Long underestimated, Austria’s culinary traditions are being reinvented and coming into their own
After language, a culture is defined perhaps most intimately by its cuisine, what Austrian star chef Wolfgang Puck calls “an expression of the place.” French food (soufflé et quiche), Italian food (calamari é lasagna) even the Brits (Yorkshire pudding or a Plowman’s lunch). But what, pray tell, is österreichische Küche? Viennese cooking brings a picture to mind, but Austrian?
The problem is that Austrian food is a collective idea from across the Crown Lands of the old Empire: Gulasch comes from Hungary, stuffed Golatschen and Palatschinken from Bohemia; even the Schnitzel probably came from Milan. Tafelspitz is surely Viennese, if it’s not from Munich… What to do?
A small movement is afoot to raise the profile of Austrian cooking abroad, led by media manager Hans Mahr and Ferry Maier, president of the Committee on Austria’s Culinary Heritage (Kuratorium Kulinarisches Erbe Österreich) joined on the front line by the top chefs who make Austria’s reputation abroad. The challenge is one of perception, to expand public understanding of what Austrian cooking is, and can be.
Without claiming completeness, a quick glance at the map shows that Austrian chefs have ventured far and wide, their businesses as diverse as their whereabouts. While Theresa and Herwig Meingast churn out Salzstangerl in New Zealand, Franz Schinagl supplies the dynamic London food scene with Frittatensuppe and Kaiserschmarrn from his Biergarten and production kitchen, and Oberösterreicher Markus Glocker serves star-level modern European dishes to well-heeled Yankees.
Austrian chefs seem to be everywhere. “The gastronomic world is very international and from a small country like Austria, it is easy to go abroad,” says Severin Corti, restaurant critic for the Austrian daily Der Standard. There were times when it was common to find executive chefs from Austria, Switzerland or Germany at the big hotel chains like Hilton or Hyatt. The chefs point to the apprenticeship system of professional training that is still going strong in the German-speaking world. A legacy of the guild system of the late Middle Ages, it allowed freer choice of master and apprentice, and is widely credited with Europe’s long dominance in technical fields.
In Gastronomie, students in Austria do a three-year apprenticeship, with only two months per year in the classroom. In other words, it’s practice-based. In South Africa, Carinthian chef Edgar Osojnik has built a second business on this model, with an 18-month culinary training program at his café-restaurant Buitenverwachting – voted one of the Top 100 Restaurants by American Express Platinum Fine Dining Awards 2016 – where Osojnik proudly serves Austrian specialties like Malakofftorte and Semmelknödeln.
Salzburg-born star chef Mario Lohninger, who runs the top-rated family Restaurant Lohninger overlooking the Main in Frankfurt, refers to the country’s hospitality industry for the remarkable presence of Austrian chefs abroad. “The hotels and restaurants are a breeding ground for culinary talent,” says Lohninger, who was Gault&Millau Chef of the Year in 2011. “We deliver all-round cooks – who are less arrogant than their French peers!”
Still, it’s a tough business, and several confessed that it was getting harder to find young talent to bring along. “Young people want to be free for Christmas and prefer a 9-to-5 working day,” complains Tyroler Hans Neuner, chef of the famed restaurant Ocean in the Algarve in Portugal. The profession is “knüppelhart (rock-hard),” Lohninger admits, “but it is also international and creative. You are a performer.”
La créme de la créme
Some Austrians abroad have made it big: In a class by himself is Wolfgang Puck, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of gastronomy, whose culinary empire spans the globe. His Spago restaurant in Los Angeles has earned two Michelin stars, and the Singapore branch of CUT – where everything evolves around perfectly grilled meat – has one. Puck’s reputation is without doubt enormous, although with an empire this size, true foodies question how much influence a single person can really have on the day-to-day operations.
Less well known is the Vienna-born Nora Pouillon, a pioneer of organic food in Washington, D.C., where in 1979, according to The New York Times, she opened a restaurant that counted U.S. presidents among its patrons before her retirement last year.
Another giant of émigré Austrian cuisine is Eckart Witzigmann, whose restaurant Aubergine in Munich was the first in Germany to receive the coveted third Michelin star, and whose cookbooks have become standards on the culinary best-seller lists. But his greatest influence on the culinary world may have been through his protégés. The list is long: One of his most remarkable apprentices is the Tyrolean chef Hans Haas, who joined Witzigmann as sous chef at Aubergine in 1982, and later made his own culinary history at the Brückenkeller in Frankfurt and then at Munich’s two-starred Tantris – where he has been Küchenchef since 1991.
With their success, Puck and Witzigmann have certainly advanced the reputation of Austrian chefs abroad. And Austrian cuisine? Most likely. But that’s a taller order, says Corti. “People may know Schnitzel and Apfelstrudel, but outside the German-speaking world, they have no idea about Tafelspitz or Scheiterhaufen. They don’t serve proper gutbürgerliche dishes. For diners, it is often merely an extension of a skiing trip to Austria.”
Franz Schinagl, who runs Speckmobile, an Austrian food truck and catering busi-ness in London, confirms this. “I once visited a self-proclaimed Austrian restaurant, but when they served me my Schnitzel with sauce poured over, I knew instantly that it couldn’t be a real Austrian place.”
Schinagl has become a standard bearer oftraditional Austrian cuisine abroad. After a stint as executive chef at the design hotel St. Martin’s Lane, Schinagl started his food truck, which quickly caught the eye of press and public, and he soon became a regular caterer for the Austrian Embassy and Chamber of Commerce in London. His weekend Biergarten is now a gathering place for Austrian expats and Brits who want to relive their Austrian holiday, and often express surprise over the versatility of Austrian cuisine.
Versatility is a word you hear often from these chefs, and part of what defines Austrian cooking, says Osojnik: “We have integrated Alpine, Slavic and Mediterranean dishes with French technique” – a palate enriched from across the reaches of the Empire.
In fact, enthusiasm for Beisl food is waning, says Robert Baierl, who runs a successful Stube in Sydney. “First generation immigrants are aging and their offspring grew up with sushi and pizza.” Today’s diners want him to redefine traditional dishes and create a more contemporary atmosphere. Which is exactly what Eduard Frauneder is doing in New York City. Frauneder, who received a star for his first venture in Seäsonal, now co-owns four Austria-inspired Lokale, with a Biergarten on Governor’s Island to open soon. “It is all about Central European hospitality: Gemütlichkeit, nostalgia, lack of rush, attentive but not overbearing service and communal tables adjusted to the New York context.”
Meanwhile in Berlin, Niederösterreicher Sebastian Frank, cooked his way up at the prized restaurant Horváth. You wouldn’t immediately recognize his dishes as Austrian, but it is there in a subtler way. He uses, for instance, lard instead of olive oil and celery instead of chili to express his roots, and offers his guests an understated suggestion of an Austrian dining experience.
Golden Apple to big Apple
Back in New York, Kurt Gutenbrunner not only oversees Café Sabarsky, a Viennese Kaffeehaus deftly restaged at Ronald Lauder’s Neue Gallerie for German & Austrian Art, but also Blaue Gans, a bistro-style eatery, where Backhendl and Jäger Schnitzel feature proudly on the menu. The jewel in the crown is Wallsé, his Michelin-starred fine-dining restaurant, whose name is a reference to his hometown of Wallsee on the Danube in Lower Austria. Here, the desserts are Austrian with a twist – think Rhubarb Strudel – but the savories are contemporary Europe-an. Chef Dieter Sögner who takes a similar approach at his Restaurante Colón in Mallorca, says: “Austrian main courses are too heavy for the Mediterrenean climate.”
Gutenbrunner’s and Frauneder’s two mini-empires are proof positive for Austrian cuisine in the Big Apple. And we haven’t even mentioned Thomas Ferlesch (Restaurant Werkstatt in Brooklyn) and Peter Grünauer (Grünauer bistro) catering to the cultural bonds of the city’s huge Central European émigré community. While traditional neighborhood eateries may have disappeared, many people still identify with their roots – not so much for Beisl food any more, but certainly for contemporary Austrian restaurants.
Reading the Michelin and Gault Millau websites, the prowess of Austrian chefs today is unquestionable. But Austrian cui-sine itself has made by far its most dramatic entry in New York, while other cities are, if anything, still in rehearsal. But with no less than five new Michelin stars at home in Vienna, an Austrian gastro-wave might be building up from within.
So, if you long for an Austrian meal on your next holiday, you know where to go for a crisp, light and sauce-free Schnitzel with Petersilienkartoffeln and cranberries, or perhaps a Tafelspitz or Scheiterhaufen, reinvented for a new era.