C Milena Broger at the Restaurant Weiss, Bregenz © Angela Lamprecht / Vorarlberg Tourismus
Born in 1992 yet living and cooking in a building from 1926: Milena Broger, Austria’s youngest female chef with a toque from Gault&Millau, practices her talents at the Weiss, a nearly century-old former coffee house and inn in Bregenz’s Anton-Schneider-Strasse 5. After several stints abroad, restaurant manager Theresa Feurstein lured the young chef and her cooking and life partner Erik Pedersen to Vorarlberg. “It’s not a homecoming for eternity,” says Milena Broger, who reveals without hesitation what she missed the most about Vorarlberg: “The mountains! And: “The mentality, the curiosity, the personal touch & the closeness… a lot of things that I often negatively ascribed to the people of Vorarlberg,” she admits with a smile.
The extent to which she now appreciates these qualities is palpable at the Weiss. After a redesign, the team of three – Milena Broger, Erik Pedersen and Theresa Feurstein – created a stylish feel-good space. Immediately at the entrance, a bar invites you to enjoy a pleasant start to your evening or for a coffee before going back to work in the afternoon. The dining room is, unlike before, now completely open. The space is characterised by ample wood, clear lines and the open view through the glassed-in rear area into the guest garden as well as into the kitchen, which create a homely, almost private ambience.
“In Japan, I cooked in an open kitchen for the first time and was able to experience the reaction of guests up close and personal. There, the kitchen is like a stage. Erik was used to such openness from working at Kadeau. We appreciate this openness, which is why we wanted to make as much as possible visible at the Weiss,” explains Broger. The lively concept has been well received: “Some people say that we should charge extra for the front-row seats,” she adds with a laugh.
Setting boundaries, setting limits
Erik Pedersen met his 28-year-old partner at the well-known Kadeau restaurant on the Danish island of Bornholm. The pair appreciate their shared approach to cooking: “It was and still is important for us to use locally sourced ingredients. We see it as our duty to limit ourselves and not to follow or chase trends.” Today, the cooking duo serves celery root and kale to curious visitors. “In winter, you can’t go all out, so you have to think harder. Celery root adds sweetness, kale adds freshness and grassy greenness. With oil made from the leaves and wood of currant, the dish becomes a glorious concoction of what winter has to offer.”
One inevitably tries to recall the tastes as described when the three ingredients – celery root, kale, currant branches – lay raw on the chopping board. From these ingredients, Milena Broger and Erik Pedersen dice, bake, steam, puree, slice, deep-fry and conjure up a dish that surprises with its diversity: visually, taste-wise and in terms of consistency. From the wood of the currant bush, the pair produce a wonderfully aromatic oil through a process that includes beating, soaking in rapeseed oil, steaming and vacuuming. The result elicits a spontaneous “oh” from the test eaters.
Smell and taste evoke memories
Nature is often the source of great ideas. Milena Broger loves to walk through the forest, for example from her home in Bregenz towards Pfänder or in the Lecknertal valley. She also likes to hike to the Sonderdach above Bezau, where her dad grew up.” Here, the boundaries in everyday working life disappear. I love the smell of pine needles, tips and wood.” Naturally, these items find their way into the Weiss’ kitchen “in the form of fir oil, as a powder that is sprinkled over ice cream or cakes, or as pickled or frozen tips and cones,” says Milena Broger, revealing a few kitchen secrets.
For the chef, food is much more than just satisfaction: “You have to integrate smells and tastes that are evocative of something, for example the smell of fir trees as associated with Christmas. Familiar ingredients such as grated egg yolk are surprising when they appear in an unfamiliar way. “When you eat, you want something to happen in your head, not just in your stomach.”
Her penchant for wild plants, herbs and vegetables from local gardens is evident in every dish. In addition, she considers dairy products an important part of Vorarlberg’s food culture, which is why they play an important role in her cuisine. Meat, on the other hand, plays a lesser role and when it does, it is of the highest quality from local farmers. Theresa Feuerstein rounds off her approach with selected drinks: fine wines from Austria, Germany and South Tyrol, the best coffee and also homemade juices.
Food from the local area
“It’s important for us to get to know our local suppliers and how they work. Organic is not a necessity. For many farmers it is too expensive and time-consuming. I know someone who would rather invest in his stable than in his certificate and we can stand behind that,” clarifies Milena Broger as she names her trusted producers: the Vetterhof in Lustenau, Schafsmilchhof Gmeiner in Bizau, Berlinger Ziegenhof in Au, Flötzerhof in Wolfurt and also “Gemüse ohne Kilometer” in Bezau. This latter is a community gardening project run by 22 families in the Bregenzerwald municipality. “Every week from June to August, they deliver their surplus herbs and blossoms to us,” she says, visibly pleased.
The opening of the Weiss coincided exactly with the first Austria-wide lockdown weekend in mid-March 2020, and thus fell through. Piece by piece, all their plans collapsed. “That hurt,” recalls Milena Broger. Nevertheless, the Weiss team cooked their way into the hearts and stomachs of the locals with take-away dishes. A good six months later in the middle of the second lockdown, the young chef looks back happily on the summer. “It was like driving at full throttle on the motorway. The concept worked out and we now feel safe.” The trio is therefore taking the latest mandatory lockdown in stride: “We are using the time as a phase of inspiration to gather new ideas.” Their regular guests can’t wait to try out what they’ll come up with next!