Gourmet all round - (part 1)

From the kitchen to the wine cellar

It’s always a great pleasure for me when I talk to someone who is very passionate about his work. I could sense this “fire” burning very strongly in both the award-winning chef Theodor Falser and the sommelier Johannes Kohler. In an inspiring interview with the two charming guys I learned what their passion for cooking, the love for the products, the wine and the people have to do with a glass of Coca Cola and ugly vegetables from the Middle Ages.

„The more interesting way of cooking“

Theodor, when is it “gourmet” for you, where does it start?
Gourmet starts with the work of the farmer, with a good product that is cultivated the right way, without much chemistry involved. In our kitchen we only want products which have grown entirely naturally.

How do you develop your gourmet creations? Where do you get your inspiration from?
That depends on the season and what it has to offer. We never say: “Let’s cook this dish with that meat and those vegetables!” Whenever it’s pumpkin season, I’ll think about what to create from pumpkins and I try to interpret them as best as I can.
I get my ideas from nature itself, very spontaneously. From the season, the weather, the farmer, the product itself. It’s important to really focus on the product and to use it whenever its quality is best. I don’t really have a specific source of inspiration or a model … I simply spend a lot of time in and with nature, and I try to shape our whole gourmet cuisine in accordance with it.

How about the processing of the products? How do you make sure that taste and other characteristics remain unchanged?
It’s crucial that the taste stays unchanged, it must never be distorted – not with spices nor with cooking methods that take the whole taste away. It just has to stay as natural as possible, that’s the most important aspect for us. At the Johannesstube, we don’t use many products from other parts of the world. For instance, we don’t use spices that don’t grow here, no black or white pepper. In fact, in our kitchen you will only find six products from outside of South Tyrol: salt and sugar, obviously, char caviar, snails from Piemonte, truffles from Umbria and risotto rice. That’s it. We do not use olive oil, lemons or chocolate from outside.

What does the daily routine in Theodor Falser’s kitchen look like?
We meet at eight o’clock in the morning and discuss the routine of the day and also that of the next one. We then check the quality of all the goods that have been delivered. Our farmer usually knocks on our door between nine and ten and together with him we have a look at what he’s brought us and start thinking about what dishes we could create from his produce. Then we start preparing for lunch and also for dinner. We have a quick lunch together before lunch service for the guests starts. After that we have a break until five o’clock, when we get together again to start the dinner service.

This farmer you just mentioned …
That’s Michael from the Eisath Farm here in Welschnofen, we have an exclusive collaboration with him for the Johannesstube. He grows 178 vegetable varieties for us, 42 of which we pickle for the winter, because during the winter the choice of fresh vegetables is obviously a little more limited. It’s like in the old days: we ferment and produce a sort of pickled cabbage, we pickle vegetables in salt and a wonderful grape seed oil. Root vegetables like carrots are buried in sand, that way we can use them throughout the whole season and they keep their nice appearance, while the loss of water intensifies their taste.

Pure excitement: when nature provides the instructions.

How close is your cooperation with Johannes when it comes to the wines? Do you tailor your dishes to his choice of wines or does he match the wines to your dishes?

Theodor: Well, usually I create the dish and he bases his choice on it, using his taste and knowledge to find the perfect matches. But it would be fun to try it the other way round, too! (laughs)

Johannes: Doing it the other way round would be quite difficult, I think. Since all our vegetables are delivered by our farmer, we need to be extremely flexible, because the goods change every day. When you buy your vegetables from the greengrocer, you order five kilos of tomatoes and you get them the next day. It’s something altogether different when you buy from the farmer – there will be days, when he’s only got two kilos or none at all. That’s why you need to develop the dish before choosing the wine to go with it.

Theodor: Yes, that’s exactly the way it is. The farmer has different vegetables every day, we can’t predict what we’ll get. Two years ago, for instance, there were no carrots at all because they kept rotting from below. Michael’s vegetables are all grown organically and therefore depend on the whims of nature. And that’s exactly the beauty of it: we’re extremely flexible with our dishes because we adapt them to the season and not the other way round. It would certainly be much easier to order from the central market, where you can buy everything at all times – but that also means that everything is always the same.

That way it stays exciting for you too …
Yes, exactly, it’s always exciting because it’s never the same! Right now for example we’re harvesting the root vegetables: madeira-vine, skirret, oxalis roots – all of these are vegetable varieties which had been cultivated here already centuries ago. In the Middle Ages, the Chinese yam was an important source of vitamin D and people used to eat it to compensate for the lack of sunlight in the winter – no wonder it’s called “light root” here. There used to be so many foods that contributed to healthy levels of vitamins, but we have forgotten about them. Nobody needed tropical fruits like lemons and oranges to cover their vitamin demand. With our vegetables, we are trying to create a counterweight. That’s why we use all these old vegetable varieties you won’t find at the grocery store nowadays. It’s much too laborious to grow and harvest them, they’re way too ugly, really, extremely ugly – I mean, they’re roots, you know. And processing them is a lot of work, too. When we think of a carrot these days, we imagine it large, about 400 g, pretty and smooth. But these characteristics are by no means decisive for the taste!

When you’re the one sitting at the table for once – what does the perfect dinner look like for you?
Anything that is true and comes from the heart. Anything created with good ingredients. It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it is made with love. I don’t need top quality products and a top expert – what counts is the passion of the cook!

Taste, company and gourmet - of „mainstream wines“ and missed dinners

Johannes, the concept of gourmet is of great importance here at the Engel. Where does it start for you?
With the wine! (laughs) Really, I mean it. I have made a habit of choosing where to have dinner according to the wine list of the restaurant. It’s one of my greatest delights, when the wine matches the food. I have eaten in lots of great restaurants where the wine list was very mainstream and didn’t really suit the menu, because it only featured wines that everybody knows and drinks. To me, that’s only half the joy, even if the food was absolutely excellent … I’d rather compromise on the food than on the wine.

And apart from the wine and the cuisine? What’s most “gourmet” about the Engel?
The time spent together, the company. The best food and the most amazing bottle of wine are only half the fun when you’re alone – and twice the joy when you share them with friends, when you eat and drink together while having a chat. Food always brings people together and it’s the company that rounds it all off.

As a sommelier, what do you think is particularly important when talking to the guests?
To allow the guests to make their own decisions, to follow their own liking, instead of imposing a certain wine on them just because I think it suits the dish better. In the end, it’s their evening, their food, their money and the most important thing is that they’re happy! It happens fairly often that a guest chooses a wine to go with a certain dish that I myself wouldn’t have chosen. But he’s happy with his choice, he likes the wine and the food and when he leaves, he does so with the feeling that he’s spent a wonderful evening. And that makes ME really happy!

Do you find it hard to hold back your recommendations?
No, not really, not anymore. When someone dines at the Johannesstube, they should experience pleasure all round, that’s paramount to us. We want our guests to have an extraordinary experience, not only extraordinary food or wine – they’re obviously very important, but what counts is the experience as a whole. What counts is that our guests may indulge this experience in accordance with their tastes and preferences, without being lectured. And when a guest asks me, I’m more than happy to provide a recommendation, I obviously enjoy that very much! I’ll ask what they usually drink and suggest something new.

...to be continued!
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