The Plant Whisperer | Heinz Reitbauer

20 Apr 2021
6 min read
With an enthusiasm and passion for nature, which he’s continuously poured into his restaurant as well as conjured up on the plates in his kitchen, Heinz Reitbauer still remains one of the greatest and most ingenious chefs in Austria, if not the world.

Awarded two Michelin stars, the top mark of 19 points in the Gault Millau guide and also to be found in 17th place in the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Heinz Reitbauer’s Steirereck in the Stadtpark, in Vienna, could be seen as the best restaurant in Austria. However, due to his modesty and the rejection of all “grandiose” names of his kitchen, Reitbauer finds the constant pressure of this evaluation, and ultimately the fear of making mistakes, paralyzing.

He says: “If I lose the courage to change, then at some point it becomes static and boring. Good things come and go – there is a time for everything. You have to give time and air to the new. For me, standing still is crippling. If I only get up because of work, then I’ll lie down.”

Heinz Reitbauer grew up in a gastronomic family in combination with agriculture. When he was born in 1970, his Styrian parents opened an inn in Vienna. In his teenage phase, he recalls, it was always about the search for the product and for quality. Torn between the career aspirations of architect and cook, Reitbauer first went to the hotel management school in Germany after completing compulsory schooling, and then began an apprenticeship as a chef in his own house. After a year he continued his apprenticeship with the Obauer brothers in Salzburg.

“That was definitely a very defining time for me. I was young and I felt quite ahead of my time. I was a bit on my own mental fast lane. It is very clear when you grow up in the restaurant business that you have a superficial idea of a lot of things, but there they gave me depth and grounded me.”

“When you start cooking you are easily impressed by others; the older you get the more you find your own way of cooking and develop your own style, and there I got to know the special appreciation of the product again very intensively.”

Reitbauer then went to France to work with Alain Chapel, whose uncompromising attitude also shaped him. His career also took him to London to Anton Mosimann and to Paris to Joël Robuchon.At home, Reitbauer took over his parents’ inn in Styria, the Steirereck am Pogusch. Initially planned for only one year, it became almost ten in which he incorporated a strong regional reference into his cooking style.

“I travelled all over the world, then came to the city of Vienna and then to the deepest land. And there I looked around because I wanted to make a kitchen that reflected this area. Dominated by product and season, we are under the dictate of the various ingredients we use.” As early as 1996, regionality and his own farming were a big issue for him.

In the beginning, he travelled a lot, sat in the car or on the plane every day off and came back inspired and enthusiastic. “Yes,” Reitbauer recalls, “we tried more and more to listen to ourselves, what is on our doorstep, what we have historically and what is maturing in our own heads. No matter where I go, I want to taste the country and the people.”

It soon becomes clear what really makes Reitbauer so special: “I’ve always told my employees, no matter what we do, where and how, it should never be based on anything. If we’ve seen a repeat of a product, something that everyone is cooking now, then we were the first to take the product off the menu. We wanted to have distinctiveness.”

Today Reitbauer’s kitchen can be considered contemporary – absolutely – and Austrian – of course, but not necessarily to be described as contemporary Austrian cuisine.

In 2005 Reitbauer and his wife took over the Steirereck in Vienna, consisting of the dairy, a milk and cheese bar and the Steirereck restaurant. His parents also run the inn in Styria. “Our own farm supplies all three restaurants (“we slaughter several animals every week, from veal to beef, lamb, goat, pig…”) and the close cooperation with the farmers in the area has been maintained for 30 years. We try to source as many things locally as possible, as we have wonderful freshwater fishes in Austria so why use others that come from far away?”

Since the Steirereck in the city park was rebuilt in 2014, it has not been recognizable. “Our restaurant is located in the middle of the centrally located Stadtpark in Vienna. The original building facing the Wienfluss is from 1904 and a couple of years ago we added a modern part that’s more open and airy. There are big windows that can be opened and you have beautiful views into the park. Sitting and enjoying there is a little bit like a small vacation – relaxing and calming.”

The design allows an abundance of light to enter the restaurant and create panoramic views of the park outdoors through its floor-to-ceiling windows. “We are in one of the most beautiful places in Vienna, and this beautiful nature coincides with what we do.”

Despite the contemporary designs and a chic, cosmopolitan atmosphere in the restaurant, Reitbauer remains completely true to his kitchen and his craft. “We are still a family-owned restaurant where my wife Birgit is the front-of-house and I am in charge of the kitchen. We have a lot of people coming regularly to our restaurant, some already for a couple of decades. And we have wonderful teams on both sides; they give their best every day and work hard to serve all our guests to perfection.”

“We have our own garden and we always exchange 10 products and receive 10 new products that we do not know – or only from literature – and then grow them in small units or in troughs on our terrace. We want to gain an understanding of the plants in terms of their growth and can thus determine which plant fraction and at what stage it is of interest to us.”

“We often cultivate plants for years that we do nothing with because we do not understand them, don’t understand the taste, because it’s too intense or because we don’t know where to use it. For example, the Aleppo diamond is one of these plants. Because of its very sweet aroma, it took a long time before we learned to appreciate the taste. Today it is used very discreetly in desserts, polenta and creams and gives the recipes their very own depth of flavour”.

“Reitbauer motivates every chef in his kitchen to go into the garden every day and try, be it with his nose or mouth, in order to broaden horizons and drive the learning process forward. The selected plants are then grown in larger quantities by the producers. “Years ago we started to preserve the taste using old methods, so pickling, boiling, etc.,” says Reitbauer. “We cook several thousand kilos in order to have this taste for ourselves over the winter. The simple variant would be that you can buy anything over the year anyway. But that’s not the same taste. ”And taste is the be-all and end-all for Reitbauer.

One of his most famous dishes is the char in beeswax. For this he uses organic beeswax as a cooking agent and flavoring agent at the same time. The fish is cooked at the table in front of the guest, which is then served with beetroot, caviar pollen and sour cream.

Both the tasting menu and a la carte at the Steirereck are a breathtaking experience – extraordinary and unique. Nothing is imitated or copied, but original Reitbauer and team. Guests are presented with dining cards, which are served with every course and explain the individual elements of the dish to the guest and explain unknown ingredients. For Reitbauer it is important that guests do not feel constantly interrupted.

“We have to let humans be humans. We must not permanently roll over, cover-up or overwhelm it with our kind of world. But we have to see who is this guest? What does he want? What is he ready for? ”

Speaking to Reitbauer, you quickly realize how committed he is to gastronomy in Austria and championing the produce of the terroir. “We have an incredibly great country, naturally unbelievably intact, and very diverse and small-scale agriculture. There is almost nowhere organic farming like in Austria. We have over 10,000 certified companies and at least as many companies that work in this way and do not have a certificate. Sustainability is a very big issue in Austria, almost no other country is that far.”

With the events of this year having a huge impact on food distribution chains, Reitbauer also reiterates the importance of eating and sourcing food locally.

“For a lot of restaurants, the current situation is a disaster. Some of them will not be able to open up again. Even very famous names are struggling and it is nobody’s fault. So we have to rethink all our personal business situations and find each and everybody its own way to survive this.”

“I think the Coronavirus brought also changes in our thinking about global food sources. What happens when the world stops is that you quickly become aware of what’s not available or cannot be produced because of the current, and unsustainable, processes required. I think that the future brings a lot more focus on local and fair sourced products.”

Eating at Steireck leaves you with a real sense of admiration for Reitbauer’s commitment to local Austrian products and promoting a sustainable restaurant and business model. His efforts to bring out the taste of every element of the dish, no matter how small, allow his creations to become a flavour spectacle that can hardly be surpassed in finesse.

The wealth of discoveries of never before seen and tasted products that you can make here in one evening definitely leaves a lasting impression, and will no doubt stand the test of time.

This editorial first appeared in FOUR’s 03.20 Edition


Images © Steirereck