Interview by Dorothee Neururer, translation by Kristin Smith Cahn von Seelen
Consistently considered Austria’s finest restaurant, Vienna’s renowned Steirereck is serving free meals to volunteers during the ongoing coronavirus crisis. The gourmet kitchen of the Reitbauer family currently prepares 400-650 meals daily, which are distributed by helpers from the Ministry of the Interior. It’s one of many examples of people helping and giving something back to those under extreme pressure.
Mrs. Reitbauer, last Saturday your restaurant was a gourmet Mecca boasting two Michelin stars. As of Monday, it is a charity kitchen. How did this happen?
The Austrian government decided somewhat abruptly that all restaurants must close. We faced a challenge, as our walk-in refrigerators and pantries were full of food. We thought about what we could do so our supplies wouldn’t go to waste, because the last thing we wanted to do was to throw food away. We sat down as a team and discussed what we could do, and our kitchen staff wanted to keep cooking. We also asked around and found contacts who could help us carry out our plan.
How many meals do you cook per day, and what’s on the menu?
We cook 400-650 meals per day, with four different options. Today, for example, there was blood sausage with potatoes, chili con carne with pretzels made to order by our regular baker, scalloped potatoes with fruit salad and ham with pasta.
Who gets your meals, and how do you distribute them safely, under these adverse circumstances?
Our meals go to Red Cross personnel, firefighters, civil servants, the police – anyone under particular pressure at the moment. Staffers from the Ministry of the Interior distributes our meals, picking them up and delivering them according to a schedule.
Where do ingredients you don’t already have come from? Do you buy them or ask for donations?
Our suppliers are helping us out as they’re having the same problem – one has meat that will only be good for so long, another has vegetables that he’s happy to donate. It works out well for us, because we’re cooking everything right away. If we don’t have something, we’ll ask for a donation, and a lot of people are happy to help out of solidarity.
Are you able to maintain currently required safety standards in the kitchen?
We already maintain extremely high sanitation standards in our kitchen. In addition, as our restaurant is closed at the moment, we can divide the workload between two kitchens, which allows for more space between each worker. Gloves and disinfectant are of course available and used.
How do your colleagues feel about working for free?
Our staff works on a purely voluntary basis. They all wanted to do something to help, and asked what they could contribute. We have a council of volunteers to coordinate activities. Our staff is insured by us, and before getting restless or bored, they wanted to do something positive. We supply the means and the infrastructure and they prepare the food. We haven’t had to let any staff go.
How long will you keep cooking?
There’s no fixed timeframe. As long as we have food and the crisis continues, we’ll keep cooking.