After nearly 15 years in Vail, Sonnenalp pastry chef Bernie Oswald heads to warmer climes
Special to the Weekly
For years, in a hot, somewhat cramped kitchen below the sprawling Sonnenalp Hotel in Vail, pastry chef Bernie Oswald has performed a sweet labor of love, making memories for brides, delighting children of all ages with Christmas cookies and crafting splendid chocolate eggs that dazzle the senses at Easter. Now, as this winter season draws to a close, so does Oswald’s time in the Rocky Mountains. The Austrian chef who arrived in Vail in November 2001 will soon leave the high country for the subtropical warmth of Florida, leaving behind heavy hearts of those who have grown to love the chef and his magical confections.
Scientists aren’t the only ones who know that smells can evoke vivid memories. Anyone who spent childhood days in a beloved grandmother’s kitchen knows how the scent of foods she cooked spur hyper-drive trips to the past. For Oswald, the smell of baking Christmas cookies he makes each year wraps him in fond memories. The times he spent in his grandmother’s kitchen in Klagenfurt, Austria, propelled Oswald into a culinary career. Although he has become a sought-after confectionery artisan, Oswald’s three years in culinary school prepared him for a savory life in the kitchen. It wasn’t until his ninth year at the Sonnenalp, after cooking in their various dining outlets and leading teams of chefs, that Oswald took up residence in the hotel’s subterranean pastry kitchen.
Sonnenalp draws couples from near and far to celebrate their nuptials in Rocky Mountain style. It’s those occasions where Oswald exhibits his pastry prowess. It’s also his happiest professional moments. In the past five years, Oswald has created more than 60 wedding cakes, some stunning in their simplicity, others grand towers of flour, sugar, egg and all that makes wedding cakes so delectable. The opportunity to let his creative juices flow and to witness a bride’s joy when she first lays eyes on her cake makes this task one of Oswald’s favorites.
When asked about his favorite event of the year, there was no hesitation in his enthusiastic answer, “Mrs. Faessler’s annual cancer benefit at Balata.” It’s an event Oswald refers to as “the face of the Sonnenalp,” given the team effort employed to exhibit the hotel’s culinary excellence while raising money for a good cause. There was also a note of melancholy in his voice as he described Rosana Faessler’s 16-year-old Scramble Against Cancer she and husband Johannes host at the Sonnenalp Golf Club each July. Oswald will obviously miss working with her, someone he describes as “one of the best bosses I’ve had because she is so organized and lets me do whatever I want.”
All artists love creative freedom. Oswald is no exception. He credits the Faesslers with giving him the tools he needs to succeed.
“They give me free rein and allow me to buy the best products,” he said.
The credit for excellence flows both ways.
“As chef of the Swiss Chalet Restaurant and in the past several years as our pastry chef, Bernie has added his extraordinary talent for combining flavors and beautiful presentation to all his creations,” said Johannes Faessler, the longtime patriarch of the Sonnenalp family. “He is a true artist with unmatched attention to detail.”
That attention to detail is what adds the magic to his creations.
Oswald explodes with creative fervor preparing for the celebrations of the winter season’s bookends, Christmas and Easter. During the Christmas season, Oswald and his team create lots of sugar art, chocolates and his signature Austrian cookies guests devour with glee. However, Easter is when the playful side of Oswald’s personality gives rise to an unmatched Easter brunch dessert table brimming with cakes, chocolate eggs and bunnies and sweets of all kinds. Sadly, this year’s Easter brunch was Oswald’s last.
It’s fitting Oswald would choose the Sonnenalp’s wildly popular Easter feast as his last hurrah in Vail. The annual brunch in the Sonnenalp’s signature restaurant, Ludwig’s, marks the end of the winter season while paying homage to spring. In the culinary world, there’s nothing that says “spring” more than Easter and the confectionery delights we’ve grown to love.
I recently caught up with Oswald in his kitchen as he was assembling his jaw dropping, mouthwatering centerpieces. Preparing for such an event takes weeks of planning and prepping. With his assistant, Colt Elaison, from Green Bay, Wisconsin, Oswald provides the hotel with its daily requirement of pastries, breads and more than 200 fresh-baked cookies for guests while preparing for the season’s culinary crescendo.
Making his large glazed eggs is a painstaking process for Oswald, but one he loves. The process begins with tempering chocolate, carefully filling forms and cooling. That’s the easy part. The colored glaze and decorations that adorn each egg consume many hours over two days before Oswald achieves dazzling results. Traditional European Easter cakes including gugelhupf, German Easter lamb and Austrian nut strudel and American favorites such as chocolate eggs and petit fours are just some of the other desserts that Oswald and Elaison create.
CONTINUING CULINARY ALCHEMY
Twenty years after graduating from culinary school, realizing a cherished goal his grandmother inspired, Oswald prepares to leave Vail for another chapter in his life. Soon after the curtain falls on the winter season, Oswald will load his precious filly, 3-year-old Belle Starr, into a shipping van for the long trip to Florida. Then Oswald and his mother, Maria Irmgard Oswald, will follow.
From the soaring Alps in western Austria to the heady slopes of Vail, the confectionery artist moves on to the subtropical warmth of Jacksonville, Florida. Oswald has no plans at the moment except to enjoy his American family, Joe and Susan Pipala, he met 13 years ago.
Oswald hopes to land in a place like the Sonnenalp where once again he can perform his culinary alchemy transforming raw ingredients into the stuff of sweet dreams.
No doubt, Oswald will continue as the Pied Piper of pastry and develop a new following of grateful brides and enchanted children. He will be missed, but the sweet memories he gave us will linger throughout the years to come.
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blog can be found at http://www.winefamilies.com.