Wallsé Chef Kurt Gutenbrunner on Neue Cuisine and the Rise of Austrian Food


Kurt Gutenbrunner is a busy man. Not only does he run the show at acclaimed Austrian restaurants Wallsé, Café Sabarsky, and Blaue Gans, he just last week opened the beer garden at the Standard Hotel in Los Angeles, and yesterday his debut cookbook, Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna, was released. The book is a portrait of the dishes served at his restaurants, but also focuses on the art and design of Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. We called him up to learn more about his new projects.

What is the interplay between food and art in your book?

To do Neue Cuisine with Rizzoli was huge because Rizzoli has a huge understanding of art and they are really respected in the art-book world. If you put two rock-and-roll lovers together, they’ll find something to talk about. It became a fun and creative group. Everyone who works in my restaurants — everyone — worked on it. I can only be a leader or coach much more than I can be a player. That’s why it’s so important to have a team around you, working with you. So we photographed most of the pictures together with the art and then, of course, with the connection to the Neue Galerie, we had all these postcards. What I love the most [at the museum] is the wallpaper. I love the wallpaper. It’s phenomenal. And there’s a little bit of everything in there with what made me here.

What made you decide to write a cookbook at this point in time?

I always wanted to do a cookbook; it’s only about finding time in life. Everything has a time. When you’re working on five restaurants, you have to find the space to do something else, so we decided to do the book with Rizzoli about a year ago. It’s also the 10th anniversary of the Neue Galerie and Café Sabarsky in November, so the timing was good.

What exactly you mean by “neue cuisine”?

Neue cuisine is a plate of food that, number one, has a German and Austrian background, and it’s a type of cuisine that you associate with certain types of food at a certain level and context.

In the book, you talk a lot about the Austria’s café culture. Why do you think we don’t see that here in America as much?

It’s all about history. We didn’t know about coffee before the Turks came to Vienna in 1600. When the Turks came, we fought them back and then they left us the coffee. And it took time for us to figure out what do with it and so we invented the coffeehouse. In the 1800s and 1900s, all the artists used to work out of the coffeehouses so they became a meeting point for interaction and to hang out and work together. It became this culture of sitting in a café all day long and you have snacks and coffee and cakes. It’s a very Central European mentality that you also see in Budapest and around Eastern Europe.

Do you feel like Austrian food is significantly more popular than it was a decade ago?

There always has to be a new kid on the block. You know, it was very hard 12 years ago to build this road. When Bill Grimes reviewed Wallsé 12 years ago for The New York Times, he finished his review with a very true sentence: “New York never knew about Austrian cuisine and now we can’t live without it.” We built something with Wallsé that was different. It’s Austrian but not heavy. Modern and edgy, not forgetting the classics, but putting some rock and roll in there. That was the beginning; it was very different back then to have an Austrian wine list. But then the younger generation was making less wine and of higher quality. They started to make red wine. It happened that these wines became more popular, and more importers brought wine in, and I could have a bigger list.

And at your more casual spots?

When I did Café Sabarsky a year later, it was a very difficult project. I had put all my money into Wallsé and then 9/11 happened, but I only closed one day because I wanted people to have jobs. I couldn’t go home, and it was important that I had something to do, and then we had to open Café Sabarsky. We gave New York City something they didn’t expect from us. Mr. Lauder gave a great museum of art. I gave them a Viennese coffeehouse. With Blaue Gans, I lived in Tribeca and had always admired what Bill Katz did with the posters at Le Zinc. And when they wanted to sell the place, I said, “I need to have this restaurant because someone else won’t appreciate these posters.” I did Blaue Gans because of the art.

So then, what’s your favorite painting in the Neue Galerie?

Schiele has a painting called Self-Portrait With Red Eye. I adore this one. It’s hard to say because we have our Schieles and Klimts, but we have had so many exhibitions over the years [that I loved]. I love decorative arts; Josef Hoffmann’s silver-work is phenomenal. And at the Neue Galerie, of course, we love Adele [Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer].

Check back in tomorrow, when Kurt discusses his plans for future restaurants.