The stars in the culinary firmament of the Val d’Ega

Sarah Meraner

The stars in the culinary firmament of the Val d’Ega

It’s not often that you get to sit opposite stars. More precisely, star CHEFS. So I am particularly looking forward to speaking to these two special talents.
When not conducting interviews, 46-year-old Theodor Falser works in Nova Levante as Chef de Cuisine of the Hotel Engel and is the Michelin star-winning chef at the Johannesstube, while 30-year old Gregor Eschgfäller was similarly honoured for his own Astra Restaurant at the Hotel Berghang in Collepietra.

What led you to this line of work?

Gregor: I attended the Savoy High School after finishing middle school and had actually wanted to be a waiter but, as I am not a great man of words, I ended up in the kitchen (he laughs). I actually come from San Leonardo in Passiria, but I joined my wife’s business here in the Val d’Ega. We have travelled a lot and worked together abroad. Our most important ports of call were at Hangar 7 in Salzburg and Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda, but we also worked in Tuscany and England. The 14 months spent at Hangar 7 were particularly intense and instructive.

Theodor: I come from a self-sufficient farm in Carnedo. My academic achievements weren’t always the best and I always wanted to move away from home – and to become a chef, even if it was a pretty “unsexy” profession in the 1980s. Unlike Gregor, I always worked in the larger hotels, but I too travelled a lot, especially for hotel openings. I was the youngest hotel chef at the time in Kuala Lumpur. My wife and I lived there for three years. But after we had had two children we decided to come back. I still frequently travel, however, gathering new ideas and inspirations that I can apply to my work here at the hotel.

Gregor, you were awarded a Michelin star in 2018, while you, Theodor, received yours in 2014. What does this involve?

Gregor: The process is Top Secret. I was picked up with few other chefs by bus one morning: the curtains were closed and we were not allowed to open them. Then we were taken into a hall where we waited for hours – no one knew what was going on. The award ceremony was on a Thursday and I had received the call inviting me on the Friday before. I wasn’t sure until the moment the star was awarded that I would really get it! I am pleased it all worked out, as we have after all worked hard for it – and you need a little something to accomplish it.

Theodor: I was on a cruise around Sicily when I got a call from Matthias from Hotel Engel telling me that I had been awarded a star. The committee could never reach me during my holiday, so I knew nothing about it (he laughs). I couldn’t really believe it and at the same time it was very emotional. And then they sent me the jacket!

Gourmet events at Collepietra

The star: a dream that opens doors!

How did your life change after the star was awarded?

Theodor: Well, you get a lot of invitations and requests, suddenly everyone is interested in you – even though as a person and a chef you are still the same and you’re doing everything exactly as before. For me it was a huge door opener, for the hotel it is a great endorsement and also has huge significance: the star is now the icing on the cake that sets this hotel apart from other 4-star-S hotels.

Gregor: We now have lots more work! (He laughs.) Our restaurant is very small – at first we only had two tables, now we have four – and we have always regarded it as a hobby. We can finally put into practice what we learnt on our travels and we can always try out something new. The restaurant is now almost always fully booked. More and more people are becoming aware of us – the star is definitely great publicity!

What – apart from the star of course – were the absolute highlights of your career so far?

Gregor: Without a doubt, opening my own restaurant! Creating and building up something of our own was something very special for my wife and me. It was a challenge at first, but in the end the effort paid off and we can be quite proud of that.

Theodor: I have been able to open 26 hotels and restaurants worldwide so far. The hotel openings in Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia were especially memorable. The opportunity to work on a ship was also a highlight for me – it certainly has to do with my character of going forwards and coming back. It is generally true that, with every new experience, you get to know yourself in new and different ways and expand your horizons. And I use the best ideas and innovations in my work at the Hotel Engel.

Strong women, kids in the kitchen

As is often the case with successful men, there are also strong women in your respective backgrounds. How do they support you?

Gregor: I like to call my wife the Creative Director. Her mind never stands still, it is constantly working away. She has the ideas and I put them into practice. And, if her ideas are not viable, then I come up with others. We complement each other incredibly well. We have always been travelling together and we share the same aims. We only exist as a team. Either we are both working or we both have time off.

Theodor: My wife is the one who keeps me down to earth. She makes sure I am undisturbed in my work and she takes care of all family matters, as well as bureaucratic and administrative affairs. She does all my correspondence so I can concentrate on cooking. She also always offers a neutral opinion regarding my dishes – because she appreciates the dishes as a guest. You yourself are often biased.
From a culinary point of view, it was undoubtedly my mother who set me on the right track and taught me the best values right from the very start.

Have you passed on your talents to your children? And how do you balance work and family?

Gregor: My four-year-old daughter helps everywhere, even rolling out the dough for the ravioli! (He laughs.) But she doesn’t want to be a cook, she says. I’d be happy if one day one of the girls took over the business, but of course they should do what makes them happy.  
Our children are always around; even as babies they had their seesaw in the kitchen. They have pretty much grown up in the kitchen. Because we all live and work in the same house, the children are always close to us and so – despite the work – you have a lot of time for each other. Every afternoon we have two or three hours together and once a week we go on a day trip. This is very important, both for the children and for us. Grandma helps out so as to allow us to work in the evenings.

Theodor: Although we never pushed her in that direction, my daughter now attends the hotel and catering school and wants to work in a hotel. She has a lot of ideas she wants to achieve, but she never wanted to accept my help – even though I have a good many connections. She is very independent when it comes to traineeships, etc. – and I think that is a good thing! My son will also start at hotel school next year – he wants to become a chef. He always claims he can cook much better than I can (he laughs).
My family and I have breakfast together every day, but unfortunately that is it. I only have an afternoon break once or twice a week and I do not always get the same day off. If it so happens that I have to travel abroad and it’s during the holidays, I will take my family with me. You are happier – and having a pizza for dinner or a day off together are special highlights!

What are your aims for the coming years – professional and private?

Gregor: We have completed our family, so in this respect we are very happy! Basically, everything is fine as it is now. We still don’t see our work as work, it’s just what we can actually do. Nevertheless, it is important to keep finding new goals – maybe I’ll even get a second star.

Theodor: Of course I want to stay healthy and happy... I want to learn kitesurfing and spend more time with the family. Things here in the hotel should continue just as they have before. In future I also want to devote myself more to the topic of health and train myself up in alternative healing practices with the emphasis on the kitchen – I think it is incredibly important to find the right nutritional balance so as to maximise the body’s energy output.

What are the biggest differences between you?

Greor: I can’t categorise my cooking: I use what appeals to me and what I want. I don’t just cook regionally, as Theodor does. I couldn’t do that. I don’t know how you manage it. (He laughs and turns questioningly to Theodor.)

Theodor: Our concept and the philosophy that we live, Taste Nature, is 100% regional and local. Of course it makes cooking incredibly difficult for us – we don’t even use olive oil, lemons or vanilla. Finding natural alternatives and using them properly was very complicated at first. But we are now at a point where we have found an alternative product for everything.

Have you ever eaten in each other’s restaurants?

Gregor: Yes, I’ve been here before, the year Theodor was awarded his star.

Theodor: I’ve never been to Gregor’s, but I know some people who have eaten at the Astra and they were all highly impressed!

What do you particularly appreciate about each other?

Gregor: I am impressed by the courage and effort Theodor puts into realising his regional philosophy.

Theodor: Gregor goes his way and is not influenced by anyone. He has his own signature that he has created independently. He doesn’t draw on anyone for support, he has his own way of doing things – and for that he has my full respect.

Full moon Event Collepietra

Sarah Meraner

is responsible for Digital Storytelling at clicktext, the South Tyrolean agency for corporate content and blogger of “Geschichten im Kopf [Stories on my mind]”. Making use of every one of her senses to experience the world, she can tell us all about it in words, stories and images.

The Italian version of this text is the work of our translation wizard Serena Schiavolin, responsible for Italian content at clicktext, who brings a typical Italian touch to our stories!