« With heritage comes the need for balance between history and modernity. »
Birgit & Heinz Reitbauer’s Steirereck im Statpark is one of Austria most awarded restaurants. A rich history, a sense of novation and a determination to highlight Austria’s food gems earned them a worldwide reputation and top spots on global rankings such as the 50 best and the Michelin Guide. But what makes this address, located in the heart of Vienna, a must go, and mostly must return destination might be about something more simple yet essential: going in ALL IN. As demonstrated by Birgit Reitbauer, in the interview bellow.
Can you resume your personal journey through the fine dining industry with us?
It all started for my 13th birthday, when we vacationed in a bed & breakfast located in a big farm in the countryside. The owners and their whole family were working in the hospitality business.
«They were all so motivated and so happy about their jobs; it was inspiring. So that’s when I decided that I wanted to do something like this.»
I then found a school – the Modul in Vienna – to specialize in tourism. After finishing university, I spent two years abroad: first in New York, then in Houston, working in an agency specialized in travels and sport trips to central Europe.
In 1999 I came back to Austria and join the Steirereck am Pogusch team (Steirereck country side restaurant) as an assistant. Almost a year later, my husband and I came together. Five years later, we were moving to Vienna to take over the fine dining restaurant.
Birgit Reitbauer’s path
- .1994 : Joined the Modul, in Vienna.
- 1997 : Graduated in Hopsitality from the Modul unviserity; spent two years abroad in the US.
- 1999 : Joined the Steirereck am Pogusch team.
- 2000 : came together with husband Heinz Reitbauer.
- 2005 : Took over the Steirereck in Vienna with her Husband.
- 2013-2014 : New design & architecture for the Steirereck.
- 2019 : Best restaurateur of Les Grandes Tables du Monde prize.
Steirereck is one of the most renowned and respected restaurants in the world. How did you achieve that?
When you take over a restaurant that’s been open for 35 years, there are a couple of things you might want to change. But as it is a very grown structure, it’s not that easy. So it took us a couple of years to put on our own team and make the changes we wanted. To be honest, I can barely remember this time because there were so many things happening, a new location (the restaurant moved in the heart of StadtPark) new menus, etc. It was tricky and scary — not knowing if our vision for the restaurant would work — but it came out well. It became ours: our identity, our beliefs. That’s really important, especially when you are investing so much of yourself in it.
The other turning point was in 2013-2014, when we took the last big step with a new architecture. We wanted a very modern picture of our restaurant, but we kept wondering if people would like it? Are we doing the right things?
Was it always yours and your husband ambition to reach such heights?
When we arrived at Steirereck, it was a particular time. We had to take over; there were no point and no time to think about it. So we did, we survived; we adjusted and made it ours. I always say that gastronomy is a little bit about planning and a little bit of luck. Of course, you can always push yourself to try and earn a new star, but a lot of things just happened: our ranking on the 50 Best list, we never planned it.
«The one thing we planned, though, the one thing we knew was -and still is- to keep the fun, the joy of working!»
When you’re hit with good feedbacks from your guests, from your staff, when you learn new things, etc., all that make it the best job in the word!!! It really is a great industry if you want it, if you put all your heart and soul into it. Heinz and I are lucky because we have such a great team that understands that, they’re committed to make people happy, and they are having fun doing so.
For you what defines fine-dining today? And what are the challenges ahead of the industry?
I think they are big differences between restaurants with a big past such as ours and new restaurants. You can do whatever you want when you start from the ground, but with heritage comes the need for balance between history and modernity. So fine dining today, it has to be a bit of this and a bit of innovation.
«The most important thing either way is that people must feel comfortable! You need to build a good atmosphere. It’s called hospitality for a reason, so your heart must be in the right place.»
Another point to consider when you come to a fine dining restaurant is the importance to discover and taste ingredients that might have been forgotten or are not on your map. In Austria we have a great heritage of farmers, we ought to keep and work with those people. We have to show the best products of our country. This brings out quite unique restaurants, with unique food and unique people together.
But the biggest challenge is, I think, to find people that are willing to invest themselves in our industry. There will always be a need for restaurants, but will there always be people willing to work in them? I think our industry has to change its mind-set towards jobs. We have to adjust our restaurants to the needs of our staff because the new generations don’t want to work 40 hours a week anymore. They want time off; they want work & life balance. It’s our challenge to make it possible. We have to push forward and adjust to the market because the market won’t adjust to us anymore.
What advices would you give to people joining the industry?
I’ve seen a lot of young people starting from small positions and with self-motivation, work they way up. You have to be self-satisfied and give it your all, every day. And I mean EVERY DAY! You can’t come one day and give only 50%. To make a really good career in a great hospitality business, you really have to live it. There’s a difference if you’re just nice, or if you’re living the experience.
The other thing, and I tell it to all my young ones, is to think about the way they’d want to be welcome back in the restaurant. If they want a really warm welcome, then they must think about the way they will leave this place. Of course, it’s our role to be proud of the ones that go away. But to do so, we need them to do the right things, to leave the correct way. It’s something that tends to be forgotten because we live in a really fast world. Mistakes can happen, but if people own it, work to better it, then those people become family. And family is family. It knows no border.
Did you feel, at some point in your career, that you had to push forward to be legitimate, as a woman, in this industry?
No, I wasn’t in this situation. But I think I owe it to my really strong personality. I did not give anyone the opportunity to handle me in a wrong way. Today, as the front person of the restaurant, it’s my job to tell people how to treat others. And we do not tolerate any disrespect. I never let it happen to me and I don’t let it happen to anyone under my watch.
I think, what we need to keep in mind is that if you want something, not only wish for it, but also go for it. I think sometimes women second-guess themselves: « maybe I’m not good enough”. Don’t do that. Never. Don’t doubt yourself, go for it and see, because let’s be honest, there are a lot of men that are not good enough but it does not stop them. So don’t let it stop you either, go for the next step, trust yourself, learn to grow around people, learn to let people grow around you. Women, men, I don’t care. I just want a team that really wants to be there.
You’ve said, about work harassment, that the « fish starts to rot from the head » can you explain it?
Everything starts with the head means that you can’t expect a team to do great if you are not involved.
«It is our responsibility to show the way we want the guests to be treated, the way we want the staff to be treated, the way we want the restaurant to be led.»
For us, every day, except when we’re on holiday with the children, it means we are here, and we do the job. It’s like with football, if you are buying tickets to see the Real Madrid, you expect to see tops players on the field. It’s the same with the restaurant. You want to see the people that are leading the team, but you also want to see everyone playing their best game. Us being members of the team is the only way to lead.
You’ve raised 3 children with your husband, while running one the most prominent restaurant in the world. How did you manage that?
The wrong way is to worry all the time, « am I doing the right thing, am I giving them enough time etc.? » Don’t do that. Just do your best, because there is no guarantee for anything. We did everything to raise kids with good manners, kids that are flexible and mobile. Of course it was really helpful to have our home above the restaurant, and it’s nice to have them nearby, but it’s also nice to have them independent enough to be away! My kids went to kindergartens and they loved it, sometimes they loved it so much they even wanted to stay there. So I say, do not worry, what you sometimes think is best for them (having them near all the time) is not reality.
«And, for our industry, it’s good to have more and more kindergartens and caretaking options, we need to see that grow, with more hours and weekends flexibility etc. It’s a good support system for working parents, for women and men to balance everything with the job they want to do.»