During my three-day stay in Baden-Baden I was a guest of the super-elegant, long-family-run (1872-1969), luxurious Brenners-Park Hotel & Spa. “For almost 150 years it has been pampering the world’s VIPs be they European royalty, business brains: John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt, powerful politicians: Presidents Clinton and Obama, fashion designer Giorgio Armani, world famous architect Richard Meier, movie stars: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Sir Peter Ustinov, Keanu Reeves, and George Clooney, and performing artists: Frank Sinistra and Bono, to name a few”, Bärbel Göhner, Head of Public Relations and Communications, told me.
With Göhner’s help in translating I interviewed Paul Stradner, Head Chef of the Brenners Park-Restaurant since August 2012. Only three months after his arrival Stradner won his first Michelin star. In November 2014 he won his second. His most recent achievement: Gault & Milau Newcomer of the Year 2016 with brilliant 18 points. This makes Paul Stradner one of the Top 3 chefs in the region of Baden-Württenberg.
What are your first memories of food?
I was born on June 23, 1981 on a farm near Graz, Austria’s second largest city. Graz is in the agricultural region of Styria, especially famous for cattle breeding and meat. My first food memories are of my mother and my grandmother making sausages at home. Still today my mother’s pea and potato dishes are unbeatable.
What are your first memories of cooking yourself?
Cooking at hotel school and realizing that I really enjoyed it and could make it my profession. It was my parents’ farm and its products that first inspired me to become a chef.
When did you decide to become a chef?
When I was 15 I went to work as an apprentice in a local restaurant, “Luttenberger” owned by Ernst Lutten in Graz. I worked there for 4 years. Then for a year each I worked at the Hotel Linde in Maria Wörth, a resort town situated on a peninsula on the southern shore of the Wõthersee in Carinthia, and at the Hotel Arlberg in Lech am Arlberg, an exclusive Austrian ski resort popular with European royalty. After that I worked from 2002-2009 at Harald Wohlfahrt’s Hotel Traube Tonbach in Baiersbronn, first in the hotel’s regular restaurant “Silberberg” and then in its gourmet restaurant with 3 Michelin stars “Schwarzwaldstube”. I started as chef tournant (rotating chef), and worked my way up to poissonier (fish chef), then to entremetier (chef that prepares the soups and egg and vegetable dishes), and then to saucier (sauce chef). During those years I worked short intervals as chef de commis at the Château de Nantilly not far from Dijon and at Le Cerf in Merle near Strasbourg. From 2009-2012 I was sous chef at Jean Georges Klein’s 3-starred ”L’Arnsbourg” in Baerenthal, in the Moselle region of Lorraine. Then in August 2012 I came here.
I’ve read you had two mentors Jean Georges Klein and Harald Wohlfahrt? What did you learn from each of them?
Correct. From Wohlfahrt I learned discipline and to strive for continuous excellence as well as how to evaluate the quality of each product. From Klein I learned to try new things and to combine products in a new and innovative style. They both are my role models because of their deep insight into human nature and their brilliant leadership of a team, a kitchen brigade.
In a nutshell how would you define your cuisine?
French with Germanic influences and contemporary. I have high respect for the French style of purism and culinary virtuosity, but I also appreciate my native Austrian cuisine.
I think I earned my second Michelin star in November 2014 because of my Austrian menus-a mix of genuine rustic Austrian cuisine and the classical avant-garde. In 2014 Michelin guides promoted only 2 other restaurants in Germany to two stars.
What is your culinary philosophy?
Since I used to work in my mother’s vegetable and herb garden and on my parents’ farm, I especially value organic, kilometer 0 products. Of foremost important is the produce, which must be first class. It must be seasonal. Then I need to refine it by developing the original flavors of the produce to their full. Therefore you have to be willing and curious to experiment. My ultimate goal is to ensure that the quality of the basic products has not been distorted. For example, my vegetables are prepared and cooked using state-of-the-art technology to guarantee their vitamin retention. The last step, but no less is important, is to compose and present a mouth-watering dish.
What is Austrian about your cuisine?
I use pumpkin seed oil from Styria and fresh-water salmon from the Austrian Alps.
What are your specialties?
Local venison, which has always been a Brenners’ classic, and other meat dishes. Don’t forget I come from Styria, which produces some of the best meat in the world.
What are the essential qualities of a top chef?
To have a good knowledge of available products, to be a good guide to your team, and a good administrator.
What do you like most about your work?
The chance to realize my creative talents everyday.
That I cannot be at home in the evening with my wife.
Do you think chefs are artists?
Yes, most similar to painters.
Other chefs you admire your mentors?
Eric Frechon, the head chef of “Epicure”, the gourmet restaurant of the Bristol Hotel in Paris, which has 3 Michelin stars, and Mr. Frank Marrenbach, General Manager of the Brenners-Park Hotel & Spa and the CEO of all the Oetker Collection of hotels, because, when he hired me, he gave me free rein of the kitchen, even if he is not a chef. He doesn’t interfere with my cooking, but he has helped me immensely with the administrative side.
A favorite restaurant?
In Baden-Baden “Le Jardin de France”. Near Baden-Baden “Gasthof Auerhahn” in Geroldsau. Outside Germany “Epicure” in the Hotel Bristol in Paris. Before it closed on December 31st, 2013 Sergio Herman’s “Oud Sluis” in Flanders.
Your feelings about restaurant guides?
They are helpful as publicity.
I’ve believe you have a scoop for me, that you are writing a book in conjunction with the hotel?
Yes, it will be a combination of a history of the Brenners, of my career so far, and of my recipes. It will be published in German and English and is scheduled for May 2017.
Up to now we have talked about Paul Stradner the chef; I’d like to know more about Paul Stradner the person. For example, what are your favorite foods to eat? To cook?
I especially love to eat as well as to cook vegetables. I feature a six-course vegetarian tasting menu inspired by my mother’s vegetable garden cuisine. I like to cook fish from the Black Forest more than meat. Where I grew up there was a lot of meat and not so much fish, but now I have the opportunity to experiment with fish recipes.
A dish you dislike?
Rice pudding. I’ve always disliked it.
Your favorite wines?
Pinot Gris from Germany and Alsace and Mersault.
Your favorite sweet?
Where do you like to go on vacation?
What is never missing from your refrigerator at home?
If you were on death row, what would you order for your last meal?
Gulasch Wagy, that is goulash made with Austrian Kobe beef from my beloved Styria.
Chefs are well-known for having collections of fast cars, motorcycles or watches; do you have a collection?
No, but maybe later. Now I have my house, my garden of mostly flowers and some vegetables, and my two-year-old daughter.
What zodiac sign are you?
Cancer, but because my birthday is on the cusp I have some Gemini characteristics.
If you had not become a chef what profession would you have chosen?
Head waiter in a restaurant because I’m very sociable.
Do you have a pipe dream?
I would like to own my own restaurant and have it sold-out everyday, but first I need the courage to take such a big step.