A Visit to Steirereck, the most famous restaurant in Vienna
There is much more to Austrian Cuisine than the Wiener Schnitzel. Heinz Reitbauer, the patron and chef of Steirereck in Vienna takes us on a culinary tour through the city. He shows us the secrets behind the modern Austrian Cuisine and reveals the roots for his outstanding dishes and new creations.
For more than 10 years the Steirereck in the Wiener Stadtpark is the place to go when you want to enjoy Viennese Cuisine at its best. We had the pleasure to meet Heinz Reitbauer, patron and chef of the most decorated restaurant in Austria, for an interview. In the following lines he gives us deep insights into the traditional Austrian and Viennese Cuisine and explains why the modern Austrian cuisine in general and his restaurant in particular are so popular.
When did you know that you wanted to become a cook and later a chef of an Haute Cuisine restaurant?
I had two career aspirations, a cook or an architect. My grandmother was an excellent cook and I was very impressed. However a key moment did not exist.
Is there a second passion in your life besides cooking?
Architecture would have been an alternative, definitely. Today a real passion is everything connected with nature.
You have cooked along talented and famous chefs in Austria and Europe during your formation. What is the most important thing you have learned from them?
I learned lessons from all my chefs. After I finished my formation at the hotel school I learned a lot during my apprenticeship with the Obauer brothers in Werfen. Alain Chapel taught me that distinctiveness and a fanaticism for products are key success factors for a successful chef.
What does the Austrian cuisine of today stand for? What is its key differentiator from the international mainstream?
It is difficult to describe it in a few words. First of all the Austrian cuisine is a multicultural one. Historically this goes back to the times of the famous “Viennese Congress” in 1848, where Austrian cuisine was reinvented. Today many people identify Austrian cuisine with the “Wiener Schnitzel”. But it is much more than that. In fact it is characterized by diversity, especially in combination with the regional products and specialities of this country.
There are few countries where you can eat so well in so many taverns in the countryside as well as in restaurants in the cities. A new movement of young Austrian cooks works closely together with regional producers and together they add a new ease and lightness to the Austrian and Viennese Cuisine without neglecting its diversity.
Of course we do not deny our tradition. Some dishes have to be cooked the traditional way to evoke childhood memories too. Like in art and music, the original is simply the best.
The decisive factor is that you work with joy and enthusiasm, be it as a chef or within your whole team.
Steirereck is ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world. What is the key concept behind it and how did you have to develop it over the years in order to stay at the top?
The decisive factor is that you work with joy and enthusiasm, be it as a chef or within your whole team. If you do everything this way your guests will notice it and will experience your dishes in the same joyful way.
Thus our concept is quite simple. We like to present Austrian cuisine in the most beautiful light. With our craft we can address almost all the senses. In this way, our goal is to create positive emotions and experiences with all the senses.
In Haute Couture excellent craftsmanship is paired with continuous innovation and creativity. Is this similar to Haute Cuisine?
Yes indeed. In the last decades we suffer a bit in the evolution of our craft as Austrian tourism sometimes put more focus on the formation of hotel directors and tourism managers than improving the formation of the key people in service and in the kitchen. This vacuum can also be seen as an opportunity for new ideas. New approaches can replace old methodologies.
What can international guests from other continents and cultures expect from your restaurant and how your cuisine is influenced by Austrian and Styrian cuisine?
We offer a very modern Austrian cuisine, which is more complex in taste and more intense than the traditional way of Austrian cooking without of course denying our roots.
Our products are almost exclusively from Austria, the way my parents began already 30 years ago. We also run a farm and therefore have the same perspective as the producers supplying us. When creating new dishes we always ask ourselves if our producers would be proud of the way we are using their product.
Beans with pear, lamb and damper | Courtesy of Steirereck
There is a trend towards healthy eating in the population. How does this trend affect your cuisine?
We have always had a high proportion of vegetable dishes. When we started our restaurant in Styria 19 years ago we already offered three menus, one with meat dishes, one with fish and one with vegetable dishes. This has greatly influenced our cuisine until today where sixty to seventy percent of our dishes are vegetables dishes. This underlines the ease of our contemporary cuisine.
You create new dishes and therefore also invent new ways of preparation. What is the process behind it and where do your ideas come from?
We permanently try to improve our meals. The creation process starts with a product, a taste or a scent. When we created the grayling in beeswax it was the fine scent of honey we smelt in the original product. Based on the long cooperation with many of our producers we now can tell them for example which sort of cabbage, based on which seeds are important for us at a certain season of the year. This constant interplay between producer and cook generates new ideas for meals and dishes.
In a smaller scale there are other roots for inspirations. For example my grandmother turned 100 years old this year. To honour her we added at the end of each menu a selection of “Pastries from Grandma”. This dish is associated by many guests with childhood memories.
What do you like to eat and which of your fine dishes our readers should taste when they come and visit Steirereck?
There is almost nothing that I do not eat. On the one hand I am a big vegetable fan, but I also like to eat giblets. I rather like meals with a stronger aroma. The most important thing for me is to eat varied food according to the seasons.
When international guests come to our restaurant they should try something new. We always integrate new flavours in familiar dishes. Everyday guests tell us that they like this new kind of taste in traditional meals. We also add little cards to our menu where we give detailed information about the products used in the different dishes. This way our guests can learn about new tastes and, based on those new experiences, they start to buy different products and herbs before they cook at home.
It is very important to preserve authenticity. We have to know who we are and where we live.
The world is becoming more and more similar. Shopping streets look the same everywhere. Even in the restaurant business there is this trend of a fusion cuisine. How do you deal with this trend?
It is very important to preserve authenticity. We have to know who we are and where we live.
For example I receive more then 100 olive oil samples every year. Although I know that these producers send me their best olive oil I have to tell them that I will not use their excellent oil. If I use olive oil in my cuisine then it is not Austrian cuisine anymore.
We have to create our cuisine based on the products coming from Austria. Of course we also can introduce new products but we have to be aware of our key strengths in order to differentiate from the rest of the world. To my opinion our key strengths are the diversity of our products based on a small-scale-agriculture and the excellent cooperation with our local producers.
Quail with cress and sesame | Courtesy of Steirereck
Social Media and rating platforms like TripAdvisor have a major impact on the hospitality industry. How do you see this trend in your field comparing it to the influence of traditional players like Guide Michelin or Gault Millau?
I see the hospitality industry different from top gastronomy. In our business the traditional players like Gault Millau or Guide Michelin defined the benchmark based on their professional criteria. At the end the guest is the sovereign. Today people look at rating platforms or exchange their opinions via social media before visiting a restaurant. It is not easy to say how much this would change our business in total. We talk about it within our team and with colleagues and all of them tell us about good but also bad experiences they had.
Instead of loosing energy for things you cannot change we rather concentrate on doing our job as good and as professional as we can do it in order to serve our guests the best meals and give them the best experience they can expect from us.
You also run the Meierei at the same location as the Steirereck. What was the concept behind this?
We are now in this house for eleven years. Looking at the history of the building it was used as the milk serving place of the Vienna municipality. The Meierei is a perfect complementary of the Steirereck. We now opened our place on two levels, at the Stadtpark as well as the Wienfluss.
The guests liked it right from the start. It was rather a part of our team that preferred working in the Steirereck but today all of us are proud of both the Meierei and the Steiereck.
Some restaurants and cafés you can recommend to our readers visiting Vienna?
I spend my free time more in the countryside than in town. Some places I like in Vienna are the following. A great place for lunch is Mochi – many of the chefs like it as you can enjoy nice moments with delicious dishes. Just around the corner, there is a nice Japanese restaurant (Benkei, Ungargasse), which has been there for a long time but it is still an insider tip. The quality of the fish is excellent and the grandmother is still working in the restaurant.
If you like markets then I recommend the Karmelitermarkt. Concerning coffee houses, Café Landtmann is a classic, but I also like Café Prückel, a very authentic Viennese coffee house. When in Vienna you have to visit a “Würstelstand”, for example the Bitzinger next to the Albertina museum. One of the best chefs in Austria is Christian Petz, who runs the Petz im Gußhaus. The dishes are delicious. Also the “o boufés” by Konstantin Filippou and the “O” bei Reinhard Gerer should be excellent, although I personally did not have the chance yet to go there.
Sometimes when we can leave our restaurant by nighttime, Fabios is a place we won’t miss. I also recommend Wieninger am Nußberg, a new Heuriger (tavern in a wineyard, Eichelhofweg) where you can enjoy excellent cold plates in a great location with an outstanding view.
Apart from all the sightseeing highlights of Vienna, which places do you recommend?
If you are going to Schönbrunn then visit the Zitrusgarten located in the Prinzregentengarten. There you can see the biggest collection of citrus fruits in Europe. They also supply our restaurant with several hundred fruits every year.
A great place is also the first Wiener Schneckenhof run by Guggermuck. You can visit the place and buy snails directly from them. In the Viennese district Simmering you’ll find the Wiener Feigenhof (Am Himmelreich). There you can buy the best figs you can imagine, the quality is incredible. When you visit the Naschmarkt take a look at the vinegar shop of Erwin Gegenbauer. Among the Viennese artisans I recommend the Augarten Porcelain Manufactory and the glass works of Lobmeyr.
How is your personal relation to fashion and style?
It became better thanks to my wife (laughs). I prefer an elegant style with natural, organic fabrics.
For me being a chef of a restaurant is no work, it is my life. I am lucky to do what I love to do.
You have received numerous national and international awards for your outstanding cuisine. What motivates you and what can we expect from Heinz Reitbauer in the future?
I try to structure our business in a way that we always have enough time to try new things on top of our daily routine. Our motivation is to permanently optimize our menu, our dishes and our whole organization. This creates minor and major successes all the time.
We are not eager to run more restaurants in Austria or internationally. When we do something outside our restaurants we team up with other chefs in Austria in order to further develop the Austrian Cuisine, refine the education of cooks and improve the positive image of the Austrian Cuisine abroad. This helps the entire national gastronomy and it is beneficial for us too.
For me, being the chef of a restaurant is not work, it is my life. I am lucky to do what I love to do. We also care for employees who already spent 10 or more years with us. It is a gift to learn from experienced persons. In the same way we all know that our younger team members sometimes want to put a different focus and want to prove themselves. It is always a give and take but together we are naturally stronger.
We thank Heinz Reitbauer for the interview and Kanizaj Marija for the copyright of the featured images.
We strongly recommend to visit Meierei for a brunch or enjoy a great menu at the Steirereck on your next trip to Vienna. If you want to see the insider tips in detail see the Vienna Insider Guide based on Heinz Reitbauer’s recommendations.