Zug, Austria: Tiny village is home to some of the best food in Europe

It's snowy outside, a white blanket that's settled on the Austrian alps, on rooftops and mountainsides, a playground for lovers of winter in the outdoors. Inside, however, Max Natmessnig isn't thinking about skiing. He's perched at a U-shaped bench surrounding a modern kitchen, its stainless-steel surfaces a contrast to the raw wood of the 18th-century schoolhouse that plays host to his restaurant.

"This is the westernmost point in Austria," he muses, "and I come from the easternmost part. It's almost 10 hours' drive. So, this is something new. But I totally fell in love with this place."

This place is Zug, a tiny village in the Arlberg region. It's not quite the westernmost point in Austria, but it's close. It's also hard to overstate just how tiny Zug is. This village is a collection of 20 or so buildings, almost all chalet-style guesthouses, with a ski gondola running overhead. It's home to maybe 30 or 40 people, tops. In fact, this entire ski area, known as Lech-Zeurs, a collection of alpine towns running through a deep valley, has a permanent population of only 1500. Zug doesn't account for much of that.

As beautiful as this place is, it seems highly unlikely to find a gastronomic hotspot here deep in the Alps, in an area known more for fondue than fine-dining . And yet one of Zug's residents is Max Natmessnig, the best chef in Austria. The village is home to the Rote Wand Chef's Table, one of the best restaurants in Austria, as well as several more highly rated, destination eateries.

Zug has to be, pound for pound, on a per capita basis, one of the Austria's greatest food destinations, and indeed maybe one of Europe's. And you could stroll through it in a matter of minutes.

Natmessnig is the village's golden boy. He learned his trade at the Oud Sluis in the Netherlands, then a holder of three Michelin stars, before moving to the Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare, another three-starred diner in New York City. In 2017 he was tempted back to his native Austria by Rote Wand hotel owner Josef Walch, who offered Natmessnig the dream for any ambitious young chef: a cosy space to call his own, with free rein to create something incredible.

By all accounts, he was successful. Natmessnig was recently crowned Chef of the Year 2022 by Gault Millau – a gastronomic guide similar to Michelin – and his 14-seater restaurant holds four toques, the rough equivalent of three Michelin stars (Michelin doesn't operate in Austria). This is the sort of place foodies whisper about, that they plan entire holidays around. To visit Zug.

"It's amazing here," says Natmessnig now, chatting during his team's prep day. "The local produce is very high standard. Especially the freshwater fish, the trout, the char, the eel, the sturgeon. Amazing, pristine quality. And also duck and pigeon, amazing quality. The untouched nature here, the pristine water conditions…"

Others have tapped into that perfection, too. Lech-Zuers might be home to only 1500 people, but it boasts 51 Gault Millau toques spread across 22 restaurants. Plenty of large cities in France would give anything to boast that.

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Even Zug, tiny, sleepy Zug, is home to plenty of incredible places to eat. Try Kloesterle, run by Jakob Zeller and Ethel Hoon – he Austrian, she Singaporean – two highly talented cooks who met while working as sous-chefs at the legendary Swedish fine-diner Faviken. In Zug the pair present a dazzling menu of painstakingly sourced and skilfully prepared food.

This village is also home to Achtele WeinRestaurant, a high-end wine bar, Allerlei, a bar and deli, and Rote Wand, which bills itself as a "Gourmet Hotel", and features a cosy restaurant and terrace as well as the venerated Chef's Table, accessible via an underground walkway from the main building.

There, in a schoolhouse built in 1780, Natmessnig does his thing, taking inspiration from travels through Japan and experience in the US and a lifetime in Austria to create a dining experience unlike any other. Fourteen guests gathered around an open kitchen; 19 courses of high-end cuisine conceived and executed by one of the world's rising stars; produce harvested, caught and foraged from the alpine beauty of Austria that unfolds outside.

And all of this in Zug.

THE DETAILS

EAT

The Chef's Table at the Rote Wand Gourmet Hotel is open for two seasons, winter and summer, from Wednesday to Sunday. Set-menu meals cost €205 ($305); bookings mandatory. See rotewand.com

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Ben Groundwater was a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office.