The New Face Of Austrian Fine Dining

A cuisine that's much more than sausage and schnitzel

By Leiti Hsu

3 August 2018

You’re forgiven if your idea of Austrian food is schnitzel and sausage: this country does traditional comfort foods incredibly well, and I’d be happy to stuff my face full of it for the rest of my life.

But that’s also just one facet of dining here. More and more visitors are flocking to Austria to discover one of the most vibrant food scenes on the planet, one where centuries-old recipes are being reimagined with the freshest local ingredients and where even the fanciest meals can feel like a cozy family affair. Farm-to-table, Michelin stars, seasonal produce—you really have it all.

The secret’s out. Come to Austria, and come hungry.


Culinary invention meets seasonal ingredients

When René Redzepi opened Noma in 2003, he put Denmark and its neighboring countries on the gastronomic map by crafting exquisite dishes using ingredients indigenous to the region. Now that the world has become well-acquainted with new Nordic cuisine, it’s looking to find similarly inspired local fare in all parts of the globe, and chefs in Austria are rising to the challenge.

Martin Klein, executive chef of the two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Ikarus in Salzburg, says, “So many chefs are working really hard to make Austria famous and popular, and I think it is much more than only the Austrian schnitzel.” His restaurant features guest chefs and menus that change every month and constantly challenges the notion of what Austrian cuisine is.

At Steirereck in Vienna, ranked No. 10 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, signature dishes include fish cooked in beeswax at the dining table and wafer-thin chips cut from citrus fruit. But all of this innovation is rooted in the immediate environment. Heinz Reitbauer, the chef at Steirereck, explains, “A lot of Austrian chefs are very much focused on regional Austrian products. We have a good relationship with our farmers because the country is quite small and the farm are quite small as well, and they are focused on quality.” The citrus for the chips, for example, is harvested from a grove just outside Vienna, which remains incredibly green in spite of being a cosmopolitan center.

This intense regionality means that even within Austria, various strains of cooking are emerging. Moving west of Vienna to the mountainous region of Tirol, the terrain, climate, and local history change dramatically, leading to distinct kinds of food. Klaus Buttenhauser, the founder of Koch.Campus, an association of 30 top Austrian chefs, has identified a type of “new Alpine cuisine” in cities like Innsbruck, the Tirolean capital. “It is not just renewing of knödels [Tirolean dumplings] and big pieces of meat, but it is a kind of new treatment of old products.”

At Oniriq in Innsbruck, chef Christoph Bickel breathes new life into traditional cooking methods. “In winter, you don't have a lot of products, especially here in Tirol. There are potatoes, parsley roots, onions, beet roots, apples, and pears—that’s it. But the things you collect all the year and preserve, you can use them whenever you want to.”

Savvy diners respond well to this approach. Christoph has noted a growing sophistication among his customers. “People are changing: they want to know where does the meat comes from, where does the fish come from.”


Reimagining Classics With A Lighter Twist

It’s hard to generalize the taste of new Austrian cuisine when so many chefs have their own interpretations, but one prevalent trend is a shift away from the meat-heavy dishes that are typically associated with the country.

Austrian seafood in particular is enjoying the limelight. Though not a coastal country, Austria is blessed with an abundance of freshwater fish that comes from its rivers and lakes, including its famous Lake Region, an easy day trip from Salzburg. According to Chef Martin of Restaurant Ikarus, “The best char that I ever had in my life is in Austria because the water quality is fantastic.”

The movement away from meat is still an ongoing process, as Petra Goetz-Frisch, the co-owner of Goldfisch in Vienna, is well aware. Formerly a marketing executive, Petra can now be found cleaning and preparing the morning catch every day. “On special occasions everybody tries to afford meat, so the dishes that are known in restaurants are very meat-centric. But there are also a lot of other dishes that are not. Young chefs are trying to get these old recipes with vegetables and only small parts of meat.”

Meanwhile, at Oniriq, Christoph is championing a seven-course vegetarian menu; meat is an optional add-on. “I can create a vegetarian menu and you won't ever miss fish or meat,” he says. “It is not necessary to have a loin of rabbit on the plate, because the vegetarian plate is a full dish.”

Some old recipes are being adapted to a more sophisticated modern palate. One example is beuschel, a stew made from veal lung and tongue. From its humble origins, beuschel has found its place on the menu of Konstantin Filippou’s eponymous restaurant in Vienna, where it’s given a lighter treatment. “We use traditional flavors from Austria and mix them up with Mediterranean food, like having a nice fish with a beuschel sauce,” says Konstantin.

At Gut Purbach, a cozy restaurant in the eastern Austrian town of Purbach, Chef Max Stiegl has made these undervalued ingredients the star attraction. Pork bladders, venison tripe, and a dozen other varieties of offal are magically transformed into savory dishes. "I think a good tripe or a good beaver liver is better than foie gras," Max says. You still get your meat, but it's worlds different from what you might associate with traditional Austrian cuisine.


A Community Of Chefs, Within The Family And Without

One aspect of Austria’s dining scene that really strikes me is how much of it is family-run. Goldfisch and Petz im Gußhaus in Vienna, Taubenkobel an hour south of the city—these are all impeccable restaurants run by couples.

You find that family focus across all sectors of the hospitality industry, from large hotels to intimate B&B’s. In Aurach, a village near the medieval Tirolean town of Kitzbühel, is the lovely inn Gasthaus Auwirt. Brothers Markus and Christian Winkler are in charge of this operation, and they have something to say about the importance of keeping it in the family: “Here we are very passionate about the family business. To make it most profitable is not always the key; the key thing is to have the most harmonious way to unite family and business.”

Even in a broader sense, great dining in Austria is united by a community of chefs who are working together to elevate the country’s cuisine. There’s less a sense of competition and more a spirit of collaboration, as if all the leading restaurateurs function as one giant culinary family.

Klaus Buttenhauser points to this as one of the highlights of the country. “The fact that Austrian chefs work together is something not very common on the international level. The French chefs are mature, and in Britain they have big stars, so they don't work together very closely, but there is a kind of common sense for the development of Austrian cuisine.”

From bed-and-breakfasts to white-tablecloth establishments, you’re part of something bigger, and that’s something to truly admire.


Is your interest piqued? This is just the start.

Learn more about Austria and how Journy can help you plan your trip in Vienna, Salzburg, or Innsbruck at austria.gojourny.com!