Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner Takes Us on a Tour of Austria’s Homeland Flavors

Photo credit: Rainer Fehringer
Photo credit: Rainer Fehringer

High above the Austrian village of Ratsch, on a hilltop overlooking a sun-soaked valley planted with rows of grapevines, I’m all set to tuck into the biggest plate of fried chicken that I’ve ever seen. Walnut trees shade the deck of Weinlokal Maitz, a restaurant on the Southern Styrian wine route, where I sit with Kurt Gutenbrunner, the Austrian-born chef-owner of five restaurants in Manhattan, and Michael Gross, the charming young scion of a local wine family. The chicken, served with lemon wedges and a salad made with purple-specked käferbohnen—“beetle beans,” what we know as “scarlet runners”—is a local specialty called backhenderl, and a dream come true. Just under a crust that has the airy crispness of a perfect Wiener schnitzel, the meat bursts with gamy juice that makes me want to find the chicken farmer and shake his hand. And I could, without much trouble; at this point in my travels in Austria, I know the country is a locavore’s fantasy—and that the chicken I’m about to eat was clucking in someone’s yard the day before yesterday. (The English menu reinforces my belief in plain language: “Needless to say, we know all of our distributors personally.”)

The wine we’re drinking is local, too—on the hillside across the valley is the Gross winery and vineyards, where Michael lives and makes wine with his brother, Johannes, and their father, Alois. From here we can see the terraced slopes where they grow grüner veltliner. Down in the valley, we can make out the roof of the buschenschank that Michael’s grandparents still run. The buschenschank is a glorious Austrian tradition—a little tavern where winemakers, with spe- cial governmental permission, serve their own vintages and a small selection of hot and cold dishes to tourists and locals alike. “In the fall, we live to go to the buschenschanks,” Michael says. “People come for the leaves—every tree you can see in this valley turns a different shade of green, gold and red. And they come for the sturm.” That’s the newest wine of the year’s harvest, the grape juice that’s just started to ferment. The men at the table smile and let out a col- lective groan, as if they’ve all gotten into plenty of trouble drinking sturm, and can’t wait to do it again. “I think it continues to ferment in your stomach,” Kurt says.

Just then, the server brings Michael a plate of schafkase im mantel—sheep’s milk cheese wrapped in speck. What, no backhenderl? “It’s delicious, but no. I had it for lunch yesterday,” Michael says, sheepishly. “And the day before.”

Since he opened Wallse, his Michelin-starred homage to Viennese cuisine, in the West Village in 2000, Kurt Gutenbrunner has been turning Manhattanites on to schnitzel, spaetzle and gruner veltliner. He’s the primary advocate and most recognized representative of Austrian food culture in America, and in Austria, a country with a population about the same size as New York City’s, he’s some- thing of a local hero. For six days, Kurt and I scoured the country in search of new ingredients, producers and dishes that will inspire his menus in the year to come at Wallse and his other restaurants: Blaue Gans, the Austrian bistro in TriBeCa; Café Sabarsky, the Viennese café at the Neue Gallerie; Café Kristall, at the Swarovski Building; and his wine bar, the Upholstery Shop. To kick off the week, we meet at Plachutta, one of Vienna’s most respected traditional restaurants, for a crash course in Austrian Cuisine 101.

Looking at the menu, Kurt explains how Austria has always been a crossroads, a place in the middle. Once the seat of power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna was also the easternmost city in Western Europe during the Cold War. Centuries of trade, diplomacy and conquest have left their mark on the city’s cuisine. “Gulasch? From the Hungarians,” explains Kurt. “Schnitzel, that’s essentially a Milanese, from Italy. A lot of these pastries are Czech. And the coffee in our famous cafés? From the Turks.”

But since the end of the Empire, the major influence on Austrian cuisine has come from within. In the early 20th century, Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner provided the philosophical underpinnings for what would become the organic farming movement.

Naturally, Austria has become one of the world’s leaders in organic farming; it was one of the first countries to set official organic guidelines, and its government continues to subsidize ecological farming practices. As a result, close to 20 percent of its farms are organic, more that in any other European country (except tiny Liechtenstein).

From the hippest Viennese nightspot to the most rustic smalltown gasthaus, we see these two forces working in harmony, and they define contemporary Austrian cuisine—traditional dishes, like Wiener schnitzel and krautsalat, are thoughtfully prepared so that the flavors of the fresh, local meat and produce shine through. Kurt is tickled by the recent rise of Austrian cuisine in New York’s dining scene, where Midtown’s Seasonal now has a Michelin star, and doz- ens of beer gardens have sprouted up over the past 10 years.

“When I put tafelspitz on the menu in New York, people said, ‘You’re serving us boiled beef?’ It wasn’t very cool,” Kurt says. Plachutta is famous for this quintessential Austrian dish, which is es- sentially a simple boiled dinner; the name refers to the cut of beef, which comes from the round. Other cuts—kavalierspitz, tafelstück and so forth—are commonly used, but “tafelspitz in particular is accompanied by a myriad of legends, and no other dish has a com- parable historic significance,” according to the Plachutta cook- book. The service is warm and formal; the food, simple and hearty as corned beef and cabbage. Kurt serves kavalierspitz at Blaue Gans, his casual Austrian bistro in TriBeCa. Does he lighten it up a bit for his downtown Manhattan crowd? “No, of course not,” he says, between forkfuls of beef. “Does the Viennese Philharmonic play Mozart any differently when they come to New York?”

After getting through almost a pound of beef, I put my fork down, while Kurt continues to eat. He is a man of voracious appetites and seemingly boundless energy—it’s no wonder at all that his little hometown of Wallsee, a little village in Upper Austria, couldn’t hold him.

In 1988, after a two-year stint at Munich’s then-Michelin-Three- Star restaurant Tantris, he was introduced to Hermann Reiner, chef of Windows on the World in New York, who hired his 26-year-old fellow Austrian as sous-chef. Gutenbrunner fell in love with New York, but found the experience of cooking at the top of the World Trade Center disconcerting. “I was used to buying produce off a truck in back of the restaurant; now, we were buying produce 110 floors below. It was like working on a submarine,” Kurt says.

In the meantime, an American chef with ties to Austria and impeccable French training was earning rave reviews in Tribeca; before opening his eponymous restaurant, David Bouley had worked at the then four-star restaurant Vienna 79 with chef Peter Grunauer. In 1990, Gutenbrunner found his first real home in the States in the kitchen at Bouley, and started a working relationship with chef David Bouley that would last, off and on, for 10 years. The restaurant Bouley has become a proving ground for American chefs—Eric Ripert, Dan Barber and César Ramirez all passed through in the 1990s, to name a few. Gutenbrunner was suitably challenged and invigorated by the other chefs in the kitchen. “We were a great team. No one could beat us. It was a shitload of work, and there was a lot of pressure, but when people push each other like that, a lot of extreme things can happen,” Kurt says, before turning wistful. “I think if things happened on schedule, David and I would still be working together.”

“What are you doing, Johnny?” Kurt asks, gesturing at my half-full plate as he scoops the last bites of kavalierspitz from his own. At our first meeting, Kurt started calling me Johnny, and after a couple of days, I stopped correcting him. I told Kurt I was stuffed; I probably should have passed on the chanterelle omelet that we had as an appetizer. “What’s the matter? You only ate half a cow,” he says. “Let’s get dessert.”

When we meet early the next morning, we have dessert again. “I love cake,” Kurt tells me as he quickly demolishes a slice of Landtmann torte, with its decadent layers of walnut cream and marzipan. Vienna’s cafés are justly famous for their extravagant cakes—like sachertorte, linzertorte and apfelstrudel, to name a few—and during our week in Austria, Kurt never misses a dessert. His trim silhouette can only be explained by his inexhaustible energy and outright speed; I often have to jog to keep up with him as he navigates the twisting streets of Vienna like he’s being chased. He only stops to eat, as he is now, at Café Landtmann, a fabled Viennese café a stone’s throw from Vienna’s University, the City Hall and the monumental Burgtheater.
An hour later, we stumble onto a frozen yogurt shop called “Kurt” on a cobblestone street; Kurt warmly greets the owners (“You’re Kurt? I’m Kurt!”), drops business cards on all of the shop’s patrons and orders a blueberry-acai yogurt, in the “Classic Kurt” size. “Once, I went to Café Sabarsky for a business meeting, and I ate four apricot cakes before it was over,” he says. Kurt opened Café Sabarsky in the Neue Gallerie, Manhattan’s museum of Austrian and German art and de- sign, in 2001. Kurt had met the museum’s founder, Ronald Lauder, when they both ordered Thonet chairs from the same Austrian com- pany. After visiting Vienna, the likeness of Café Sabarsky to its Vien- nese cousins is almost eerie—from the waiters’ uniforms to the Tho- net hat racks to the menu, with its Staud’s jams and sachertortes and grosser brauner (coffee with steamed milk), it’s all the same.

Gutenbrunner comes to Austria several times a year, in part to see old friends and family, and in part to source new ingredients for his New York kitchens. This is what has brought us to Heimschuh, a sleepy town in the southern state of Styria, near the Slovenian bor- der. It’s home to the Hartlieb mill, where some of the world’s best pumpkinseed oil is pressed. “This was once oil of the poor,” says Thomas Hartlieb, whose great-grandfather opened the Hartlieb mill in 1896, when they used river power to mill lumber as well as grain. “People thought it was low quality, because of its dark color.” In the bottle, pumpkinseed oil is a dark, almost purplish green; when Hartlieb holds a bottle high and pours it so that the afternoon sun shines through the oil, it’s a vivid crimson. Now, it is to Austria what EVOO is to Italy; in a week, I think I had it at every meal, dressing greens, tomatoes, cheese and fish with its distinctive nutty flavor.

Hartlieb keeps a collection of antique pumpkinseed presses in a makeshift museum on the mill’s second floor, but on the ground floor, high-tech presses and grinders do the work today. Local farmers grow special Styrian “oil pumpkins,” whose seeds grow without hulls. This squash’s harvest is the inversion of its American cous- ins’: they keep the seeds and discard the flesh. At Hartlieb, those prized seeds are ground and roasted, which causes the proteins in the seed puree to separate from the oil. That mixture is pressed, the oil collected, and what’s left behind—a protein-rich puck of pressed pumpkinseeds—becomes livestock feed on nearby farms.

Over a seidel of Puntigamer, the go-to lager in Styria, at the café across the street, Gutenbrunner and Hartlieb talk about pump- kinseed oil’s appearance on the gourmet food scene; until about 20 years ago, it wasn’t even common in upper Austria, though it’s been used in Styria for centuries. “It wasn’t that we didn’t want it; you Styrian guys just didn’t want to give it to us,” says Kurt. It’s an ingredient Kurt has always showcased to great effect. Ruth Reichl, in typical for-mature-audiences-only prose, reviewed Gutenbrunner’s food when he was chef at the Monkey Bar, a club- bish Midtown restaurant then owned by steakhouse czar Peter Glazier, in the New York Times in 1998: “Just take a spoonful of his butternut squash soup. Hold it in your mouth, rejoicing in the deep richness of the pumpkinseed oil on top…. It is irresistible.”

Eight years earlier, when his first son was born, Kurt had left Bouley and moved to Germany—he thought Europe would be a better place to raise a family—but returned to New York to work with his old boss whenever time allowed. In 1996, he moved to New York for good and hatched plans with Bouley to open the Austrian restaurant that would become Danube. But plans stalled, Kurt became impatient and steakhouse czar Glazier made Kurt an offer he couldn’t refuse—his first executive chef gig, at Monkey Bar. “He gave me everything and beyond. I didn’t want to do it at first, but it’s hard to see everyone else moving ahead when you’re standing still,” Kurt says. After two years there, he met the inves- tors who would help him fund Wallse—parents of a kid on his son’s soccer team—and a restaurant empire was born.

From the roof of the Gegenbauer vinegar factory, we can see the broken roof tiles of the surrounding apartment blocks in this unglam- orous neighborhood of Vienna’s 10th district. We’ve come to check in on an old friend of Kurt’s, Erwin Gegenbauer, whose grandfather Ignaz started making sauerkraut and pickled vegetables in this build- ing in 1929. In the 1990s, Erwin sold off most of the company’s assets to focus on his true aspiration: to make the world’s best fruit vinegars. Gegenbauer makes vinegars from every kind of foodstuff imaginable: apples and grapes, but also honey, figs, cucumbers and asparagus. These are not the vinegars on your typical grocery shelf, flavored with raspberries or other fruit. “Those vinegars are made by adding fruit flavors to wine vinegar. That is chemistry, and I don’t do that,” Ge- genbauer says, in near-perfect English. “My raspberry vinegar is all raspberries, no other ingredients. You could say it’s more simple this way. But the simplest products can be the most complicated.”

Gegenbauer starts his process by working with local farmers, selecting fruit with the careful attention of a winemaker. “How many leaves per branch is optimal? When do we harvest? How do we press the fruit to get the juice? These are the questions we ask,” he says. The fruit juice is allowed to ferment, creating a wine; Gegenbauer then introduces specific strains of bacteria—he keeps several hundred on hand—which will, over several weeks, convert the alcohol in the wine to acid, creating vinegar. Some vinegars are then aged in oak wine barrels, either in his cellar or on his roof, exposed to the elements. I ask why there’s no tradition of making this kind of vinegar in Austria, or anywhere else. “There’s a popu- lar perception that vinegar must be cheap, that vinegar is wine that’s gone bad,” Gegenbauer says. “That’s changing.”

Gegenbauer brings out his newest project to show Kurt, an oil made from pressed raspberry seeds—a by-product of his vinegar process. “I love working with Kurt,” Gegenbauer says. “I give him vinegar, we taste it and discuss. Sometimes I work with him in the kitchen, and together we create a new dish. I’m the craftsman; he’s the creative, pushing me to experiment with new flavors.”

He places a few drops on the back of Kurt’s hand and mine; Kurt licks it off and stares at Gegenbauer as he rolls it around in his mouth. The flavor is subtle and woody at first, then slowly blos- soms into something like raspberry jam on toast. “The berry flavor comes late,” Kurt says.

“But it stays a long time,” Gegenbauer says. “That’s amazing! Can I take this with me?” Kurt says. Our hands will smell, pleasantly, like raspberry bushes for the rest of the day. A photographer from an Austrian society magazine arrives; she asks the two men to pose between the batteries of casks on the roof. Gutenbrunner is totally relaxed in front of a camera, posing for pic- tures like an aging rock star, to which he sometimes compares himself (“You know what they say about British rock and rollers? They don’t fucking die! Keith Richards. Robert Plant. I’m like that. You can’t kill me.”). His body totally relaxed, Kurt looks directly into the camera, eyelids heavy, his lips slightly curled in the suggestion of a smile.

“Let’s go see Claus, Johnny,” Kurt says. The open fields of Burgenland, planted with chest-high cornstalks and sunflowers, whip past the windows of our Mini Countryman, as Kurt drops gears to pass another ambling truck. “You’ll like this guy. He’s a little crazy.”

Claus Preisinger’s winery is a strikingly modern poured-concrete bunker filled with strikingly low-tech equipment—just a bunch of stainless steel tanks and wooden barrels. There’s not even a pump in sight—when Preisinger needs to move his wine from tank to barrel, he uses a length of tubing to siphon it, concerned that mechani- cal pumping will disturb his wines. In the corner, there’s a stack of crates of mineral water (“Good for breakfast,” Preisinger says.) and Budweiser Budvar (“Very important after a day in the vineyards: cold beer.”) and, off to the side, the winery’s most advanced piece of machinery: a 500-liter teapot, where he makes chamomile tea to feed his vines during times of stress. He hasn’t used pesticides or herbicides in years, and cites Rudolf Steiner as a direct influence.

Kurt includes a wide swath of Austrian winemakers on the lists at his New York restaurants, from the most traditional old houses to the newest, most cutting-edge vintners, like Preising- er. With the tousled good looks of an emo rocker, Preisinger is, at 31, the youngest member of Pannobile, a group of nine local winemakers who have banded together to form their own appel- lation—like a French AOC, which controls what grapes can be used in what wines, but without the government. Each year, the winemakers in the group submit their wines to a tasting panel of their peers; to be considered a Pannobile wine, all nine winemakers must unanimously approve.

He pours his 2008 Pannobile, a blend of zweigelt, blaufrän-kisch and a little bit of St. Laurent, a rare, highly aromatic grape. “It’s tricky to grow,” says Preisinger, “but sometimes the trickiest grapes make the best wines.” It’s lovely stuff, light-bodied and sub- tle, with flavors of black currant and earth. As we drink, watching the sun set over Lake Neuseidl into a bank of clouds, a burly farm- er with mud-spattered boots walks in—it’s Paul Achs, another Pannobile winemaker, carrying a bottle of his 2000 blaufränkisch, and the glasses are filled again. The two winemakers are eager to take him out to dinner, to a restaurant called Blaue Gans—the same as Kurt’s TriBeCa bistro. But Kurt begs off, and we get back on the road. “I know these guys,” says Kurt. “We go out with them to dinner and it’ll be sunrise before we get to our hotel.”

Erich Stekovics, with his round red cheeks, deep-set eyes and red polo shirt covering a round belly, fits his nickname: Kaiser der Paradeiser (the emperor of tomatoes). In the fertile plains of Burgenland, he raises more than 800 varieties of tomatoes every year; in his stores, he keeps the seeds for 2,000 more. “I think he named one of his daughters Tomato,” Kurt whispers, as we follow Stekovics into his greenhouses.

As we stalk quickly through rows of six-foot plants heavy with fruit, he pulls tomatoes off the vines for us to taste. With his knife, he splits a small, dark tomato and shows us the purplish flesh. “Black cherry,” he says, before popping half in his mouth and motioning for me to do the same. The flesh is lush and flavorful; the juice is thick and heady, like a swig of Achs’s blaufränkisch. The tomatoes follow in quick succession, and Stekovics rattles off the names; he can identify hundreds of variet- ies by sight. There’s de Barao, yellow and plum-shaped; Russian pear, sweet and smooth, as fragrant as a ripe peach; vibrant red Schlessian raspberry—each more flavorful and succulent than the one before.

His secret? He doesn’t water his plants. Ever. Bred for hardiness, they’re forced to sink their roots ever deeper into the earth, giving them greater access to resources and, he believes, producing the world’s most flavorful tomatoes. His methods buck conventional wisdom, which dictates that tomatoes need plenty of water, and baffle experts; a re- search team from the University of Innsbruck took three days to ex- cavate the root-ball of one of his plants. Home gardeners from all over Europe visit to see Stekovics’s plants and hear his gospel—but their hearts are not strong enough to follow him. “They’re afraid,” he says, obviously a little hurt. “They go home and water their plants.”

As Kurt tries to convince Stekovics to visit the U.S. (“I want to introduce you to some of my farmers,” he says), Stekovics brings us to one of his favorite plants: the Firework tomato, a Russian variety that’s 450 years old, its carmine flesh streaked with the yellow and gold flecks that give it its name. As he cuts into it, red juice drips down his hand; the flesh is dark red to its core. It’s just delicious, fruity and aromatic, like summer savory and wildflowers, the Platonic ideal of a tomato. “You want a restaurant?” Stekovics shouts, flourishing the knife in his seed-stained hand. “Bring your table in here. I’ll make you a feast you won’t forget. Seven courses of tomatoes.” He leans in close, and fixes his hound-dog eyes on mine. “If you write about this, no one will believe you.”

Within minutes of arriving in the town of Axberg in northern Austria, Hans Reiset- bauer, perhaps Austria’s most respected distiller, is making us coffee, and after hours on the road, we need it. We started the day just past dawn in the farmers market of Graz, where Kurt loaded my arms with sunflowers, tiny raspberries, dry pork sausage studded with pumpkinseeds, a huge bag of ripe apricots, and some slices of poppy-seed cake as he flitted from stall to stall, chatting with the vendors. “It’s good to talk to these old ladies,” he told me, as he handed me a squash. “They know best. This pumpkin? She told me you can cook the whole thing, leave the skin on. Makes good soup.”

It’s the start of Reisetbauer’s busy season—he makes his living turning Austria’s best fruit into award-winning eaux-de-vie, or schnapps, and as we saw in the market this morn- ing, the first fruit of the summer was already ripe. He distilled his first batch of raspberries the week before our visit; through the porthole in one of his copper stills, I see his first batch of apricots cooking away, bubbling like a pot of jam.

Reisetbauer grows all of his own apples and pears on his estate, just outside the distillery; other fruit, like these apricots, he sources from farmers who grow fruit especially for him. “I have to find farmers who are as crazy as I am,” Reisetbauer tells me. He doesn’t look crazy, he looks like fun—like a retired actor, with an easy smile, graying hair pushed back, and shoulders as big as a bear’s. “Most customers want to see the perfect color of an apricot. Me, I want the perfect taste. I need the best fruit to make the best schnapps.”

“It’s the same in the kitchen,” Kurt says. “You have to work with the farmers to get what you want. See, Johnny? It’s always the same.”

“Once we have the perfect fruit, it’s up to us not to make any mistakes,” Reisetbauer says.

Schnapps are not always pretty spirits—some are just fiery moonshine, roughly dis- tilled by farmers and drunk by same to fend off cold, fatigue and boredom (and forget the cinnamon- and watermelon-flavored liqueurs called schnapps in the U.S.—they’re completely unknown in Austria). But schnapps can be magical; clear, high-proof spirits, enjoyed after dinner, that somehow evoke through taste and smell the sensation of biting into a ripe fruit, at the peak of its season, right off the vine—or better. Reisetbauer’s pear schnapps is better than any French poire Williams I’d ever had—as the flavors spread across my tongue and waft up through my sinuses, I have the illusion of tasting a pear with the backs of my eyes. His elsbeere (“serviceberry”) schnapps is the most expensive in the world; he needs more than 35 kilos of the rare fruit to make one liter of spirit. Last year, the only three bottles exported to the U.S. went to Wallse. It tastes like blueberry marzipan, in between layers of God’s own wedding cake.

After an amble through his orchards, it’s time for lunch; we head to his kitchen in time to see his entire staff—farmhands, still operators and marketers alike—sitting down to eat with his young children. His wife plates slabs of the pork neck she’s been roasting all morning with hunks of browned cabbage, herb dumplings and a good ladleful of dark brown jus. Everything is perfectly cooked, and the gemütlichkeit, that sense of warm hos- pitality in which all Austrians take pride, has never been stronger. We all help ourselves to glasses of apple juice from the orchards outside.

“Here’s where I fished for semling, that fish you had the other day,” Kurt says, standing on the grassy banks of the Danube in Wallsee, his hometown, a quiet village of about 3,000. “Up there, by those reeds, I caught eel and catfish.” While fishing as a child, Kurt would watch the river cruise ships pass by, some on their way to Vienna. He didn’t know much about them, but he knew they had cooks, and they seemed as good a way as any out of Wallsee. In the 1970s, aspiring Austrian chefs didn’t aim too high; if he paid attention and worked hard in culinary school, he might even make it to the kitchen of a hotel in Switzerland. Before Kurt, Wallsee’s only claim to fame was a castle that was once home to Archduchess Marie Valerie, daughter of Emperor Franz Joseph. Now it can claim a famous American chef, too. This fall, Kurt’s cookbook Neue Cuisine will be published by Rizzoli, and this fall he’ll return to Austria to receive the Decoration of Honor for Services to the Republic of Austria, a prestigious award given by the Austrian president to citizens who promote Austrian culture abroad.

His parents still live in town; so do his brother and sister. When we stop by his old family homestead, his mother, as hospitable and charming as her son, brings out a home- made plum cake and some coffee. I grill her for embarrassing stories from her son’s youth, but she comes up short. “When he was about 10, he made me a cake for Mother’s Day. After dinner, his brother said, ‘Kurt, where’s the cake?’ but Kurt just shushed him. It turns out he had hidden the cake under his bed.”
“It didn’t come out right! I had high-quality standards, even then,” Kurt says.

Our stay isn’t long; we have dinner reservations in Vienna that night. Before we leave, Kurt carries in bags bursting with the bounty of Austria’s fields, orchards, cellars and shops, and starts to unload them onto the kitchen table, despite his mother’s protestations: the market sunflowers; sausage studded with pumpkin seeds; bottles of Gegenbauer’s vinegar and Hartlieb’s pumpkinseed oil; fresh apple juice from Reisetbauer’s orchard; tomatoes from Stekovics’s miraculous vines; and from the farmers market in Graz, a small mountain of apricots. “We love it when Kurt comes to visit,” his mother says. She beams with pride for her son, the chef, who has made good in New York and is the reason Americans have heard of Wallsee. Then she looks distractedly back at the kitchen table. “But now I have to do something with all of these apricots.”

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