Enjoy the summer

Interview: Axel Back, president of St. Anton’s food and arts festival, ‘Kulinarik & Kunst Festival’

In September 2016 stars from cuisine, arts and music once more flocked to Kulinarik & Kunst Festival in St. Anton. In front of the breathtaking backdrop and under the patronage of Eckart Witzigmann, Hans Peter Wodarz and Heinz Winkler, award-winning chefs and winemakers treated the guests’ sophisticated palates to their creations for an entire month. Axel Bach, president of the Kulinarik & Kunst association in St. Anton am Arlberg told us about his highlights in his exclusive La Loupe interview and shared what the festival’s future will look like. 

Axel Bach
Axel Bach

L.L. / 40 international award-winning chefs, 17 renowned winemakers and 30 extraordinary artists. The 3rd Kulinarik & Kunst Festival was an amazing success. Mr. Bach, could you still pinpoint one personal highlight of the festival?

A.B. / Well, generally speaking I’d say the entire series of events was a highlight. However, three things that stood out for me personally: The opening at the beginning, the gourmet gondolas in the middle and the closing event with the Tyrol and Japan culture clash and the end. Each of these events in itself is at the top of the list.

L.L. / You are the president of the Kulinarik & Kunst association in St. Anton am Arlberg and together with St. Anton’s five top hotels – Schwarzer Adler, Waldhof, Sonnbichl, arlberg1800 Resort and Tannenhof – you fathered the festival in 2013. Why is it that St. Anton needed this kind of event?

A.B. / I think it’s extremely important to promote summer here. The community’s and the tourism association’s activities are varied, of course – from Arlberg Giro all the way to marathons. These events are all very athletic and that’s really good for St. Anton. But it was our goal to get the clientele that comes to St. Anton in winter interested in the summer here, too – away from cheap tourism, because that cannot be the goal. St. Anton has a reputation to defend – both in winter and in summer. Consequently, the Kulinarik & Kunst Festival was needed simply because we didn’t have anything of that kind. We didn’t reinvent the wheel, we took a look around and now we’re trying to do what others are already doing – only better. 

L.L. / Patronage for the festival was taken over by ‘W³’ this year - Eckart Witzigmann, Hans Peter Wodarz and Heinz Winkler. They are seen as the founders of haute cuisine in the German-speaking area. Did it take much to lure them to the Arlberg or did the chefs immediately like the idea?

A.B. / I called in February and asked the chefs if they’d have time. They answered that that didn’t matter and that they’d come anytime. So, I really didn’t have to do anything to persuade them. They immediately loved the idea because the chefs like coming here. We are connected by a 30-year-old friendship, all three of them used to be my teachers. They are proud of what I’m doing here and we regularly meet up after the festival and talk on the phone a lot, too.

L.L. / Within the framework of the opening on 19 August 2016, Eckart Witzigmann received the newly-created Summitas award on the occasion of his 75th birthday. What’s the idea behind the award and what achievements is Eckart Witzigmann honoured for?

A.B. / The guiding thought behind the award definitely is the marriage of cuisine and art. The prize itself is a visual symbol for this: A piece of granite from the Arlberg and two protruding, revolving steles of the same height that represent art on the one hand and cuisine on the other. The two are flexible because we wanted to illustrate how both art and cuisine are flexible and can reach the same heights. And Eckart Witzigmann was honoured because he has been celebrating exactly this for more than 50 years. As a person, on the one hand, and with his culinary creativity on the other. And as a patron and sponsor of art.

This year this decision came easy. Eckart Witzigmann celebrated his 75th birthday and it was a great honour for us to make him the first winner of this award. In the coming years we will see what other national and international celebrities will follow in his footsteps.

Opening Kulinarik & Kunst Festival
Opening Kulinarik & Kunst Festival
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L.L. / Is the Summitas award only intended for chefs?

A.B. / Of course artists and public figures can also receive the prize. We need to keep our eyes and ears open and pay attention to what goes on in the world. The Summitas award is not a pseudo prize, it shows the connection with us, the association and the region.

L.L. / Each evening another award-winning chef showed their extraordinary skill and treated the small audiences’ palates. Why was it important to you to not make the items on the agenda mass events?

A.B. / A big event would not be as exclusive. A limited number of attendees gives every guest the opportunity to see the chefs up close and have personal conversations – also with the winemakers, for example. The exclusivity makes it feel like something special for the guest, it makes them feel chosen, even if they bought the tickets themselves. And chefs and winemakers enjoy it a lot because they can communicate with their end customers, so to say, and transport their philosophy. The guest as a protagonist also has the opportunity to get to know other guests, which is very sensual and intimate. It really is very special. A guest who has attended such an event has something to talk about. 

L.L. / The gourmet gondola ride ‘Gourmet-Gondel-Gipfelsturm’ on September 3 2016 was a special highlight. A true haute cuisine summit. What was the idea behind it?

A.B. / The idea is actually from Fiss, up on Sonnenplateau. They too have a gondola where you can have breakfast or dine. But the gondola only goes round in circles. We made this into an idea where the guests go all the way up to 2,811-metre Valluga.

This year the Gourmet-Gondel-Gipfelsturm took place for the third time and it’s always worked out fine. The logistics are quite the challenge though, we need to bring the entire equipment up to Valluga and bring it back down as soon as possible – the cable cars only run until 10 pm. So as soon as the last guest takes their leave everything must be quickly taken down.

In the first year it snowed, in the second it rained and this year it was so beautiful it was almost kitschy. With chamoix on the mountaintops, sunset and fog that came up over Galzig. The only thing that was missing was Sissi plucking herself an edelweiss (laughs). The guests stood up there and could not get enough of the view, the kitschy scenery. It was amazing. The chefs, winemakers and musicians then did their part. For an event of this size we need a team of 50 to 60 staff – even though normally there’s only five of us. Everything must be well-coordinated. But when the guests go home and they’re happy it was definitely worth the effort. 

James Baron
James Baron

L.L. / One important factor at the festival is the focus on using local products. Why is it that supporting regional producers is becoming more and more important nowadays?

A.B. / That’s a bit of a double-edged sword because local is not always local. A wholesaler who has his company here does not have to sell regional products. Today it’s important to go out there and look for honest producers. You have to convince them of doing projects with you – even when you can’t buy big amounts. The producer’s fascination and passion need to be top priority. If they don’t want to do it, it’s not possible. Which means that we as consumers are dependent on the supplier’s willingness and farsightedness. Some guests have understood that the alpine region is not where you should order scallops or turbot. Char or pikeperch from the region are a great alternative.

As a gastronomer one must put the cards on the table and stand by one’s word. Otherwise the plan is sure to backfire. The guest must be treated fairly because cooking shows etc. have already broadened their culinary horizon. Our industry also thrives on emotions. It’s important to explain one’s values to the guest and make them understand one’s cuisine. 

L.L. / St. Anton was a meeting place and a place of inspiration for an entire month. Eva-Maria Hüttl, you had a big part in the planning of ‘Kulinarik & Kunst Festival’. How long were you and your team busy with the realisation and what were the challenges of 2016?

E.H. / Planning the festival takes almost an entire year. In winter we start filling in the information on the website and planning the programme folder. After the Christmas holidays we start for real. And in March the hot phase begins.

The chefs and artists are in close contact with Axel Bach, most of them know the festival from the previous year. This year the highlights and challenges were the opening, the Gourmet-Gondel-Gipfelsturm and the fashion show in Herminenstollen. The logistical implementation and coordination of the numerous participants always is the biggest challenge of the festival though.

L.L. / What was the biggest compliment someone ever gave you for the festival?

E.H. / Seeing all the people happy at the end of an event – that’s the biggest compliment. 

Fashionshow of Rebekka Ruétz
Fashionshow of Rebekka Ruétz
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L.L. / The equivalent event in winter is Kitchen Unplugged. What’s the concept behind this?

A.B. / In winter St. Anton has a lot to offer in terms of cuisine though not so much when it comes to art. During the winter season you can’t bring culinary quality to St. Anton from the outside. In winter all chefs are busy with their own houses. Kitchen Unplugged is a special experience for a very limited number of guests, only four, to be precise, who get to experience what goes on in the kitchens of our member hotels during the daily business. The guests are in close contact with the respective chef de cuisine and they eat and drink in the kitchen, too. The concept can be experienced course by course in three different hotels. Kitchen Unplugged isn’t new, the idea is from Zermatt and with the permission of the initiators there we brought this concept to St. Anton and adapted it a little. 

Wordrap

This dish from Kulinarik & Kunst Festival is especially memorable: The trout fillet on salt stone by Lukas Nagl.

In summery St. Anton I enjoy: Nature, looking for mushrooms and walking the dogs.

And in winter? The same, except the mushroom part. In winter you can add skiing though I only go on perfect days. I am very picky. Sometimes I’m put off by single cloud.

I think fast food is…great, if it’s good.

That’s what makes indulgence in St. Anton special: St. Anton. 

Axel Bach

Together with the five hotels Tannenhof, Arlberg1800 Resort, Schwarzer Adler, Waldhof and Sonnbichl Axel Bach has been hosting the Kulinarik & Kunst Festival in St. Anton am Arlberg since 2014. As manager of Tannenhof he supports local producers and he wants to promote summer tourism in St. Anton with the festival. Axel Bach in his own words: ‘The guest is supposed to engage with the many many tastes, the artistic nuances, the landscape of St. Anton – and, in particular, with summer’. Success proves him right, the Kulinarik & Kunst Festival is a firework for the senses.