Gourmet travellers are a devoted bunch...
They’re unwavering for Wagyu, tearful for truffles and fervid for fugu. Keen as mustard.
They’ll build a travel itinerary around a rare table booking at a particular restaurant.
They’ll commit to restaurants for which they even have to book a year in advance.
And they’ll go out of their way to complete a hit list of bespoke dining experiences.
Then, as a subset of this very particular type of traveller, there are Chef’s Table Tourists.
“Chef’s table” is the most exclusive and inclusive form of dining, and the subject of current hit Netflix documentary series Chef’s Table.
The small group of diners feels it has a special invitation to the royal command performance of a renowned chef; spectacular food prepared before their very eyes.
The French Revolution is rather at the root of this cliquish phenomenon.
When the people turned the tables on the nobility, cooks who had been employed in wealthy homes had to make their living in other ways.
Restaurants opened and with them came a real change of lifestyle for the chefs.
There were longer and more antisocial hours, and it became quite common that they would have a table in their kitchen at which family and friends would come to eat.
The chef’s table was born in this particular intimacy.
And the intimacy — as well as the food, of course — is what Chef’s Table Tourists crave.
In Paris today, it might be at chef Jean-Francois Rouquette’s Pur’.
In London, at Wright Brothers Soho, Hawksmoor Borough or Dinings SW3.
There’s Cure in Singapore and Tsuta in Tokyo.
And in New York, it is undoubtedly Brooklyn Fare.
In Europe, my particular pick is the table of extraordinary 30-year-old Max Nattmessnig...
It’s like nibbling an art gallery. It’s a perfect world of cuisine in miniature.
Joining the chef’s table of Max Natmessnig at Rote Wand Schualhaus Kuchiclub in the little village of Zug, near Lech in the region of Arlberg in Austria, is more like a guided gallery tour of tastes, textures and sensations than eating a meal.
From the first dramatic brushstroke (the strong taste of local mushrooms and crunchy buckwheat) to the classics (Wagyu and wild garlic, Bavarian prawn and pepper) and the pop-art colours of the desserts (mountain lavender and gooseberry macaron), it is a complete exhibition of culinary skill.
For, along with flavours that may be dramatic or subtle, there’s exquisite food presentation — look closely and some of the dishes are like microscopic bonsai gardens, complete with flowers.
The eggs and herb is a creamy concoction squirted back into an eggshell, its vivid green achieved through a complex process using chlorophyll.
Thirty-year-old master chef Max achieves all this without pretension or histrionics — he and his two kitchen staff quietly preparing and plating these micro masterpieces. Some components are placed with tweezers.
I become intrigued — just watching the instinctive choreography of these professionals moving around the open kitchen, synchronised, as we 14 guests sit at a U-shaped table, on the sidelines but included, watching.
It’s not the sort of thing I would do — but it is fascinating.
The courses are served with evocative and educational Austrian wines.
Max has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, including New York’s Brooklyn Fare, with its famous chef’s table. Diners from there now turn up at Rote Wand.
That was where Rote Wand hotelier Joschi Walch met Max.
He asked the Austrian if he’d ever consider coming home — to which the gun young chef replied that he would, if there was something interesting to do.
The Arlberg, and Lech in particular, is a hotspot for fine and interesting cuisine.
Max started last summer and is enjoying working with local farmers and food producers — he is passionate about ingredients and his menu.
Joschi says: “Max is in love with his sourdough. It’s like a girlfriend. He has to get up in the night to feed it.”
The trout comes from the river 150m away.
And Max is also hunting with Joschi.
While we are eating, Joschi shoots a 250kg deer and, by the time we leave, he and his hunter friends have hauled it in and the head is on a back table, tongue lolling, as they sit around another table with timber platters of food and beer.
The Schualhaus itself dates back to 1780 and was, indeed, the village schoolhouse, with one classroom and one teacher.
And today, it is still a school — a place of experimentation, development and learning.
While guests can also join Max for cooking classes, just eating his food is a lesson.
(Top image: Chef Max Nattmessnig in white, with kitchen staff, preparing a course. Picture: Stephen Scourfield)
- The exclusive Rote Wand hotel itself has 53 rooms. rotewand.com
- The Arlberg region has plenty to offer in summer, from the middle of June to October, including many walk trails of all levels, and guided walks.
- For more information on Lech, visit lech-zuers.at
- Austria planning and itineraries at austria.info
DisclaimerStephen Scourfield was a guest of Austrian National Tourist Office. They have not seen or approved this story.
You may also like
Travel Story: Stroll, strudel and yodel in the Austrian Alps
The people of the Austrian Alpine region of Arlberg live and breathe the mountains.
Our World: Real life meets fantasy at festivals in Alps
It's easy to intuitively warm to welcoming St Anton, its villagers and visitors.
Travel Story: Blitzed port city comes into its own
STEVE MCKENNA discovers Le Havre on a cruise ship stop.