It has been a hot summer’s day in Portugal. Temperatures have soared to 43 degrees celsius at the Herdade dos Grous farm in the Alentejo region which we visited with Hans Neuner, chef of two Michelin star restaurant Ocean and Kurt Gillig, the managing director of Vila Vita Parc who has invested in this 1700-acre farm to produce organic products for its hotel and restaurants. The heat is stifling. It is like nothing I’ve experienced before.
But the evening promises to be cooler as we head to the Atlantic Ocean to fish for calamari. We set foot in the cold sea to board the fishing boat outside the idyllic beach in front of Vila Vita Parc and we are off to get a taste of what its like to fish for mackerel and calamari.
We’re on a small fishing boat with Hans Neuner who never imagined he would still be in Portugal when he arrived here in 2007. “When I arrived, I had given it two three years to try it out and see how it goes. But I fell in love with it and stayed. You will not be able to enjoy a moment like this anywhere else,” he said as I interviewed him on board the small fishing boat.
He has been fishing before with local fishermen in search of new produce but this is the first time he is fishing for calamari.
Together with Kurt, who believed that there could be a fine dining restaurant at Vila Vita Parc, he worked to first clinch a Michelin star which was soon followed by a second.
“I am very happy that I stayed and it is probably where I will be for the foreseeable future. I feel very comfortable here. It is great to be here, to find and learn about new products and there is still plenty to learn,” he said.
Hans had travelled a lot before he arrived in Portugal and at the start it was not Portuguese cuisine which helped the restaurant clinch the first star. “As a young chef who had experience in many high-end restaurants I came with the dishes that I had discovered elsewhere. But when you spend time here, you meet team members, their mothers, their grandmothers, the fishermen and you learn the basics. After we got the first star we moved to a more traditional Portuguese cuisine,” he said.
It was not easy at the start. “It took time to find the farmers, the local producers, the fishermen. It took us a few years to find the best carrots, the best vegetables that were grown here. Before we changed to Portuguese dishes we were cooking classic dishes like pigeon, fois gras and using caviar. Now, we buy 3 to four products from outside Portugal, the rest is all local,” he said.
Although he would love to use just Portuguese products it is not always possible particularly during the summer months when tourism is at its peak in the Algarve. “It is not always possible to find local produce to the extent that we need support from outside. For example, we might decide to have a dish which we will keep for two months on the menu but we will need to procure some of the ingredients such as langoustines from outside Portugal.”
A few days earlier we visited the Sagres fish market together with Hans on a day when the weather was not necessarily ideal for fishing because of the wind and participated in the fish auction. Hans is always following the seasons to assess what will be available in the coming weeks and months.
“It has taken a while for our clients to understand our philosophy. In the beginning there were high end products but now we are serving more traditional Portuguese food. But you need to keep a balance because serving 10 courses of traditional food is too heavy for an international clientele.
He tells me that things have changed over the years. “Wild turbot is no longer easy to find unless you farm it so you need to use more humble ingredients like mackerel. I think high end products are the past. It is going to be gone anyway so we need to use what we find. A restaurant that served mackerel and no champagne, caviar or lobster would not get a Michelin star 20 years ago. I think people have come to appreciate simplicity more today,” he said.
Hans said that in the past it would have been difficult to serve octopus as a dish since the client’s mother or grandmother would cook it at home so why try it in a restaurant but times have changed and that is positive.
Hans was born in the Austrian part of Tyrol and from very young inherited the flair for professional cuisine, the son and grandson of cooks, he began cooking when he was 14. One of the highlights of his career was during the time he worked at the restaurant of the Adlon Hotel in Berlin with chef Karl Heinz Hauser. He also worked at the two Michelin star restaurant Tristan in Mallorca before returning to Germany at Seven Seas restaurant in Hamburg.
The Austrian chef has always liked travelling. He’s been to over 100 countries. “This is what I like most about the job. As a chef, you can go to nearly any restaurant in the world and make a friend instantly. This is an awesome thing. When you travel you open your mind to new experiences,” he said.
On a recent trip to South America he saw how a cactus that grows the prickly pear was used. “This is something that you will never learn in a cookery school. We have sea strawberries that we have here that we did not know we could eat until we went to Chile and Peru. That is why travelling is so important,” he said.
When the restaurant is closed for two months a year, he takes the time to travel and explore new places while also eating professionally. “You can learn from anyone and anywhere. What is important is to see different ways of thinking, different points of view. This is the awesome thing about cooking. You can learn from anyone even young people. You can get inspiration from anywhere if you are open to it.”
Hans says coming up with new dishes is a process which starts with an idea. “You cannot control when the ideas come. Then we try to see whether it has been done somewhere else. We try to look for the produce which can take a few days and then we cook it for a few days or weeks before we try it with the wine. We then agree whether to serve the dish or not. If it has been done somewhere else we will discard the idea,” he said.
So how do you know whether it has been done elsewhere or not I ask? “With 15 young people in the kitchen on social media you can rest assured that they know who is cooking what where. What is important is to talk and communicate. Everybody has a right to bring ideas, we put it all together. This is not a one-may show but team work.
Hans loves the sea urchins in February and the monkfish liver which he considers as one of his favourite ingredients. “It is something I probably would not have eaten 20 years ago.”
He believes that just like his home country Austria, there is a revival in Portugal with a movement of chefs that is aiming to put the producers in the spotlight. “Things have really changed over the past 10 years,” he said.
His aim for the restaurant is to have it full all year round. “That is the most important objective. To have three stars one day or make it to the top 100 of the World’s 50 Best restaurants list would be great but we still have a lot of room to grow. We have the time, the most important thing is that we try to get better every year and one day we will get there,” he said.