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    This Hill is Alive with Culinary Innovation

    Ski, hike or sleigh to Klösterle, where a young couple is bringing their global experience and palate to the mountain-food culture of Austria

    It’s interesting how what we read about a place before we go impacts our experience. For example, many of those who took the long journey north to eat at Fäviken Magasinet were, when they finally reached the remote restaurant in central Sweden, often a little surprised. Mainly because the now-closed restaurant was by no means as remote as numerous media reports claimed. But also because the ingredients used by the extremely talented chef Magnus Nilsson did not come exclusively from the “barren landscape” and the “immediate surroundings of the estate,” as the same media liked to emphasize.

    In fact, Åre, Sweden’s most famous ski resort, could be reached by car in less than 30 minutes. And while a mighty roast elk filet may indeed have come from the surrounding forests, it didn’t have much to say about “barrenness” or “austerity.” Neither did the two-kilo lobsters or the impressive scallops that gastronaut icon Nilsson imported from the Norwegian coast, a hundred miles away.

    Photos courtesy of Hotel Almhof Schneider and right photo by Georges Desrues.

    You won’t find lobster and elk fillet at Klösterle in the mountains of western Austria. But there are other similarities to the legendary Swedish restaurant. There is the restaurant’s location, embedded in nature in the middle of a picturesque landscape — in this case the end of the Zug Valley in the Vorarlberg region. And there is the proximity to a famous ski resort, namely the fashionable Lech. But the most essential similarity is that Ethel Hoon and Jakob Zeller, the two young chefs of Klösterle, met at Fäviken, where they both cooked for three years.

    “People keep telling us that Klösterle is a kind of second Fäviken, when in fact there are significant differences,” says Hoon with amusement. “For example. Fäviken was a destination to which many guests came specifically, while Klösterle is more about surprising already-present vacationers with a very special cuisine. Also, in the Alps, the transitions between the seasons are much more pronounced than in central Sweden,” says Hoon, who herself comes from the season-free city-state of Singapore.

    Photos courtesy of Hotel Almhof Schneider.

    In the nature-oriented cuisine of Hoon and her husband Jakob, seasons and growing periods do of course play an important role. Most of the food they serve for lunch and dinner indeed comes from nearby forests and surrounding pastures, as well as from local producers. Or at least from the Alpine region, such as South Tyrol, where Zeller grew up and to this day maintains contacts with many farmers. “We are not dogmatic at all and make a lot of exceptions,” notes Zeller, who brings in fantastic citrus from the Amalfi Coast, which he, as an Italian, would not want to do without.

    Exceptions aside, most of the food is locally picked, collected or harvested in summer, and preserved, fermented and boiled down for winter – just as the couple did at Fäviken. And just as all young cooks are expected to do these days, especially if they come from the Scandinavian school.

    Photos courtesy of Hotel Almhof Schneider.

    Nevertheless, the experience at Klösterle is completely unique. There is the couple’s distinctive cuisine, of course. Add to that the sensational setting, which seems to be straight from a picture book: a centuries-old chalet, surrounded by mighty mountains, lush meadows and grazing cattle. In summer, the mountainous hiking trails begin and end here, as do the ski slopes and cross-country tracks come winter. When snow falls, guests like to access the restaurant on skis during the day and via horse-drawn sleigh in the evening.

    The building itself is nothing less than dazzling: a magnificently preserved and lovingly maintained Alpine chalet from the 16th century. In earlier times, during summers it served the shepherds and dairymen who tended the cattle and produced cheese. Today, the wood-paneled parlors and low ceilings are brought to life with carefully selected furniture and kitsch-free decor.

    Photos courtesy of Hotel Almhof Schneider.

    In December 2019, Zeller and Hoon took over. Both consider it a privilege to be working in the midst of nature again. “The proximity to the producers is crucial for us,” Zeller says, “simply because our way to cook stands and falls with the produce. And in these special surroundings, we can collect a lot of things, discuss and develop others together with the producers and adapt them to our experiences.”

    Those experiences occurred in restaurants in the South of France, as well as in Barcelona, Singapore, Paris, Tokyo and Sweden, all of which they incorporate into their work. This makes their style of cooking a prime example of what the French call “cuisine d’auteur,” a creator’s cuisine. In other words, a style that bears the very personal and unmistakable signature of the chef (or, in this case, the chef couple). “The term ‘fusion’ has somewhat negative connotations, but the truth is that every cuisine is created through exchange, through foreign influences and through personal experience. In this sense, every cuisine is fusion,” they both say.

    Photos courtesy of Hotel Almhof Schneider.

    The best examples of this fused style are dishes such as mushroom fritto misto with lupine ponzu; tomatoes with salted fruit and shiso; grilled red deer with black curry; and wild-boar sausage with salsa verde — all dishes intended to be shared and passed around at the table. These are bold combinations, with intense flavors and strong aromas, most of them created in-house, such as the soy sauce made from lupine flowers, but also the miso, the pesto and the salsa verde, all of which are made from whatever can be picked in the mountain pastures.

    The culinary experience that the couple has created at Klösterle is already quite coherent, even if the abundance of flavors could at times stand to be slightly more tamed, a little more nuanced. But there is no doubt that very soon — factoring in their adaptation to the surroundings and Covid-imposed closures – Zeller and Hoon will find their path, which we will happily walk with them. So that in a very near future, Klösterle could become a real destination restaurant – just like that mythical spot in Sweden once was.

    Georges Desrues

    Born in Paris and raised in Vienna, Georges Desrues is a journalist and photo reporter living in Trieste.

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