What are your earliest memories of being interested in food?
Roasted erdäpfel(potatoes) from my grandma back home in Alsace where I was born und grew-up until I was 17 years old. She used to slowly roast them with lard in a giant old pan on open fire. The smell of those rustic potatoes still reminds me of my childhood and what it ment to turn something simple into something delicious.
What would you say has inspired your cooking the most?
Life. Everything I experienced and learned over the past 25 years has shaped my culinary style. It is hard to pick just one thing or person. In the beginning, when I started cooking, there were those famous French chef like Ducasse, Troisgros, Robuchon, Marc Veyrat and Michel Bras whom I admired tremendously. They were unreachable stars of the culinary scene and still are. I took every chance to do stages and work with some of those chefs to learn as much as possible from them. And I had good master chefs like Heinz Reitbauer, Otto Koch and, later on, also Walter Eselböck at Taubenkobel.
Describe how you see your own culinary style and how it has evolved over the years…
When I moved to Austria and found my “new home”here in Burgenland, I fell in love with the region and its people. But for my first restaurant,Blaue Gans,I kept on doing what I had learned and refined over years – a genuine Alsatian cuisine. It was like a brassiere and during the time then it was a big success because it was something new in Austria. But with the time my cooking changed from its French roots to the regional Pannonian cuisine we cook today.
How did you feel when you were awarded your first Michelin star?
That’s a cheerful memory, especially as it was a moment of family success. Itcame totally out of the blue for my first own restaurant,Blaue Gans, which I used to run with my wife Barbara at the time. I felt blessed and honored, of course, but I was truly surprised, too. Mainly, because I was more eagerly awaiting a second star for restaurant Taubenkobel where my father-in-law, Walter Eselböck, was in charge. We crossed our fingers for him and when the Michelin came out, he called and said: “We got the 2nd – but you got a star as well!”It was a very lucky moment for all of us and ended up in a big family celebration.
It all lasted until 2009, the year when Michelin decided to stop rating in Austria, except for Salzburg and Vienna, which are still recognized within the “Main Cities of Europe”guide. Nowadays, we feel acknowledged by our guests and have a clear vision of what we want to attain. It is not so much about awards or ratings anymore. Our overall aim is to share our love for good food, natural wines and healthy products from organic farmers and producers from our Pannonian region. If a guest connects with the place simply be eating one of our dishes than we succeeded.
Tell us a bit more about your work atRelais & Chateaux Taubenkobel in Austria…
Taubenkobel is the place where we live, work and welcome our guest. Today it is a Relais & Chateaux with 11 luxury suites and two restaurants – Taubenkobel and Greisslerei – , but back in the early 1980 it started out much smaller and very modest. It was the dream of my wife’s parents, Walter and Eveline Eselböck, to create a place with atmosphere, art and good food to host their friends and locals. They had not much more than their vision, a tiny kitchen with dining room and their passion for modern art and natural wines – but they cherish their idea and worked hard over years. The little spot in Burgenland grew into the hotel it is today, room by room, all done by themself. And the once simple kitchen developed with the skills of Walter, who is an autoditact, to one oft he most acclaimed in the alpine region with even two stars in the Michelin Guide from 2005 to 2009. Two years ago, in 2014, my wife Barbara and I took over the operation and now continue the family tradition by leading the hotel and kitchen.
What can guests expect at Taubenkobel?
As we are located in the midst of Burgenland, a sunny wine region in southern Austria, Taubenkobel offers a regionally inspired cuisine, which emphasize the variety of our unique and fruitful Pannonian landscape. The place itself with all its art pieces, rough stonewalls and lush gardens have a touch of bohemianism along with a highly individual service. And as we believe in genuineness and terroir, also our wine cellar is no exception and therefore contains almost only bio-dynamically made wines on which we started to focus 25 years ago. So, what was once a simple tavern evolved into an idyllic refuge for diners in search for the taste of nature.
How did you decide on the menu?
Our focus in the kitchen is the search for authentic flavours. The menu is all about the seasons. Our Pannonian region offers us a great variety of products thanks to a very beneficial climate. When a product comes into season we see to its best use but we never use it before its time. We want our guests to taste the pure and ripe flavours of the ingredients.
It’s been said that you are trying to revive Pannonian cuisine? Can youexplain a bit more about this?
We create dishes that show the richness of our Pannonian region. Therefore we work closely with local fisheries, vegetable growers and eco-farmers. Moreover, our chefs pick wild herbs and edible flowers like acacias, nettles, lilies or sunflowers from the hills surrounding Lake Neusiedl. And it is also the reason why we often use the whole plant – from flower to root. Our homemade bread, stews and roasted meat are made in our wood-fired oven directly in the dining room. We don’t compromise when it comes to food. There are many ingredients today which easily can be imported, sometimes even cheaper, and which can be found in dishes around the world. But most of them are replaceable. They lost their roots. I want our guests to close their eyes and be able to taste where they are. Therefore, everything we put on the table – from the breakfast egg to the pigeon we serve for dinner – has been produced locally or at least regionally. Even all our ceramic is hand-crafted here in the village – a local artist has been making it for the family since the early days.
What would you say has been the most memorable moment in your culinary career so far?
In few years, I would love to say that it is right now. I feel like I have reached the place where I belong and live my life exactly as I always dreamt it. The family is doing well, I have three wonderful kids, people around my team and me share our passion for food and I have all the freedom to cook what want without distraction. What could be more memorable than being happy?
What’s next for you?
We are a facing a very busy autumn and winter. In the end of November I will moved my whole team to Vienna for a month. We are doing a pop-up restaurant in a very interesting place in the midst oft he city. I do not want to spoil the surprise – but it will be a place for all senses as it involves food but also culture, art and music.
What restaurant is currently at the top of your list to dine at?
I love to try Jean-Georges Klein’s new restaurant when it opens in autumn as well as to visit Magnus Eck at Oaxen Krog in Stockholm and Alinea by Grant Achatz in Chicago. But also here in Austria are a few very interesting places, which I hope to dine at soon – like Saziani Stubn by young chef Harald Irka in Styria.