This post is also available in: German
What defines a chef in times of convenience products, building block cuisine and standardised meals, ready at the push of a button? To answer this question we set off to Graz, where chef Michael Wankerl has stirred up the local restaurant scene with his unusual restaurant Gerüchteküche. About a restaurant run by a true connoisseur of human nature, without a menu but instead with a fresh cuisine bursting with generosity and spontaneity. A chef’s perspective on what makes gastronomy truly great.
Warm chatter fills the restaurant. The chef strides over to a table of two, which he just served their second course. “Sir”, says Michael Wankerl. “Please put down the cutlery.” A puzzled look spreads across the face of the elegantly dressed gentleman. “What do you mean?”, he asks, knife and fork in hand slowly sinking towards the table. The voice of the chef and owner of the restaurant Gerüchteküche is firm as he continues: “Do me a favour and get into the taxi outside with your wife. It will take you to a place where you’ll have a great evening. I booked a table for you at a colleague’s, your champagne is on me.” The wife in the cocktail dress opens her mouth in surprise, inhales audibly. Before the doctor has time to argue, Michael continues: “You’re not having a good time with me and neither am I with you. It’s no fun for either of us.” Despite the infuriated protests of the guest, never to have been shown the door in a restaurant, his evening at Gerüchteküche thus finds an abrupt ending. But how did it get that far?
Eating out is an act of trust. You surrender yourself to the chef, anticipating isolated words on the menu coming together on your plate as a harmonious, delicious whole to delight all your senses. Michael Wankerl challenges his guests by taking it up a notch: No menu means no choice. His simple messages to all who enter his restaurant Gerüchteküche (* German expression for “rumours”, literally meaning “kitchen of gossip”) is: Enjoy your fucking meal!
Tried and trusted recipes, however, are not part of Michael’s cuisine. Nevertheless, to think he knows what he’ll be serving in the evening, while he is out at the farmers’ market sourcing his ingredients, would be deeply mistaken. More often than not, the dishes he comes up with at the end of the day surprise himself just as much as his guests.
Despite Michael running a one-man-show in the kitchen, this doesn’t mean he spends his time in solitude. He is the restaurant, not only because his face graces the sign above the entrance. Throughout the evening he keeps finding time to visit his guests at their tables. Chats with them, cracks jokes, entertains. And decides after just a few exchanged sentences what he is going to serve them. That table of two in the corner? They’d surely enjoy a ramen using regional products. The couple next to the entrance? A ragù of chicken feet. Improvisation is at the very heart of his concept: “Basically, I try to be as free as possible. The idea can be to have an Asian theme but to use only products from Styria. It’s funny: Once I’ve seen someone, I’ve rarely made a wrong decision with the dishes I served them.”
Clearly, this approach is risky for a chef, but also challenges the guests’ courage: “When we eat out, we often have a menu. As a consequence, the guest tends to order what he usually has. Everyone of us has a collective of flavours in our heads, of which we say ‘that was my childhood’, our very individual universe of flavours. If you’ve always had the Schnitzel and there is something more daring or edgy on the menu, you’ll still order the usual”, Michael explains. “I try to counteract that by not letting anyone know what they’ll be getting. The plan behind everything I do is to get the guest out of his or her comfort zone and to show them that things can taste differently. When the guests know they are in for something unusual, then you’ve got them right where you want them. Then you’re free.”
Please don’t feed the ego
Are there any limits to this completely liberated cuisine? “I just want to get back to an honest cuisine”, Michael claims. To him, this means using less meat or fish (currently limited to 20%, i.e. one course, of the non-existent menu), filling side dishes or carbohydrates. Veganism is not part of his agenda, since Michael admits he simply can’t go without butter or eggs.
“Many people associate vegetarian food with a side dish or an Indian curry”, the chef explains the misconceptions he faces. “So, when we serve them a proper dish, that baffles them.” Apart from his mainly vegetarian approach, paradoxically, his success is also misleading. Guests booking a table at Gerüchteküche due to its accolades might be surprised by what they’ll experience.
Michael can look back at an exciting career spanning Michelin starred restaurants in Germany and Italy. In addition, he caught the public’s attention on the TV show The Taste as well as at the international competition Koch des Jahres (Chef of the Year). In Austria, the restaurant has been awarded two chef hats in the culinary guide Gault & Millau since 2017. As a consequence, the expectations are understandably high, but don’t always reflect his philosophy.
A cuisine that is meant to shake up its guests, encourages them to a dialogue and wants to take them beyond their comfort zone, asks for a lot. This is particularly true in Graz, a city which is still a Sleeping Beauty in culinary terms. Those who are open to the experience and dare to accept the challenge will be greeted by a chef who prefers to feed his guests instead of his own ego. Michael doesn’t need to prove himself any longer. His career and the continuous challenging of his own limits in contests have made his goal very clear to him: to do his own thing.
This also implies questioning common practises in gastronomy to successfully cook in a Fine Dining restaurant all by himself: “A main course in a fancy restaurant costs something between 60 and 80 euros, merely because there are 15 people involved in the process of preparing it. The effort that goes into a single dish is too high. We need to ask ourselves: Why is that so? When I was an apprentice, we still used to turn carrots. Why? Does a turned carrot taste any better? No, it’s still just a carrot. On top of it, this creates a lot of waste.”
Prized sustainability, sustainably priced
Not only the veggies that make it onto Michael’s plate are green: He also was awarded a prize for sustainability at the international contest Koch des Jahres. Anyone who gets to take a peek into his tiny kitchen is quick to understand why: Nothing goes to waste. To Michael’s chagrin, a radical zero waste approach as seen at the pioneering restaurant Frea in Berlin is not possible since he works alone in his kitchen and depends on his providers, who would have to adapt their packaging to his needs. But he’s always on the lookout to incorporate more sustainable practices in his restaurant.
Michael made the conscious decision to use less animal products, especially meat, in his kitchen: “The carbon dioxide emissions of cars amount to merely one percent worldwide. The biggest problem is animal husbandry and livestock. In the long run, we need to shift from expecting everything to be available at all times to using what can be found in the region and at this moment. That would set us back on the right track.”
The chef doesn’t want to patronize his guests by lecturing them. Instead, he’s decided to share his sustainable approach to food, winning them over with the indulgent side to it. As he puts it: “We need a new focus, something to look forward to on our calendars. If I’ve been eating asparagus all year round, of course its season is no longer exciting to me”. This should also come at a price: “I’m not only convinced meat is too cheap, but greens should also cost a good deal more as a rule of thumb”, Michael explains. “Even organic labels are too cheap since they don’t take into account the value of the farmer’s work and of the product itself. I’m not referring to margins but the appreciation of the hard work that goes into it – that’s not included in the price.”
Table for None
Michael also claims respect and appreciation for the culinary arts. During the busy period before Christmas, a party of six asked him to call two other restaurants to cancel their reservations there for the same evening. Michael was quick to comply – and to show them the door in all politeness. This table of six would not be served at any of the three restaurants on that evening.
So, what is the connection to the gentleman and his wife who were also shown the door at Gerüchteküche? “In fact, he called me two days after the incident”, Michael grins. “He was furious, when he thought I was kicking him out of the restaurant. But he also admitted that he had had a great evening at my colleague’s.” The chef thoughtfully runs his hand along his chin before continuing. “That’s the thing when someone reads a review in a guide and comes here: He has certain expectations, but then nothing turns out to be as he had anticipated. In that case, the guest isn’t happy – how could he be? He’s on the wrong track. So, it’s my job to give him the chance to get what he wants on that evening.”
Hang on a sec – a chef, who makes his guests leave his restaurant to make them happy? Have you ever heard of such a thing? “We don’t save lives, we don’t perform heart surgery. It’s just food and drink. When we walk out the door, the world will hopefully keep on turning”, Michael explains. “As restaurateurs it’s not our job to make something mind-blowing to eat because that’s a given. Nobody eats out with the assumption they’re going to have a bad meal. We eat out because we want to eat something delicious: that’s the prerequisite. Nowadays, in 80 percent of cases food isn’t bad at all, even if it doesn’t meet my taste or isn’t perfectly cooked. That’s why it’s our job as restaurateurs to make sure our guests have an unforgettable time, to fill the space in between courses with emotions, so when they leave, they say: ‘That was an amazing evening!’ Put simply: Make it special for everyone.”
And how does one get to experience such an amazing evening at Gerüchteküche? “If you want to give it a try, I’ve got a great suggestion: Just leave your formal clothes at home, don’t put your wife in a cocktail dress. Instead, come here with the right mindset to enjoy a relaxed evening”, Michael recommends. By the way, that’s just what he said to the gentleman on the phone – who now is one of his regulars.