Peter Fankhauser’s gestures are equally gentle and careful, almost affectionate. The signature dishes of the 42-year old chef are artfully crafted—every prepared dish resembles a still-life painting. The Zillertal-native is not your typical chef. His fit physique tells of his past as a marathon runner and contradicts the stereotypical image of a portly culinary master. He has a hipster beard and his cooking clothes are multicolored pants and a grey denim shirt. He wears a baseball cap with the name of his restaurant on it—which also tells about his greatest passion: “Guatz Essen”, translating to ‘good dining’.
What kind of food is considered good by Peter Fankhauser? His answer comes fast: “It has to be as honest as possible. And fresh. This applies to both, my vegetarian style of cooking and the more traditional style of cooking — which can be great as well when prepared honestly. Know what I mean?” Peter often says “you know what I mean” — as a way of making sure his listener understands what he is explaining. Almost everything that guests find on their plates at his restaurant grows at his own permaculture garden. What Peter can’t grow during Tirol’s cold and harsh winters comes from “Aspinger Raritäten”, a renowned permaculture farm in Barbian near Bolzano, in Italy’s South Tyrol. Of course, he also preserves vegetables by fermenting them, for example.
Peter Fankhauser and horticulturist Patrick Sendlazek raise a huge variety of more than 450 different herbs and vegetables on roughly 800 square meters. In its beginnings, they sold their permaculture vegetables locally. In 2018, Peter Fankhauser opened his restaurant, where he exclusively prepares these lovingly raised, incredible tasting food gifts from Mother Nature.
Peter was born in 1978 and grew up in Tirol’s scenic Zillertal Valley, where he was trained as a cook in an award-winning restaurant. He left his home before he turned 20 and worked in many fine dining kitchens in the United States. He returned to Tirol to work with celebrated Austrian chef Martin Sieberer at Trofana Royal in Ischgl, and then went to work in Vienna before getting back to chef Martin Sieberer in Ischgl: “I missed the mountains!” He originally specialized in patisserie, a most exacting art that resulted in a ‘sweet’ cookbook written by Fankhauser and Sieberer. It may explain his meticulous approach to food, and his talent for beautiful presentation. For many years, Peter Fankhauser was a notable marathon runner in Austria; his remarkable marathon personal best is a 2:25. Later, he focused on ultra marathons and trail races.
Armed with his knowledge of nutrition as an accomplished elite athlete and his love for cooking, Peter began thinking about food and where it comes from. “It starts with personal decisions about what food is on our plates.” With regard to honest preparation, he embodied the locally grown, fresh-food movement long before it was popular. Thus it only “seemed natural to cook vegetarian, as I am able to grow all the products in my own backyard garden. Plus, it is a unique selling position, in all of Austria I would say.” Moreover, he also cooks vegetarian dishes for ethical and ecological reasons. “If you strive to source meats from local farmers to fill out your menus, you soon recognize that there is much more demand than supply,” says Peter Fankhauser. “The amount of locally sourced meat — and good quality meat at that — available in this country can never be enough for all restaurants. People have to start thinking what locally grown and raised really means. My conscience even starts to trouble me when I buy vegetables from South Tyrol in the winter. Which is really close by when it comes to the carbon footprint, though.”
Peter sometimes eats meat — so according to the latest buzz word to hit the diet world, he is a “flexitarian”: A vegetarian who occasionally eats meat. As a restaurant owner, he recognizes that more and more people, and a larger percentage of young people, want to know where their food comes from. They have finally started to pay attention to the connection between food and health. They are realizing that there is a relationship between how they feel and what they eat — and the result is that they eat less meat than their parents. “People come to my restaurant to pamper themselves with a special dining experience.” Flexitarianism is part of a trend to rediscover plant-based eating as an option. However, Peter would prefer not to label himself at all. “Trends come and go, but to me, this is a way of life. It’s my way of thinking. Know what I mean?”
When it comes to Peter’s way of thinking, the most apparent thing to do is to practice sustainability. This is exactly what led him to permaculture gardening. “Permaculture is a sustainable ecological design system with a philosophy of working with, rather than against, nature. Simply put, permaculture gardening is a holistic approach to provide food,” says the Zillertal-based chef. “A rich variety of vegetables and plants thrive on our terraces that are all higgledy-piggledy. People keep asking themselves: ‘What’s that chaotic and disorganized patch supposed to be?’ We say, you just have to know your garden well.”
“On the one side, the terrace structure enlarges the plantable acreage and on the other side it’s a water-conserving practice that makes sure our plants get what they need. Even on a hot summer’s day, it keeps our vegetables from going thirsty,” explains Peter. “In general, all plants adapt well to prevailing soils and conditions. It’s a cycle that gets better every year.” In contrast to permaculture gardening, common organic farmers do “break out the pesticidal or fungal frame hammer if need be. We don’t do that. According to the principles of permaculture, insect pests will pass by our food crops thanks to many herbs’ and plants’ bold odor.” However, there’s no cure for voles yet – and there is no doubt that slugs and snails are the gardener’s worst enemy. This is also one of permaculture’s biggest battles: “We encourage our neighbor’s Indian Runner ducks to inhabit our garden as a natural slug and snail control. However, when the ducks can’t find snails anymore they start eating our vegetables…”
From Tuesday to Saturday, Peter is working in his open kitchen 15 to 16 hours a day, only supported by a waitress. “I challenge myself by creating a new menu each week. I like variety and I wouldn’t be able to cook the same menu for months. Moreover, I like to offer variety to my guests, who are made up of 80% locals and regulars.” One difference between elite athletes and others is that super performers are constantly pushing their limits. It seems as if they are doing this in every aspect of life.
How does it work to build a new menu each week? Peter gives a roguish glance: “People try out my creations, like guinea pigs. No, honestly speaking, with 25 years of experience I can say that by now I know a lot of food paring. I know what goes together well. When I have a new dish in mind, I cook it for myself and it’s usually fantastic!”
Work-life balance means something different to every individual, but to Peter it means nothing at all. “I love to work 15 hours or more. I feel satisfied with myself when I prepare dishes for my guests. Working in the garden for an hour in the morning is the best start to my day. This makes me truly happy. And running for an hour is the best way to restore new energies.”
Opening a vegetarian restaurant in Stumm in Zillertal Valley sounds like a challenging task. Again, it’s about pushing limits — like running an ultra-marathon. Or, in Peter’s words: “I went to each and every bank in Zillertal. And this valley is home to quite a lot of banks! Exactly two of them were willing to give me a loan. All the others told me that I was completely crazy!”
He continues, and you could feel a sense of satisfaction on that: “Some of the bank managers who had declared me crazy have visited my restaurant in the meantime — and my place was always fully crowded.”
While we are talking, Peter disappears every now and then to return with a delicious sample of his art: Tiny turnip-rooted chervil, different types of sourdough bread, a glass of red kombucha tea with wild strawberries… Suddenly he stands up and leaves me alone for another time. A few minutes later, he returns with a jar of chanterelles, fermented in vinegar. “You have to taste the chanterelles! They are currently on the menu, paired with pumpkin risotto and puff pastry tarte. Tossed with porcini mushroom powder and accompanied by sweet damson plums that are preserved in red wine and balsamic vinegar.” I love it when a diner enters my restaurant and simply appreciates what I bring to the table. Know what I mean?”
Photo Credits: Maria Kirchner Fotografie