A quiet revolution has been going on in Austria in the world of food and that is being led by chef Heinz Reitbauer who has slowly but surely climbed up the rankings of the World’s 5o Best Restaurants list to reach 10th place with his Vienna restaurant Steirereck which is housed in a monolithic glass cube.
“We cannot imagine how important for Austria it is that GELINAZ! came to our country. It gives us a chance to show to a lot of people, to chefs and the whole world the products we have, the current state of gastronomy in Austria and what we are thinking about Austrian food. We have been working with our producers to build something for many years and now we have the chance to showcase it,” Reitbauer told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
“The quality of the products and the standard of cooking is very high wherever you go,” says the most representative chef of Austria at the moment. “Maybe our wines are known better than our cuisine because you can nearly always find Austrian wines in the wine lists of fine-dining restaurants around the world. But we are not known for the food and people may associate us with Germany given we are close to Germany. But the food is completely different here. We have more in common with Hungary, Slovenia, even Italy and the Alpine region. Austrian cuisine is a marriage from our past,” he says.
Reitbauer welcomed chefs and journalists who had arrived in Austria for the GELINAZ! DOES UPPER AUSTRIA event for a welcome dinner (more about that in another article soon) in which he showcased not only his cuisine but also what Austria had to offer.
He grew up working at his parents’ restaurant, Steirereck but after training and traveling to France and London, where he worked with Alan Chapen and Anton Mosimann he returned to his native Austria and teamed up with his parents to open a restaurant and inn in the rural region of Styria, Wirsthaus Steirereck Pogusch. With the inn well established, in 2005, he turned his attention to the original Steirereck in Vienna’s central park and swapped places with his parents while taking the restaurant to new heights getting 2 Michelin stars in the process.
He has been pushing boundaries since then. Around 10 years ago, while writing an article about fine dining he made the point about how hard it was for people to have a discussion or to be able to speak in such restaurants because something was happening every minute. “We had forgotten our customers, we had forgotten that they might be out to celebrate, that they are in the restaurant to enjoy themselves or they simply want to talk. And every moment we were disturbing them and interrupting them,” he says about the fine dining world.
So, he decided that the way to change this was to present a card with each dish which told the customers the name of the dish, the ingredients used and also give some details about some of the ingredients of the dish. “I thought that when you are served a dish, you get a card which has what you are eating explained. Sometimes after a second or third glass of wine you might forget what you had been told but with the card, you have a reference point. When you are eating and discover a new taste or a new ingredient, you may want to know what it is,” he said.
Today, in the world of social media, this is a god send not only for journalists but also for food lovers who love to document what they have eaten and sometimes may be stressed about not remembering an ingredient. “It was not our idea to do it because of social media. What we were interested in was to tell our customers what they are eating. We have to remember that we have many customers who are in a foreign country and do not know every ingredient. Even we do not know all the ingredients in our own country so it helps guests to understand what they eat,” he said.
Operating at the highest levels, Reitbauer does not shy away from using humble ingredients in his cuisine. One dish served during the welcome dinner of GELINAZ! was calf’s brain which was cooked to perfection but which is rare in restaurants nowadays (though the trend is starting to change). “We want to show the produce from our country and also our tradition. It is a tradition in Austria to eat everything. This dish was created in Vienna and it is typical here to eat lungs, tripes and brain. We often have a dish like that on the menu and it might not be normal for a lot of people. But we can do this because we have a big menu and we always offer a choice so if someone really does not want to try something, there is always another choice.”
Another dish he made on that evening was barbecued sturgeon, a fish that is more commonly known for caviar. “We do not have a huge variety of lake fish like you would find with seawater fish. We have at the maximum 10 different varieties and we have to work with what we have. What we try to do is to look at the characteristic of each fish and find the best way to work with them. We might have 6 to 8 different types of fish on the menu and we do not want to poach, grill or marinate them all in the same way,” he says.
Reitbauer’s signature dish says everything you need to know about his cuisine and his philosophy. It is char (a lake fish) that is cooked in hot beeswax and served with yellow carrot, pollen and sour cream. “It was not just luck. Our idea was to have the smell of beeswax. We tried different things and at one point we realised that it was like fat. We read a lot about beeswax and how we could use it and also spoke to our growers and decided to use it like fat. We had to be careful because you cannot put the container in a dishwasher. The taste is very elegant and is typical of the region.” He tells me that they use organic beeswax and this is used several times before it is returned back to their growers so that it is used in the system again. “We use it and never lose one gram of wax because it goes back to nature where bees can use it again,” he said.
You need to dedicate a part of the day to not only try new things but also to think and to do something else
This dish alone may be worth the trip to Vienna and a visit to Steirereck but there is a lot of creativity going on in the restaurant as you would expect from a restaurant of this calibre. “Creativity is the salt on the dish. We all work very hard and the days are long but at the end of the day it is work. So you need to dedicate a part of the day to not only try new things but also to think and to do something else. We try to be as close as possible to our producers to see what ingredients we can work with tomorrow or in the following weeks. Nature is of course very important.”
He tells me that technique is not necessarily important for their type of cuisine. “A lot has already been done. At one point we will go little back to using less technique which allows more pureness in the dish. This makes our life easier and it also reflects the season better.”
Outside the kitchen Reitbauer finds inspiration in the mountains. “I love to escape whenever I can. I try to do it often especially since we have a second restaurant in the mountains. Every second week I go there. In two hours you can be in a completely different world.”
He tells me that being able to escape is very important because of the way the restaurant business works. Reitbauer still cooks in his parents’ restaurant. “It is much more traditional and simple but it is still perfect in its own way. We help them on the weekends because after all this is a family run business and we do what needs to be done.”
Do you find that cooking in such a place makes you more creative given you are cooking without constraints or pressure I ask him. He tells me that to a certain extent the answer is yes. “You are much closer to nature and you can do things which you cannot do in Vienna like pick up mushrooms and serve them immediately. We also have a small farm which supplies us with all our meat,” he says.
Is Austria ready to promote itself on the world stage of global gastronomy? “Every region and every country is promoting itself. But it is not important how it happens but we need to follow our own way without necessarily thinking about what we have to do. We need to trust ourselves and our products and continue to work close to our producers. These relations are essential for our cuisine. This collaboration is growing in Austria and that’s what is important at the moment,” he says.