Raised in Carinthia, in a family for whom earthiness and honest craftsmanship have always been considered virtues, Thomas Dorfer learned at a young age just how important it was to use regional products and top-quality foods. His father – a former master baker and patissier – initially believed the young lad to be a born lawyer. His mother, on the other hand, understood quite early on that Thomas' true passion was for the art of cooking. Thanks to her tenacity, after high school he was offered the chance to pursue his dream of training as a chef at the Alte Post restaurant in Bad Kleinkirchheim, run by the Ronachers – a family of famous hoteliers. Even during his apprenticeship, he excelled at culinary competitions, and graduated with honours.
"With an offer to work at a three-star restaurant in Paris on the table, I chose instead to return to the Wachau. And to follow my heart."
"The pandemic has increased our appreciation for the fine products available right on our own doorstep. Because all the creativity in the world is ultimately pointless if your ingredients aren’t up to scratch."
Australia is calling
It was thanks to his best friend at the time that the two young men got the chance to prove their mettle in Sydney. It was an intense, exhilarating experience, during which he peeled vast quantities of potatoes in addition to broadening his horizons, of course. Once back in Austria, his first stop was the Landhaus Bacher restaurant under the management of the Austrian culinary legend LWB - Lisl Wagner-Bacher. Not knowing that years later he would return there – this time for good – his culinary journey led him onward to Tyrol, Germany, and Switzerland. "When I was named winner of the 2001 Grand Prix Culinaire Taittinger German final, my former boss wrote me a letter in which she conveyed her heartfelt congratulations after having read a newspaper article about it. Obviously, I was very proud of that. So with a fitting gesture of thanks in mind, I immediately picked up the phone to call her." Only it wasn't the grande dame of Austrian cuisine, but her daughter Susanne who picked up the phone. Which turned out to be a game-changer: In addition to engaging in typical small talk and asking if he could speak to her mother, Thomas couldn't resist asking for Susanne's private number. This was followed by growing contact between the two, and in retrospect the Michelin-starred chef says with a smile: "In my case, of course, the sparks started to fly long before the first official date."
Back to Wachau
In 2002, he returned to Landhaus Bacher for good. "In fact, I already had a commitment in Paris at that time. I could have accepted a position in a three-star restaurant, which was actually what I had always wanted. But I decided to follow my heart instead." As a brand-new son-in-law, Thomas continued in the role of sous chef to his former boss Lisl Wagner-Bacher for a few more years, although he increasingly began to develop his own style. "My mother-in-law always gave me the space I needed when I needed it." And he also mastered the balancing act between work, relationship and family. "Even as a young guy, you have to know where you stand, even if things get a little crazy now and then. That takes a lot of time and patience." Two qualities that have certainly paid off. In 2009, Thomas Dorfer was named Chef of the Year by Gault Millau, and he has held the position of head chef at Landhaus Bacher since 2010. His wife Susanne, who now runs the restaurant while also acting as a young 21st-century sommelier, is always at his side and is, of course, one of the key contributors to his success. She is the one who pairs her husband's dishes with the most suitable wines. In the Wachau, of course, she can choose from an abundance of vintages, but the award-winning house cellar also boasts superb wines from Burgundy, Bordeaux, Germany, and Italy. Christina Kopriva, the second daughter of the house, attends with great finesse to the pleasant ambiance of the restaurant. And the grande dame of Austrian cuisine has not yet fully retired: Lending a hand where needed and helping out in the kitchen during the summer season – that's what a family business is all about. And so, she quite effortlessly prepares jams, sauces and stocks, as well as liqueurs and schnapps, which can be purchased at Lisl´s Genuss Manufaktur.
"My grandfather lived in Rossatz for 15 years. And whenever my step uncle picked us up from the train station in St. Pölten for our vacation, as we drove past here he would say, "Look, that's where the famous Lisl Wagner-Bacher cooks." From that point on, of course, the restaurant was on my radar."
What are the Hallmarks of Thomas Dorfer’s Cuisine?
Plenty of new ideas have found a place on the menu since Mr Dorfer has been in charge of the kitchen at Landhaus Bacher. Such classics as Lisl Wagner-Bacher's caviar egg have, of course, remained. When asked how he would personally describe his cuisine, Thomas Dorfer replies, "It's light and accessible. The product is always given centre stage. And I very much enjoy working with acidity." When it comes to spices, the cuisine at Landhaus Bacher is also quite cosmopolitan. "The products, on the other hand, come mainly from regional food artisans, so I really appreciate the fact that we have an amazingly rich selection of vegetables, fruit, herbs, etc. in the Wachau region and Lower Austria in general. The pandemic has made us much more aware of the quality and variety of fine food we actually have right on our own doorstep. After all, as a chef, all your creativity is pointless if you don't have quality products to cook with."
Do it with a passion ...
A glance into the kitchen of the Landhaus is enough to reveal a young, enthusiastic team busily having fun cleaning vegetables, trimming fish and meat, and polishing glasses behind the bar. "While all the tradition around this house is important, we should never forget that our employees are our most valuable asset. I’d also love to inspire more young people to work in the restaurant industry. It's a demanding sector, but at the same time so gratifying if you enjoy the work and feel a bit of passion for it." For Thomas Dorfer, being a chef is more than a job – it's quite simply a way of life: "I wouldn't know what else to do. And I'd venture to say that my team would walk over hot coals with me. They've proven that during the crisis. Which makes me very proud. My team is every bit as important to me as the wonderful sparks of creativity which you obviously need to run such a successful establishment."