of New Florida Kitchen on Siesta Drive.

DIVER SCALLOPS “SARASOTA STYLE” WITH SAUTéED SPINACH, KEY LIME CHAMPAGNE SAUCE AND SALMON CAVIAR. PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Behind it all is the son of a cheesemaker who used to tag along with his father as he made deliveries to local restaurants and cafes in and around Bern, Switzerland. Back then, Chef Rolf was known as the more commonplace Rolf Zahnd, and his interest lay far from the heat of the kitchen. “Originally, I wanted to be a professional skier,” he says, and he was looking to support his expensive ski habit when he first stepped into a restaurant kitchen as a dishwasher. In this serendipitous way, he stumbled into his true calling, and, by the age of 18,  graduated from culinary school and was conscripted into the military as a cook. Through a winding series of fortunate events, Chef Rolf would wind up on Florida’s West coast to design a menu for The Green Flash on Captiva Island, where he met his wife Barry, a talented artist responsible for the hand-painted graphics and hand-made sign at New Florida Kitchen.

The “new” in New Florida Kitchen “means that everything is as local as possible,” says Rolf. Behind the bar, happy hour hoppers will find local craft beers on tap like Motorworks Cruiser Kolsch or inspired Floridian cocktails like the Myakka Spiced Peartini, the Sarasota Creamsicle or the Mote Marine Frose, the proceeds of which go to Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. The flair for all things Florida continues in the kitchen, where Chef Rolf truly shines as a visionary cuisinier. 

PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.

Take, for example, the seasonal special of tripletail filet. The tripletail is sourced from local fishermen right in Sarasota County—the only anglers savvy enough to land the solitary fish known to loiter around the buoys and crab traps. Fileted into delicate strips and lightly bronzed with Chef Rolf’s signature spice blend, a topping of pico de gallo made with local mangoes brings a welcome touch of cool and sweet. No knife is necessary to cut into the filet, as it practically dissolves into tender morsels. Its flavor and texture is comparable to snapper, though it appears less frequently on local menus due to its highly seasonal occurrence in Gulf waters near Sarasota. The burnt orange sear of the filet is a nice contrast to the roasted asparagus spears, cherry tomatoes, microgreens and a key lime sauce. It all amounts to a presentation that looks like carefully placed props for a still life painting. A nice wine pairing for the dish, and one that also reinforces Chef Rolf’s commitment to regional cuisine, is the Castillo Red from San Sebastion winery in St. Augustine. A bite of salty tripletail makes the wine sweeter on the tongue, though it makes for a smoky, complex glass on its own.

The kitchen at Chef Rolf’s is open and exposed, inviting the gaze of diners in much the same way as his cooking show on Sarasota’s SNN 6. He has nothing to hide from his patrons but, rather, wants to let them watch the show and observe firsthand all of the well-practiced work that goes into his dishes. Though he may not look up from his station to address diners like he would a rolling camera, they will still get the impression of a man who is exactly where he wants to be, where the confluence of passion and hard work transforms into art. Where many television personalities come off as caricatures of their real selves, Chef Rolf the man is no different than Chef Rolf the TV chef, and his new restaurant will excite and dazzle guests looking for a fresh spin on Old Florida.