The Plant whisperer

Seeing as it has two Michelin stars, the highest of 19 points in the Gault Millau guide and that it is currently No. 16 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, the Steirereck in Vienna’s Stadtpark is officially the best restaurant in Austria. But Reitbauer is humble, shuns all these “grandiose” titles and finds the constant pressure that these rating systems entail—and the resulting fear of making mistakes—rather paralysing. He says: “If ever I lose the courage to change, then it will get all static and boring. Good things emerge but they will pass on—everything has its time. You have to give new things time and space. For me, standing still is crippling. If ever I reach a point where I only get up for work—I’ll stay in bed.”

Heinz Reitbauer has grown up in a family of restaurateurs who also ran a farm. When he was born in 1970, his Styrian parents opened their restaurant in Vienna. As a teenager, he remembers his parents being in constant search for

products and quality. He himself was at one point torn between wanting to become an architect or a chef. In the end he started out with hotel school in Germany, followed by training at home. A year later he continued his training with the brothers Obauer in Salzburg. He remembers: “That was definitely a very formative time for me. I was young and felt ahead of the times. Somehow I was on my own mental fast lane. Of course, when you grow up in gastronomy you have a cursory clue about many things. But [the Obauer brothers] gave me depth and they pulled me back into life and grounded me. That’s where I got an intensive appreciation of the product.” What followed was a stint in France with Alain Chapel, whose unwillingness to compromise further shaped Reitbauer. He also went to Anton Mosimann in London and Joël Robouchon in Paris. Returning home, Reitbauer took over the tavern of his parents in Styria, called Steirereck am Pogusch. What was meant to last for one year became 10, in which he acquired a strong regional influence in his cooking style. “I travelled the world, then went to Vienna and subsequently landed in the deepest countryside. And there I took a good look around—I wanted to reflect the region in my cuisine.” Even back in 1996, using locally produced food as well as products from his own farm meant a great deal to him. At first he travelled a lot, took trips by car or plane and came back inspired and excited. But, Reitbauer remembers, “we tried more and more to listen to ourselves, what we have in front of our door, our rich history and what matures in our own heads. No matter where I go, I want to taste the land and the people.” Soon it became clear what metal Reitbauer was really made of: “I told my staff, no matter what, where and how we cook and create, it must never be based on something else. Whenever we saw a product being repeated, something that everyone was cooking, then we were the first to take this product off our menu. We wanted to reach a distinctiveness.” Today Reitbauer’s cuisine can be described as contemporary and Austrian—but whether he’d be happy with the label “contemporary Austrian” I’m not so sure of.

In 2005, Reitbauer and his wife took over the Steirereck in Vienna, consisting of the Meierei, a dairy parlour, and restaurant Steirereck. The tavern in Styria is still run by his parents. The family-owned farm takes care of all three restaurants (“we slaughter several animals each week, be it calf, cow, lamb, goat, pig…”) and the close cooperation with the regional farmers has been going strong for over 30 years.

Since the Steirereck in the Stadtpark has been renovated last year, it’s barely recognisable. Reitbauer describes the former place as opulent and luscious, even theatrical. With the new design he wanted to bring the park into the restaurant. To demonstrate this in front of me, he opens the floor-to-ceiling windows, letting the warm sunshine stream into the restaurant. “We are located in one of the most beautiful spots in Vienna and this beauty, nature’s beauty, corresponds with what we do.” The new design is more simple, reduced, unique and modern.

In addition I was also privileged to observe the very first lighting of the new fireplace and to witness Reitbauer’s enthusiasm, a combination of his passion for design and his childlike joy at seeing the result of a surely extensive planning phase finally in action.

Despite the new design and a new atmosphere in the restaurant, he remained true to his cuisine and largely kept business going even during the building work. Because how could he disappoint his guests, not to mention his producers?

Reitbauer commissions Austrian farmers, local producers and the Schönbrunn Horticultural College in Vienna to grow certain plants that he trialled out in his own garden. He explains: “In our own garden we replace about 10 products with 10 new products that we don’t know yet—or only know from books—and grow them in small patches and troughs on our terrace. That way we can learn which parts of the plant could be interesting for us and in which stadium of growth. We often cultivate plants for several years in which we don’t do anything with them because we don’t understand them. We might not understand its flavour when it’s too intensive or too peculiar or when we don’t know where to use it. One such flavour is Aleppo rue. Because of its peculiar soapy-sweet aroma it took a long time to appreciate its flavour. Today we’re using it very discreetly in desserts, polenta and crèmes in which it gives the dish a certain depth of flavour.” Reitbauer will motivate each and every one of his chefs to visit the garden on a daily basis and take in the tastes and smells to widen their horizons and advance the learning process. The chosen plants will then be grown by the producers in bigger quantities. “Years ago we also started to preserve these flavours using old methods like pickling, bottling etc.,” Reitbauer explains. “We preserve several thousands of kilos to have this flavour available to us throughout the winter. It would be much easier to just buy it throughout the year. But it’s not the same flavour.” And flavour is the essence of his cooking. He even asked his fish suppliers to use an old Japanese method of slaughtering (ikejime) in order to prevent paralysation and keep the meat white and juicy.

One of his most famous dishes is the char in beeswax, using organic beeswax to cook the fish and to enrich it with aroma. The fish is cooked at the table in front of the guest, which also helps to bring home the problem of continuous bee death. The fish is then served with carrot, caviar pollen and sour cream.

The longer we talk the more it becomes clear how passionate Reitbauer is about Austrian gastronomy. For the upcoming Expo in Milan he is one of the representatives commissioned by the Austrian Chamber of Commerce to create a concept of a tableau of flavours to showcase the country and its gastronomy in the best possible light. “We have an incredibly amazing country with impeccable nature and a very multifaceted and small-structured agriculture. Hardly anywhere can you see organic agriculture like in Austria. We have over 10,000 certified organic producers and at least as many producers with the same values but without a certificate. Sustainability is a really big deal in Austria—virtually no other country has come that far.”

A menu at Steirereck is a breath-taking experience—exceptional and unique. No imitations or copies, everything is pure Reitbauer and team. In fact, he is often imitated by his peers, for example his “little cards” that are served with each course, listing interesting elements of the dish and explaining some of the lesser-known ingredients to the guests. For Reitbauer it’s important that guests don’t constantly feel interrupted. He explains: “You have to let people be people. We mustn’t constantly steamroll, submerge or overburden them with our view of the world. But we have to look at the guest and see who he is. What does he want? What’s he prepared for?”

Past a whole wall of preserving jars full of nature’s flavours I take my leave of restaurant Steirereck and I can hardly keep my appreciation for Reitbauer’s passion for Austrian products in check. His efforts to release the flavours of each and every element in his dishes result in a spectacle of flavours that can only be matched by its finesse. In one evening, the sheer quantity of uncovered products that have never been seen or tasted before, is just staggering and certainly leaves a lasting impression.

If ever I lose the courage to change, then it will get all static and boring. Good things emerge but they will pass on—everything has its time.

Find out more about Heinz’s culinary career