American expat takes unusual path to Genevan restaurant success

by Malcolm Curtis | August 26, 2008 | 09:00

Helen Calle-Lin uses her unconventional international background to advantage as she advances her business career in Geneva. The American expat, who cycles to work – she doesn’t drive, tells Swisster how her past experience helped her become one of the best-known restaurateurs in the city.

When I first caught up with Helen Calle-Lin, she answered her mobile phone and apologized.

She was stuck in Geneva traffic on her bicycle and promised to continue the conversation once she pedalled to her destination.

Calle-Lin, in fact, does not have a car or a driver’s licence, one of just several things that make her a business woman out of the ordinary.

The American expat – a restaurant owner, caterer and designer – made news headlines recently as the successful bidder for a contract to run a restaurant in space owned by the city of Geneva in the Halles de l’Isle.

By winning the proposal call to manage one of the coveted places in the city – in an historic building on an island in the middle of the River Rhone – Calle-Lin, 39, showed how possible it is for an outsider to succeed in Geneva.

She had already established a name primarily through Le Comptoir, an Asian restaurant in Geneva’s Paquis neighbourhood that she has owned for almost a decade.

Calle-Lin estimates that 30 percent of her clientele at Le Comptoir are from the international sector – “from banking to artists to journalists – all kinds of people.”

And her multilingual staff is trained to deal with that reality, she said.

“One of the main complaints I hear when people go to many restaurants (in Geneva) is that they offer very little that is cosmopolitan,” said Calle-Lin, who is trilingual (Mandarin, French and English).

She promises to bring the same kind of multicultural approach that has worked successfully at Le Comptoir to the city venue on the Rhone, set to open after renovations early next year.

Since opening her first restaurant, Calle-Lin has added a lounge bar called Lola and a clothing boutique, while she manages a Bern restaurant, the Loetschberg,  and organizes the Overground Festival, an annual 10-day electronic music event held every August in a 19th century passenger boat moored in Geneva’s harbour.

Such success seems an unlikely outcome for a woman who initially studied Chinese culture in university after spending most of her formative years in the United States.

But her background offers clues as to how she has adapted to an international city like Geneva.

Born in Taiwan, she immigrated to the US when she was three and moved with her family around the American continent, living in communities from San Francisco to Boston.

Her parents and two sisters still live in New York.

“I’ve lived on the West Coast, the East Coast and in the middle,” she says of her sojourn in America.

But in her home, her parents spoke Mandarin, which served as an impetus for her to learn more about Chinese culture.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in sinology, with a minor in French, from the University of Texas before pursuing post-graduate studies at the University of Beijing.

It was there that she first met her Swiss husband, Laurent Lin, a Genevan with German and Chinese heritage who is now an architect.

At the age of 22, Calle-Lin came to Geneva with her partner.

She brushed up on her French – “six months of work with books and tapes” – and then passed the language test to get into classes at the University of Geneva where she pursued “complementary studies,” in various subjects, including Japanese.

As a student she dabbled in the culture of squatters, cooking for young people occupying vacant buildings, before becoming involved in the annual festival of la Bâtie, where she “organized the kitchen” and learned more about providing food for large numbers of people.

She used that experience to open Le Comptoir restaurant at the age of 30 “when I realized I had to stop being an eternal student.”

Calle-Lin believes her liberal arts education has helped her in her businesses.
But she credits her husband for actively helping her various projects and helping her to settle into Switzerland.

“I didn’t have a real problem with integration, since my husband grew up here and is Genevan,” she admitted.

“It was an opening to many scenes.”


About Malcolm Curtis

Freelance English-language communications professional (writing, editing, translations) based near Geneva, Switzerland. Let me know if I can help you.
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