Famous for his slow-cooked prime rib, attention to detail, strong accent, warm smile and for rarely tak-ing a day off, Lancelot proprietor Werner Fehael believes in tradition.
Hailing from Klagenfurt, a small city in southern Austria, rather than growing up a skier like most Austrians, Fehael lived near a lake and was a swimmer. But like many of his compatriots, he has always gravitated toward ski areas.
By the age of 16, Austrians typically have to begin thinking about a chosen vocation, not an easy task for many teenagers. But for Fehael, his path was clear.
“I wanted to do something to get jobs wherever I wanted to go,” Fehael says. “Cooking was something I could do anywhere. My mom was a very good cook. She used to cook big meals and we always helped.”
Although Lancelot’s menu has a variety of meat and seafood classics, it’s far from being tra-ditionally Austrian. For one thing, as Fehael points out, “you don’t get a prime rib in Austria or Germany.” You certainly don’t get prime rib made from pure Colorado beef, slow-cooked in the oven for 20 hours with Lancelot’s top-secret spices.
The evidence of Fehael’s Austrian culinary tradition is the simplicity of Lancelot’s spices and sauces. Fehael aims only to “have special dishes” comprised of high quality meats, seafood and fresh produce with flavors that speak for themselves, enhanced by a dash of rosemary, almond-infused butter, or overnight cooking that produces a rich au jus.
“I WANTED DO SOMETHING
TO GET JOBS WHEREVER I
WANTED TO GO,” FEHAEL SAYS.
“COOKING WAS SOMETHING
I COULD DO ANYWHERE.”
A nod to Fehael’s central European heritage – the only obvious evidence of it on Lancelot’s menu – is the Wiener Schnitzel.
“There are really not many variations on how to make it, but people tell me all the time it’s the best in Vail, even better than the German places,” Fehael says.
Lancelot’s other standout Austrian dish is the homemade Strudel, served warm, crispy on the outside with hot apple chunks oozing out and topped with vanilla ice cream. There is unquestionably something special about the recipe, which Fehael is not at liberty to divulge.
Knowing that he wanted to cook and travel, Fehael earned his chef certification and went to work in a restaurant near Kitzbuhel, home of the most famous downhill race on the alpine skiing World Cup. He then moved to Germany for a couple of years and visited the U.S. for the first time in 1983 – primarily exploring the East Coast. In 1985, he decided “it’s time to move.” He went to upstate New York and cooked for a restaurant in the small ski town of Windham. He then made his way to New York City and was head chef in a large restaurant in Queens, learning English along the way, since he “never paid attention in school.” In the summer of 1990, he made his first trip to Colorado.
“I came to all of the ski towns. Vail is the one I liked the most because Vail Village looked the most familiar, like Austria,” he says.
Feeling strongly he had found his new home, Fehael went back to New York and put a “job wanted” ad in the Vail Trail.
“A handful of restaurants called up,” he recalls. “The first time I came to Vail, I was reading about Lancelot and, Hermann Staufer, was one of the people that called me. I liked Lancelot because it was an established restaurant, very popular and with a lot of history. Hermann hired me as head chef.” And, as it happened, Staufer was a fellow Austrian.
It was always Fehael’s dream to own a restaurant. Now he knows how much work it involves. After starting as head chef 23 years ago and taking over Lancelot 17 years ago, Fehael spends every waking moment at the restaurant. He does much of the daily prep himself and often ends up cooking or seating guests. He is always the one to turn the lights off at the end of the night.
“I’m the first one in and last one out,” he says.
But the Austrian isn’t planning on going anywhere. Colorado is his home and although the work is hard and the hours long, he cherishes the parade of regulars at Lancelot, many of them international. The restaurant has always been a favorite among Austrian and German skiers when the World Cup is in town, including Austria’s most decorated skier, Hermann Maier, who won two titles at the 1999 World Championships in Vail. Plus, some of Vail’s first skiers who tried out Lancelot when it was brand new in 1969 are still loyal diners and make a point to come in every time they’re in town.
“We get some old people coming in… really old. Now their kids come in, too. They came skiing with their parents in the early days and still like it as adults. It’s 45 years we’re celebrating at Lancelot,” Fehael says. “It’s nice that so many mag generations like it here.”
European treats in an American ski town
Where there are mountains, there are Swiss,” owner of Columbine Bakery Daniel Niederhauser says, when asked how he landed in the Vail Valley. And where there are pastries? Well, chances are you might find a Swiss, too.
Like skiing, cookies, cakes, strudels, tortes, and of course, chocolate, are indicative of Swiss culture. For Niederhauser, the two happily collided in the late ’80s to forge a charmed European life in an American mountain town. Columbine Bakery, located in Avon, is a valley staple. People flock for Niederhauser’s traditional Swiss pastries and bread, and then they discover the cozy breakfast and European style lunch, featuring classics like Quiche Lorraine, beef puff pastry turnover and ham and cheese croissant.
“We opened in December 1988 and have been in the same spot ever since,” Niederhauser says. “It was a World Championship year and Vail was hosting. It motivated us to open up a bakery here because it was a busy time, and we thought we would have a good start, and we did.
” By “we,” Niederhauser means Michel of Michel’s Bakery in Eagle Vail. Michel was his original partner, who Niederhauser bought out four years after Columbine Bakery’s launch. Michel, a Frenchman, is part of the reason Niederhauser fell in love with the valley — Vail, he says, is very European, and Columbine Bakery’s slogan is “where Europeans go for lunch.”
“I speak Swiss-German everyday,” Niederhauser says. “I have a lot of Swiss, Austrian and French friends. There’s a big European clientele here.”
Niederhauser hails from just outside Bern, Swizterland. At age 16, he made apprentice ship as a pastry chef, just two years after he learned to ski (which is kind of late for a Swiss, Niederhauser admits). Then he served his four years in the Swiss Army and headed for the States to put his training to work.
“Baking is nice a profession. You can be creative and it’s very rewarding because people like sweets,” Niederhauser says. “It really has no restrictions, you can do what you want with it.”
Before opening up Columbine Bakery, in the States, Niedershauser worked as a pastry chef in Salt Lake, Utah, and at the old Westin in Vail, where the Vail Cascade stands now. Everywhere you work, he says, you pick up a recipe here and there and then put your own influence on it to make it your own.
Columbine Bakery’s most famous recipe is arguably the “Columbine Roll” — little round airy balls of bread, perfectly crisp on the outside, yet chewy and soft on the inside, ideal for dunking into soups, gravies or runny eggs. There’s no doubt these rolls bless the tables
of many in-the-know locals during the holidays, as they order the round bites of heaven ahead of time. The Columbine Rolls may be the most beloved recipe, yes, which hails from Swizerland, by the way, but also one of the simplest, Niederhauser admits.
“There’s no butter, no sugar, no shortening, just flour, yeast and water. It’s the way I bake the rolls that make them so good — really hot for only about 9 to 10 minutes,” he says.
The other coveted recipe is Niederhauser’s Lemon Zucchini Cookie, an item that often sells out by late morning.
“I got the idea when I was working in Salt Lake from my recipe for fruit cake. I took the fruit and replaced with zucchini and lemon,” Niederhauser says.
The result is a cake-like cookie, flaked with nuts and zucchini, baked with a crisp outside and dipped in a powder-sugar lemon glaze — “the icing makes the cookie,” Niederhauser says.
For those homesick Europeans or tourists who want to taste Vail’s Old World heart should try Columbine Bakery’s Bird’s Nest cookie. A traditional Swiss treat, the Bird’s Nest cookie is a crisp linzer cookie on the bottom (hazelnut base, of course), with hazelnut
meringue piped in a circle on top to resemble a nest and then filled with a raspberry marma
“In the States, I have a hard time getting good commercial raspberry jam, so I actually
import a raspberry marmalade,” Niederhauser says. “Most of the commercial jams are set
with starch, and I like a pectin set. It gives it a different flavor.”
Skiing and mountain life brought Niederhauser to Vail … so does he still find time to hit the slopes living a life as a baker and a business owner?
“I get a few hours here and there, but it’s never enough!” he says. “I usually go to Beaver Creek because it’s more convenient for me. And I really like the run Harrier, along with mag some cruiser runs in Bachelor Gulch.”