Bruno Rossignol: from Parisian pot scrubber to the helm of EPFL’s green revolution

The head of EPFL’s Catering and Shops Unit has come up with an ambitious ten-year strategy that will entail rethinking the entire food-supply chain for the campus’s catering points. With Bruno Rossignol at the helm, EPFL will be leading the way as we revolutionize how we feed ourselves and what we eat.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bruno Rossignol, the head of EPFL’s Catering and Shops Unit (RESCO), is like a caged lion. Since the federal authorities announced on 13 March that all eating establishments would shut down, he has been roaming around an empty campus. He found the downtime “boring.” At 46 years of age, Bruno is like a bulldozer – he’s teeming with energy and only seems truly happy when he’s got an ambitious project on the go. So it’s not surprising that he was climbing the walls of his office during the two-month lockdown.

Since he arrived on campus in April 2019, Bruno has been leading a collective process to totally rethink how we live and consume in order to the meet the challenges brought about by climate change. He plans to ensure that all of the food served at the catering points on EPFL’s main campus and at its other sites is sustainable, locally sourced, seasonal, and increasingly vegetarian and vegan. Bruno is convinced that the green revolution has to start on our plates. And with him at the helm, EPFL will be leading the way as we make major changes to our eating habits.

No mean feat

To change what and how we eat, Bruno wants to rethink the entire supply chain, from producer to consumer. That means revamping the menus on offer, turning EPFL’s empty plots of land into vegetable gardens, reducing or even wiping out food waste, measuring the carbon impact of our catering services, banning single-use cutlery, creating a network of local producers and suppliers with the help of the caterers, offering seasonal products…the list goes on. It’s no mean feat.

Bruno has skillfully developed an ambitious ten-year strategy. Named “Project/20-30,” it’s the culmination of a busy 30-year career that has taken Bruno from Paris to French-speaking Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Azerbaijan. Between sips of coffee and a parcel delivery, Bruno talks us through his life – and his story really shows that he’s the perfect man for this job. He happily and enthusiastically reminisces in detail about his first culinary experiences. His interest in food developed when he was just nine or ten years old and living in Paris’s 19th Arrondissement. “I don’t come from a family of chefs, but it was what I always wanted to do.”

Chef’s school in Paris

Bruno is a self-made man and never really enjoyed traditional school. When he was 14, he passed the entrance exam for a French hotel school and began training as a chef. “From one day to the next, I was propelled into the grown-up world,” he says. “It was a real slap in the face. This is very tough work.” But Bruno gritted his teeth and toughened up. When he was 17, he got his vocational qualification and went off to work in Paris’s Michelin-starred restaurants as a self-employed commis chef. “I wanted to train at as many top-notch restaurants as I could. Big-name chefs can be a great source of inspiration and creativity, but I wanted to be exposed to more than just one of them.”

In the early 1990s, Bruno was ready for something new, so he applied to various restaurants. One morning, he got a call from the Hotel Beaulac in Neuchâtel. He’d never been to Switzerland before, but that very evening he got on a high-speed train at the Gare de Lyon. He worked in Neuchâtel for four months and then went to a restaurant in Fribourg, before the French army caught up with him. “My future was in Switzerland. I really didn’t want to go back to Paris.” But he did, for a year. His mother, who was employed in one of the government ministries, pulled some strings and got him some work at the official Paris residences of the French prime minister and the French president.

The Swiss dream

He then returned to Switzerland, working at the Hôtel de la Prairie in Yverdon-les-Bains, which was run by Michelin-star chef Jacques Besse at the time. “It was ridiculously demanding work,” says Bruno. But after ten months, his position was at risk because he didn’t have a work permit. He finally got his permit sorted out and switched kitchens, this time going to Jean-Baptiste Molinari, a Michelin-star chef and former trainee of Alain Ducasse, in Neuchâtel. He “learned a lot there.” Bruno then spent 18 months working at the Casino de Montreux. After that, he went to the Lausanne-Palace and was there when it received its first Michelin star.

2000 was a watershed year. Bruno trained at Gastrosuisse and Gastrovaud: “Training is what helped me to develop as a chef,” he explains. At the age of 25, he was pondering a future in teaching. He’d been dreaming about the Lausanne Hotel School (EHL) ever since he was a child. But it was beyond his parents’ reach. Bruno landed a position at a small hotel school in Caux, above Montreux, but he still dreamed of EHL. “If I couldn’t get in as a student, I’d work there as a teacher.” Bruno’s ambition was clear, and his perseverance paid off – he ended up getting a job at the prestigious school.

He made the most of this experience. At EHL, he met Quebecois chef Rodrigue Benoît. They both started on the same day. And they really hit it off, both professionally and personally. During their time at EHL, the two friends were always “off somewhere else. We took side jobs all over the place, working the kitchens at the Paleo Music Festival, as well as in palaces in Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan and Lebanon.”

An Olympic adventure


In 2004, Bruno became the official chef of the Swiss triathlon team for the Olympic Games in Athens, and then for the 2008 Beijing Games, the 2012 London Games and the triathlon world cups. His friend and colleague Rodrigue Benoît was there with him to share in these amazing experiences. Bruno realized that “athletes don’t know how to eat, or just eat badly.” He got down to work, serving up made-to-measure dishes in which every last calorie was counted. While working with these high-level athletes, Bruno forged connections with Swiss Ski and Swiss Olympics. The story could have ended there, but it didn’t.

In 2010, Bruno was knocked out in the semi-final of the “Meilleurs Ouvriers de France” craftsmanship competition. But it was there that he met Gilles Petollaz, the future head of SV Group, in French-speaking Switzerland, the largest catering company in the country. This was a key encounter: “We hit it off immediately. Gilles taught me about finance, business and project development.” Gilles Petollaz is also very driven. When he took over SV Group, he wanted to provide French-speaking Switzerland with perfect catering facilities offering fresh, local, seasonal and sustainable produce. He hired Bruno so he could draw on his experience.

It was a mammoth task. “We had to start from scratch. I lived in Blonay. I’d get up at 3:50am to be somewhere in French-speaking Switzerland at 5:30am. We developed a whole new network of local suppliers. We grew our own vegetables. We even got the market gardeners to come to our 40 restaurants, and we began cooking with seasonal produce.” This fast-paced work opened up new opportunities. He got a call from Geneva University Hospitals (HUG) offering him the job of head chef. So Bruno went back to healthy cooking and stayed in that position for two years.

A revolution at EPFL

Then in 2018, Bruno applied to run EPFL’s catering points and shops. It was a long process but worth the wait: “At the interview, I used everything I’d learned since I was 14, and all my contacts in distribution and purchasing. I even covered all the types of restaurants I’d worked in. I had to use all of that to show I was right for the job.” Because Bruno didn’t just want to manage the catering points – he wanted to revolutionize them. He got the job and started building his strategy from scratch. “When I arrived, I realized I was in uncharted territory. The first step of my strategy was to listen to what the students wanted and needed in terms of food.”

Bruno worked day and night to build his strategy. He presented it to EPFL’s president and vice presidents in the fall of 2019. It was a revelation for the School. Bruno got the green light from Martin Vetterli and started implementing his strategy in January 2020. It’s an enormous challenge – Bruno knows that his strategy will only be successful if it’s fully backed by the EPFL community, caterers, producers and EPFL’s management. Food is just the first step in a comprehensive ten-year strategy. But Bruno is ready for the challenge, and he certainly won’t let COVID-19 get in his way.