Hans Neuner | To seize the day

11 Dec 2016
6 min read
He took a chance and he succeeded. Eva-Luise Schwarz finds out how Hans Neuner came to be one of Portugal’s culinary master chefs.

Sophisticated methods, top quality produce, brilliant presentation and full flavour—a unique food experience that is only rivalled by the breath-taking sea view at restaurant Ocean in Portugal’s Algarve region, where two-Michelin-star chef Hans Neuner welcomes guests from far and wide. He is one of only three two-star chefs in Portugal, two of which are Austrian.

Neuner was born in 1976 in the mountainous area of Tyrol in Austria. Growing up in a gastronomic family, his earliest memories go back to the noise and the stress of his parents working in the kitchen, but he also remembers the familiar flavours of home-cooked Tyrolean dishes. He recalls: “I always thought I’d take over the business from my parents. My grandfather has also been a restaurateur and you just grew up in this environment. So of course I had to learn how to cook.” However, it turned out that his brother, too, was to become a chef and finally be the one to take over the family business.

For him, the world was full of opportunities. After three years at Hotel Alpenkönig in Seefeld, where he received very strict but vital training, Neuner went abroad. “My parents always said, when you’re a cook, be sure to travel the world.” Stints in St. Moritz, at London’s The Dorchester hotel, Spain and Bermuda followed. London in particular made a lasting impression on the 20-year-old, as it was the first destination where he had to speak a foreign language. The globetrotter in him was well and truly awoken. Working on the cruise ship Crystal Symphony, going from L.A. to Hawaii and Australia, he remembers how he felt: “You wake up, look out the window and are in Sydney. That was cool, although [the experience] wasn’t necessarily impressive from a cooking point of view. But the life experience that you gain is worth a lot,” he says thoughtfully. Later on, Neuner spent the longest time of his career so far in Germany at the side of two-Michelin-star chef Karlheinz Hauser. With Neuner as sous chef, they opened Hotel Adlon in Berlin in 1997, and after five years Hauser’s culinary empire at Süllberg in Hamburg. It was a significant time for Neuner as executive chef, enjoying great responsibility and learning good team leadership. Finally, in 2007, he received a call from Portugal: owner and general manager Kurt Gillig was committed to opening a new high-end restaurant in the Algarve. Neuner recalls: “The Hotel Vila Vita Parc needed a restaurant. And I thought, Okay, let’s try it. And now I’ve been here in the south for eight years already.”

During the first two years, he worked hard to shake off the conventions and influences of his mentor and his first Michelin star was awarded promptly after, confirming that he was on the right track, and also achieving the objective that was set out in his contract with the hotel. After that, however, the pressure was off and it was time for Neuner to look further afield and find his own way. “During those first years my style was quite international. But then I got to know the local fishermen and organic farmers and we started to grow most of our own vegetables and herbs.”

Defining Neuners cuisine isn’t straightforward because he defies being pigeonholed, as he doesn’t want to be obliged to always cook the same style. Without categorising him, his cuisine can be described as modern Portuguese with emphasis on quality products. “We’re convinced that we want to grow most of the produce ourselves. I was back in the garden only yesterday and this year we will extend it and hire our own gardener to tend it. We’ve got a beautiful climate here in the Algarve and the greenhouse tunnels are only ten minutes away from the restaurant. We are in the garden more than in the kitchen,” he says smiling. In fact he gets 80 per cent of his ingredients from within a radius of 25km.

The menu in restaurant Ocean has a strong focus on seafood and fish. Only towards the end of the menu one or two meat courses will be served, although even these will be taken off the menu this year, leaving an entirely fish-based menu. In addition, an à la carte option will be added. “Last year we renovated the kitchen and have invested quite a bit, so we are able to do more.” With a larger kitchen and more staff, Neuner is confident that they can meet additional challenges. The menu itself lists about four main components of the each dish, short and brief, so as not to overwhelm the guest, because the waiter will be more than happy to explain any further components or techniques. The restaurant, too, got a new lick of paint towards the end of last year with a new set of plates ordered several months in advance. Indeed, how he serves his culinary creations is a rather important element of the overall experience in Neuner’s restaurant. In a delightfully imaginative and effective way, he serves soup inside a shell, chocolates on top of coral or he might be using picture frames and fishing nets.

The hotel has its own vineyard in the nearby Alentejo, the region north of the Algarve. The majority of the approximately 1,000 wines on the menu is Portuguese and is stored in the hotel’s wine cellar, built with bricks from an old, dissipated church.

Neuner’s cuisine has reached new heights in Portugal. But he certainly had to get used to some more unique products; he particularly appreciates the different kinds of snails. “Some of these I have only seen in books before and they are rare and only to be found here and in the Spanish region. However, as Tyrolean I had to approach certain products slowly. When I tried snails for the first time I can’t say I was blown away.”

One of the two-star chef’s most popular and famous creations are the crab-avocado cannelloni, a dish that helped him get the first Michelin star years ago and has since become a classic. However, due to the location of the restaurant at Vila Vita Parc Resort & Spa, Neuner explains that guests on vacation will want to visit the restaurant several times a week, keeping him and his team on their toes when it comes to devising new culinary creations all the time.

As a passionate traveller, Neuner gets his ideas for new dishes and flavour combinations on his trips. Whenever he is on holiday, when the restaurant is closed or when he gets invited to food events, he finds inspiration: “If you just stand in the kitchen every day, then eventually your creativity will run out. Because when you’re under pressure all the time you can’t think of anything anymore. That’s when travelling and eating out with colleagues helps.” Visiting other high-end restaurants is never a relaxing experience for Neuner—it always feels like work, he says. That’s because he wants to learn, take photos, take impressions with him, and he wants to discuss the details with his fellow diners, most often the hotel director or his colleagues. But Neuner also likes to be inspired by traditional Portuguese dishes that he can adapt. With his Portuguese employees, he often has animated discussions about local cuisine and together they start experimenting. Neuner certainly realises the importance of participating in cooking events, if only to meet colleagues, but also to represent the brand. But, he says: “first you have to make sure that the restaurant is running properly. Then you can be on the road more. For certain events I close the restaurant and I take half the team with me. That’s when we meet people and discover new things.”

His kitchen team consists of 14 chefs from Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria, France and, of course, Portugal. In the kitchen, Neuner feels obliged to speak in the national language: “Everybody needs to learn. When I go abroad, I have to learn the language—naturally I have to adapt.” As an expatriate, what does he miss the most? “My family, the landscape, the snow… I’ve been away from home for 17 years and I miss everything. I go home once a year to see my parents. Tyrol means everything to me. I miss it. If you’re away from home for a long time, then you miss it all the more, definitely.”

He also misses certain aspects from his time as a young chef—collegiality, teamwork and team cohesion. His passion for travel, however, never ceases.

Would he consider opening another restaurant, possibly in his home country? “Right now I have a great affinity with the US, so if I were to open a restaurant now, I would probably go over there. But I have no desire to open heaps of restaurants. For now I have this one, and maybe we will get three stars at some point and maybe then I might open up another restaurant. If there was an interesting opportunity at home, I would do it.”

The culinary world will hear a lot more from Hans Neuner, be it in Portugal, Austria or abroad. His potential is far from exhausted and his wanderlust paired with his inventiveness and his penchant for flavourful perfection and the visually impressive will make waves far beyond restaurant Ocean.