In this excerpt from Vikram Vij’s new book, he recounts his early trials at the Gasthof Post Hotel in the Austrian Alps—and cooking for the Banff Springs Hotel’s legendary GM Ivor Petrak.
Our young hero, Vikram Vij, has already given up on his dream of a Bollywood career because of paternal disapproval. He has quit Bombay, followed his cousin Niksu to hotel school in Bad Hofgastein, Austria, tried his first piece of sacred beef (and thrown up), shacked up with a German girl to learn the language—and briefly joined the local Hare Krishna. Now he’s being interviewed for his first serious job, at the Gasthof Post Hotel in the Austrian Alps.
Austria was hardly teeming with Indians in the 1980s. The tiny foreign community was mostly Turkish. There were even fewer of us in the exclusive resort communities. Still, Frau Kristl seemed to like me, though she wasn’t exactly overrun with applicants.
My sole competitor, a native German, was equally qualified. I remember Frau Kristl’s lips pursing in a single, pencil-thin line as she sized me up, trying to decide who was better suited for it, he or I.
Mid-interview, she threw out a challenge: The busy four-month winter ski season meant she couldn’t offer me a single night off. “Would you be willing to accept these terms?” she asked. I was stunned. Was this even legal, I wondered. But I was desperate. “Of course,” I replied. That’s how at the age of 21, my professional career began.
I rode to Lech am Arlberg on the bus. Above us, the jagged peaks were still covered in snow; the alpine meadows were blanketed with flowers, a tapestry of yellows, purples and whites. It was a hiker’s paradise, with hundreds of kilometres of signposted trails running in every direction.
From the bus depot, I took a taxi past Lech’s famed onion-domed church, past its pastry shops and its stables, crossing the rushing Lech River before arriving at the Post.
It was more striking than Delhi’s Imperial Hotel. The hotel’s subtle grandeur left me speechless: the carefully appointed flower boxes beneath the windows, the shine of the bright, wide-planked hardwood floors, the crisp white linens and the open fireplaces in the rooms, each of them furnished with local antiques. Frau Kristl and her husband, Michael, ran it with perfection and predictability. Small wonder that it’s a favourite haunt of European royals. The Danish and Norwegian royal families visit annually. Beatrix, queen of the Netherlands, and her husband, Prince Claus, would come every three months. I always served them.
Sixteen weeks of back-to-back nighttime shifts is a brutal, unforgiving schedule. I’d never worked a night shift, and it was hard on my body. I’d drink coffee all night to keep me up. By 3 a.m. my head would be drooping. The hours between 3 and 6 were the hardest. By 7 a.m. I was wide awake, which meant that I couldn’t get back to sleep until 10 or 11. I’d sleep through the day, then wake up late
in the evening; I’d grab a quick meal and then head to work. I barely got outside to explore. Even after several months I’d seen nothing of the famed Alps surrounding me. But it was the only way in, and I wasn’t about to complain.
I went from Frau Kristl’s night auditor to night manager, and then to daytime server in the famed restaurant. But Frau Kristl knew I had a talent and passion for the kitchen. Eventually she allowed me to enter it, under the watchful eyes of chef Lackner, who ran the Michelin-starred Post Stuben restaurant.
Candles and antlers decorated the dining room, which had the feel of a hunting lodge. Dishes included Duroc pork with bacon and beans, beeswax potatoes with trout caviar, and saddle of venison. I worked the line as a prep cook, making salads.
Frau Kristl was in her 50s at the time, singularly powerful, and terrifying. Skinny and elegant, she was a blueblood from a distinguished local family of considerable wealth. She ran that fucking hotel like a ship. We were shit-scared of her. When she’d cross her arms and look down her long aquiline nose at us, we’d scurry about like frightened chickens. “Vikram,” she’d say, “why doesn’t table two have its menus?” Or, “Vikram, why is the salad being allowed to wilt on the counter?”
But without that instruction, I would be nothing today. She was always pushing me to be better. She taught me to think three steps ahead. Even as I greeted one patron I’d be scanning the room behind them, noting that table seven needed water, that table 12 was ready to order, that table five was preparing to leave. Frau Kristl taught me to be “on” at all times, to never, ever, let down my guard.
I was almost two years into my time at the Post when I was asked to cook for a special guest. Ivor Petrak, the long-time general manager of the Banff Springs Hotel, was visiting from Alberta as part of a semi-regular junket through the Alps’ finest resorts. That night, for his first evening meal with us, the famed hotelier had asked the kitchen to cook him something a bit spicy. I was called in to prepare a dish.
Cooking for Ivor was a big fucking deal. The debonair Czech, a former Olympic-calibre bobsledder, was an industry rock star. He’d started out studying law in Prague, but abandoned his legal studies in third year—and fled—after the Czech coup of 1948, when the Communists took over. Then he trained in Lausanne, at the famed Swiss Hotel School, worked his way up from busboy at the Suvretta House in St. Moritz to chef trancheur at the Palace Hotel in Scheveningen, Holland, to front- desk manager of the Hotel Brighton in Paris. At the time he was running eight Canadian Pacific properties as a senior CP vice-president. The Banff Springs was his castle.
I knew none of this as I rushed upstairs to grab the bag of spices I’d tucked into my luggage back in India. All I knew was that Ivor was one of the world’s greatest hoteliers. And that I was nervous as hell.
Vij: A Chef’s One-Way Ticket to Canada with Indian Spices in his Suitcase by Vikram Vij with Nancy Macdonald is available now.