First three-star chef in the German speaking countries, chef of the century, Professeur de la Cuisine: Eckart Witzigmann has been presented with titles and awards like virtually no other chef and he was the pioneer who brought the French nouvelle cuisine to the German-speaking regions. Who else but the man from Bad Gastein should be the patron of the greatest vision in international cuisine – the realization of the guest chef concept?
What job would you choose if you could have your pick?
Cooking is still my passion. My dream job. If you have done everything right, you get to see satisfied and happy faces. That puts me way ahead of any dentist . I never wanted to be anything else and I have never had any regrets about my chosen career.
Which event in your career do you remember most fondly?
Since we especially like to remember our successes, I’d say it was definitely the awards of the three Michelin stars and my designation as Chef of the Century.
Which of your dishes do you hope the world will still remember in a hundred years?
I’ll leave that to future generations, because I love all of my dishes equally.
Be honest now: What do you prefer, cooking or eating?
The older I get, the more I enjoy not having to only cook. But because the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime, I still spend a lot of time in the kitchen. Lots of things continue to develop, and even if I don’t use something new myself, I want to at least know how it works. The passion for cooking lives on inside me.
What is your opinion of Austrian cuisine?
My impression is that Austrian cuisine has made a huge leap forward. Not only at the top, but primarily in its breadth. Clearly the many regional efforts are paying off, and aside from the stars and the toques, the basic quality has risen steadily overall.
What inspires you about your profession?
For me, cooking and eating are tremendously emotional activities. The most important thing has always been to make my guests happy, to offer them unforgettable hours at my table, and then send them home, cheerful and inspired. That has always been my motivation.
What character traits are required in your profession?
The must-haves for this unique and varied profession are resilience, a readiness to make sacrifices, plus some talent, joy, creativity and discipline, as well as willpower and ambition.
What is your “signature dish”? Is there such a thing for you?
I don’t much care for that expression. Sure, we’re living in an era of headlines, and the title is sometimes more important than the story behind it. But I’m not about to line up my own hit parade and pat myself on the back for it – I’d rather leave that to other people. My "Kalbsbries Rumohr" sweetbreads recipe – which I’ve once again reinterpreted – is especially popular to this day. But I’d say the "Turbot with Two Sauces", the "Beetroot Jelly with Beluga Malossol Caviar", the Gingerbread Soufflé with Altbier Sabayon and Cranberries" and the "Stuffed Oxtail Braised in Barolo" are also among my classics. However, deciding which one is my best dish of all time would be impossible for me.
You have now worked with more than 160 international chefs in Restaurant Ikarus.
Are there any culinary trends that you absolutely do not like? And if so, why? What trends will you remember most fondly?
The essence of the Ikarus concept is to present world-class cuisine from different countries and show what is being served in faraway lands. My favourite comment has always been the claim that visiting Restaurant Ikarus a few times spares you the trouble of taking a trip around the world. I’ve always liked all sorts of trends. Every one of them offered the highest quality and originality, so I don’t want to differentiate between them.
What culinary trends can we expect in the near future? Or have trends become passé, because today’s chefs follow their own passions? Is that a recipe for success?
If there is any trend at all, it’s that there is no trend. Everything is possible nowadays, nothing is impossible, the cuisine keeps becoming more individualized, and in today's fast-paced digital world, even an unknown cook can attract a lot of attention for a while. Andy Warhol predicted decades ago that the time will come when everyone can be a big star for a brief moment. That’s the situation we’re in now – whether it will last is another story. Personally, I believe skill and creativity are still more important than the specially flown-in eagles, which end up only being used as stewing hens.
Which stages in your career were the most difficult and which were the most fulfilling?
The toughest times were often also the most fulfilling because, as we know, they’re always directly related to one another. I have spent many years learning in many parts of the world and have absorbed everything like a sponge. In those situations, I had to put all my personal concerns aside and face every challenge head on. Then, when you later combine what you’ve learned with your own creativity and put your own ideas on the plate and are successful at what you’re doing, then all that hard work and sacrifice is forgotten.
If you were about to choose your future profession all over again, would you choose to follow the same path with the same dedication?
I am relatively certain that I would choose the same path again. Although it would certainly be easier now, because back then it wasn’t easy to go abroad as there was no EU or Schengen agreement. Today the borders are open.
What attributes must a good young chef bring to the table?
A serious approach to the work, attention to detail and an awareness of the need for quality.
What career advice would you give a young chef today?
The traits that qualify someone for the cooking profession – especially if you want to pursue it at a high level – include a thirst for knowledge, curiosity and openness. These traits will aid you in your personal life too, of course. Then the wonderful saying attributed to the Chinese philosopher Confucius will apply to you as a cook as well: "Choose a profession that you love, and you will never have to work another day in your life."
What advice would you give to young people who are facing personal career choices?
Cooking is new, different and inspiring every day. It’s possible to perfectly combine creativity and expertise, while giving a lot of people joy at the same time. The basic prerequisite is to find a good place to learn the craft from the ground up.
Is there anything you have always wanted to do but have not yet accomplished?
I’m actually pretty happy with what lies behind me; so I think pondering unfulfilled dreams would be a sign of ingratitude. I have achieved a great deal in my life and have fulfilled my dreams, and after a certain age, it is more important to stay healthy than to go chasing after dreams.
What is your ideal concept of happiness?
When no one on our Mother Earth has to die of hunger or thirst.
As a child, you wanted to grow up to be like ...?
What is the best way for you to relax?
With a cold glass of champagne in the great outdoors.
How do you deal with criticism?
That ultimately depends on who it’s coming from. If the critique is justified and knowledgeable, I am the first one to accept and consider it. You should never indulge in false overconfidence when cooking. But whenever the notorious know-it-alls and the self-proclaimed arbiters of good taste strike again, I don’t even go to the trouble of ignoring them. It’s not the expectations of others that lead us toward outstanding achievements, but the demands we make on ourselves.
What have you always wanted to do, but have never dared attempt?
I never implemented my bistro concept.
Do you have any personal role models?
I have always been oriented towards people from whom I wanted to learn and could learn something. During my apprenticeship in Bad Gastein, I learned from the certified head chef Ludwig Scheibenpflug; later from people like Paul Simon in Switzerland and Paul Haeberlin in France, Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé and the Troisgros brothers. Without their patience and belief in me, I would not have become what I am today. To this day, I am impressed by people who do not abandon their goals and who complete their mission in life. I admire every chef and have the utmost respect for every housewife who has a limited budget, yet puts something fresh and tasty on the table every day.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Inspiration can always be found all around us, we just have to perceive its signs – otherwise we can’t see the forest for the trees. This begins by thinking seasonally and more regionally; a stroll through a market offering a wide selection is still the greatest source of inspiration for me.
Do you have a favourite saying?
What is your personal recipe for success?
We all know the saying that success always has many fathers – but in my profession, perfection is an essential part of that success. And by that I don’t mean the eternal search for perfection that never achieves its goal; I mean striving to improve and optimize everything we do. You can always make everything a little bit better. And I am always searching for total perfection. Salvador Dali once said: Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.
Who could you still learn something from?
Teachers don’t always have to be people, there are often great lessons hidden all around us.
I am still curious and I have never stopped learning; you just have to be open to new things and not tell yourself you’ve seen it all and know everything. Showing a bit of humility never hurt anybody, and it won’t kill us to admit that.
What is your definition of happiness?
Happiness is when you have bad luck and you don’t even notice.
A personal quote...?
The food is the star in the kitchen, and the greatest luxury is to know who produced its ingredients. Every ingredient is a gift from our Mother Earth, so treat her gifts with respect. These days many of my colleagues espouse this philosophy as well, and that makes me proud.
A few lines for your personal thoughts....
I would like to thank Dietrich Mateschitz for his many years of faith in me and I hope we still have many successful and exciting years ahead of us.
Do you have a few words for your colleagues in Hangar-7...?
Led by Executive Chef Martin Klein, our team is like a perfectly tuned orchestra – they immediately hear and grasp every request, every idea, every composition that our guest chefs come up with and they get them onto the plates with both incredible precision and immense sensitivity. Our kitchen chefs Tommy Eder-Dananic and Jörg Bruch have been working with Martin Klein for a very long time.
They are fantastic partners. When the vision is persuasive and brilliant, and then a real team is added to that – whether it’s in the kitchen, in the service department headed by Matthias Berger or in the administration, where they know how to win you over in every regard – then we have a platform for truly outstanding achievements. I salute you all. Chapeau!