Hannes Richter

A conversation with Austrian chef Eduard Frauneder

Hannes Richter
A conversation with Austrian chef Eduard Frauneder

Top photo: Eduard Frauneder

By Anja Mayer

With over fifteen years of professional experience, Eduard Frauneder is one of the youngest Michelin-starred chefs from Austria. Together with his friend Wolfgang Ban he runs three very successful establishments in New York City. Most recently they opened the new bar “The Third Man” in the East Village. For this issue of Austrian Information, Eduard Frauneder met with Anja Mayer to share his thoughts on what it is that makes Austrian cuisine so unique.

Where are you from and where did you grow up?

I am from the tenth district in Vienna. I grew up in the bakery and pastry shop of my mum and my dad. They had three coffee shops, a bakery and a pastry shop in Vienna. So at the age of 13, I was basically already in the so-called “Backstube.”

When did you first discover your passion for cooking?

Well, I realized quickly that working in the bakery shop requires waking up at somewhere between 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. in the morning and that was not really for me. However, I did not want to leave the hospitality industry altogether. Therefore, I decided to go and take a culinary course at the Vienna Culinary Institute at the Judenplatz in Vienna for three years. Finally, realized that what I really wanted to do was to become a chef.

Why did you come to the U.S. and how did you end up in New York City?

I started out in London, where I later worked for the Austrian Ambassador Dr. Alexander Christiani. After that I received a job offer from Dr. Pfanzelter, who, during this time, was the Austrian Ambassador at the United Nations in New York. After working for him for some time, the German Ambassador Dr. Kastrup asked Wolfgang and me if we would be interested in running the private dining room of the German Mission in New York City.

What challenges did you face when opening your restaurants?

In 2001, we faced September 11. In 2008 when Seäsonal opened, there was the financial crisis.  With Edi and the Wolf being open for a year and a half, we now had that horrific flood. Nevertheless, apart from all that, I truly believe that any good business can withstand setbacks. They make you more resilient and more aware of what you do and how you do it. You work more consciously, you source more consciously, and you cook more consciously.

Tell us a little bit about your restaurants!

First and foremost, our flagship restaurant is Seäsonal. We opened it towards the end of 2008. It was really difficult in the beginning to convince people that Austrian food is more than just meat and potatoes. Luckily after six months in business, we already received a Michelin Star because we were dedicated to quality and consistency. Since then it has been easier to be taken seriously in the culinary world of New York because altogether there are only four Michelin-starred restaurants in the city.  Then there is Edi and the Wolf, which pays homage to Vienna and homage to the Austrian Heurigen. However, we quickly realized that this concept in that part of town [East Village] might not work. We feared that it would just come across as too much of typical New York deli. So we were not so sure in the beginning but eventually we came to the conclusion that the flair can be similar but the concept would need to be more precisely executed. Our quality standards are very high, especially for Heurigen standards in Austria. Overall, I think it has been a success and our guests seem to like it. Last but not least, there is also the German House, where we cater to a whole different group of people, namely diplomats, business men, bankers and lawyers. Then, of course, soon to come, The Third Man bar, which will pay homage to the Loos Bar in Vienna. There, we will especially focus on the product itself – the cocktail, the process of making it, the concept of combining a kitchen with a bar. We will have the resources and supplies of a normal restaurant, which ordinary bars normally do not have. It involves a more seasonal concept of cooking, a dedication to quality and to the technique and the cross-civilization of products. It is going be very interesting.

The  Third Man Ba r 

The Third Man Ba

Edi’s and Wolfgang’s newest endeavor The Third Man Bar opened in FebruaryHow is Austrian cuisine received in the US?

I believe Austrian cuisine is more and more appreciated. However, it currently still is very much of a niche product. People still have this idea of Austrian cuisine being heavy and consisting of just meat and potatoes. However, I think what the people more and more come to understand is that Austrian cuisine is a very seasonally-driven cuisine. We have four seasons; it is not only farm potatoes. So also in terms of ingredients, we focus very much on seasonality. Some people are not even aware of products like kohlrabi, artichokes, fingerling potatoes, pearl onions because those are all special and seasonal vegetables, which the average restaurant typically does not use. Collard greens, kale, chard, etc. – those are special ingredients.  Those are products that are quite common in Austria but not so common here. Cooking something that everybody knows like lobster or filet mignon - that is easy, but to include an ingredient, that is not typically used, in a way that it makes the dish better than the common average - that is in my opinion the art of cooking.

What would you say is the difference between managing a restaurant in New York and managing one back home in Austria?

Well, in Austria, nobody takes you seriously before you have not been in the business for at least 15 or 20 years. You have to treat certain opinion leaders, which are a very small group of the elite in Austria, in a certain way in order to be successful. Here in America, if people like what you do – they will come. It does not matter what anybody else says. It does not even matter if you are young or old. And you know what I like about America? You can even go bankrupt, two times, three times, four times – nobody cares. In Austria you will carry this stigma for the rest of your life. The best chef in America, Thomas Keller, went bankrupt once, if I am not mistaken twice – and you see where he is right now.

What is your favorite Austrian dish?

I do not have a favorite Austrian dish, just like a father would never have a favorite child. In my opinion, any food should evoke good memories and there are certain dishes which evoke many good memories within me and those are the classics of Austrian cuisine – Wiener Schnitzel, Tafelspitz, nice Kässpätzle, Kaiserschmarren, Sachertorte, and Applestrudel. Any dish can be your favorite dish. As long as it is well executed, people will love it and then people will have it two or three times a week because they will never get bored of it. And the beauty of cooking is the repetition. Some people might think repetition is the worst part of cooking, and the worst part of any job but you can make anything better and better the more often you try it. That is the case with any job – even if you are a designer or an artist. You do something and maybe 70% or 80 % of it is repetition, and then there are those other 30%, which is your creative input and this is what will make the result even more special and unique. It is important to focus on the act of repetition and to analyze the process in every aspect.

What do you love most about New York? Do you have any special places here?

I do not have special places, I have found special people and I am looking at them right now. In New York, you find that it is so wild and extraordinary how people meet and how people connect over various things and how they come together – it is very organic and inspiring. The beauty of New York is that if you find yourself inspired by a niche, or a certain taste, or a certain activity or a certain way of living, you will basically never be alone. In Austria, you sometimes are --- there is this outcast mentality. If you are different or if you do something, which is not favorable to the rest of the society, you are perceived as strange. Even though, I might do Austria injustice. I am sure it is not the same everywhere but in general there is an Austrian saying--- “was der Bauer net kennt, isst er net.” [what the farmer does not know, he does not eat]. In New York, it is different. I like that you can be very casual – there is no real dress-code, you can go anywhere with a T-shirt and jeans and it is okay. I think of New York as a very open and very creative society as such. There are a lot of people with a lot of wealth who donate loads of money and I really like that culture of giving a lot. This is what New York, in my opinion, is also famous for. There are also so many well-funded cultural institutions, like for instance, the Lincoln Center and these funds can be used in such a good way. Art institutions are hardly ever overfunded so this support of the Arts is great.

Edi & the Wolf  is located in Manhattan’s Alphabet City

Edi & the Wolf is located in Manhattan’s Alphabet City

You have been here quite a while – are there any special stories to tell that happened to you or in one of your restaurants?

New York is interesting. One day you run into Mayor Bloomberg and you drink a beer with him. The next day you are sitting next to Woody Allen in a church or you help your neighbor pick up a motorcycle and you end up spending the whole day with him in his motorcycle shop. On another day you have a casual lunch with a friend and all of a sudden he says “Let’s go, Edi, help me, we are going take a truck up to Rockaway and bring those people some more clothes.” You see what has happened there because of Sandy and it really puts things into perspective. Those restaurants got hit hard and even Seäsonal was closed because of that dangling crane in Midtown. The same storm also forced two restaurants out of business at the same time. You then also quickly realize that, first, it can always be worse and, second, we can consider ourselves very lucky to be able to do what we do and how we do it and how people perceive what we do. It is always a challenge but ultimately those are the special New York moments.

What is in store for you? What would you like to accomplish or do?

I do not know. Let’s see what the future brings – “schau ma moi“, auf gut wienerisch. I do not think that you can really make big plans in New York. The bigger you plan, the bigger you fail. Just tag along for the ride, be humble – this is really important. Only bite off as much as you can chew. Believe in yourself and believe in the people around you.

The last question: In your opinion, what makes Austrian cuisine so special?

Austria, due to it geographically very favorable location, is a melting pot of cultures and flavors. It has had the advantage of being a multinational, multicultural, multilingual empire.  The capital Vienna is a very open city with people from very different cultural backgrounds.  The Viennese cuisine is very unique in that it is the only city-based cuisine in the world.  There is no Parisian cuisine, there is French cuisine. There is no cuisine of Florence or Rome; there is the cuisine of Tuscany or the Provence. However, there is a Viennese cuisine and that is actually very special. The Austrian/Viennese cuisine is very unique in its flavor, very unique in the products being used, and very unique in the cooking technique. In Austria, it is also very much a question of authenticity and dedication. It matters who the person behind the restaurant, the bar or a group of hospitality businesses is. In Austria we believe in what we do.

From Austria you can very easily go to Northern Italy and get pasta and pizza dishes, you can go to Southern Germany and get sausage-heavy cooking, you can get the Bohemian cuisine with dumplings and stews, you can go to Hungary, with the paprika and the freshwater-fish, the opportunities are endless. The average Austrian agriculture output of organic food is 20% that is 15% more than the world average. This shows that food in Austria is considered really important. Look at the wine business – Austria produces 50% less wine than Germany, being a tenth of their population. This also shows that food and wine go hand in hand.