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Why real street food isn’t simply a question of trust but also a matter of the heart
“Street food chef is such a nonsensical term”, Philipp Carstanjen takes another swig from his bottle. He is referring to the label the local press often attributes to him. He shrugs. “Either you are a chef, or you’re not.”
We are seated in his second home, The Hungry Heart, a sandwich bar he opened right next to Graz’s hipster-haven Lendplatz in November 2016. The huge window boasts the white logo, an enormous heart pierced by a knife. The design was created by his mate Alexander Schmoltschnik, who runs the tattoo studio Pride & Glory a few houses down the road. Inspired by the legendary tattoo design Sacred Heart with its seven knifes, they came up with the idea during an –as Philipp calls it – “beer-brainstorming”.
We quickly realize that Philipp doesn’t care too much for titles or labels. Nor does he like singing his own praise. Instead, he enjoys admiring others, telling us about projects in the neighbourhood, which impress him, or Liam from Ireland, who is doing “a really great job” supporting him at The Hungry Heart. His stories are spun around food and drink aficionados and former colleagues (which often implies the same group). However, there is also a lot to be said about Philipp, who single-handedly made The Hungry Heart what it is today.
Be hungry, be foolish
After working at a golf club in the U.S. for a year, Philipp started working as a Sous Chef at the restaurant Prato in Graz. The restaurant was awarded a Haube, which is one of the highest gastronomic distinctions in Austria, where a national Michelin guide is no longer published. When the restaurant shut in 2016, Philipp decided the time had come to fulfill his long-cherished dream. “We used to take turns preparing the staff meals and I usually made sandwiches. For several years, I had been talking about opening a sandwich place one day. When I realized the shop was available, I grasped the opportunity without hesitating”, he recalls his beginnings.
And so, one day, Philipp finds himself in the 33 square metres, which will soon become his territory. Without a business plan, beer in one and lease contract in the other hand: “I thought to myself: ‘You’re an idiot! What are you doing?’ And then I started renovating”, he grins. All the more impressive: He financed the project himself, supported only by friends and family. They also lent him a helping hand with the renovation, crafting the bar and furniture themselves.
Host at heart
Overnight, the project becomes a huge success. The press celebrates the fact that Philipp has turned his back on haute cuisine to start his exciting new addition to the street food scene in Graz. It’s easy to tell the hype has reached the capital of Styria: Big, traditional gastronomic companies have jumped on the band waggon and broadened their offer by adding food trucks and stalls.
Philipp’s project, however, is on a totally different level. And as he soon realizes, merely being a chef is not enough: “In the beginning, it was weird to have to be friendly. I’m not an anti-social person at all but when you see hundreds of people in a day, it creates a different kind of stress than cooking”, he acknowledges.
Fortunately, the then 25-year-old soon succeeded in creating an atmosphere, which he feels comfortable in. Rock music blasts from the speakers, he takes orders, entertains, gives the Hungry Heart a personal touch. “A lot of customers, especially regulars, come here because we chat while sharing a beer. Many people would like to have a small beer, but I only sell big ones. So, I simply pour myself the other half and we toast to each other. It’s all very informal and personal”, he summarizes his relationship with his guests.
This exchange goes way beyond a shared beer. In fact, dialogue is a driving force for the offer on the menu at The Hungry Heart. Philipp had to deal with his guests’ cries of outrage when he banned the classics like his Philly Cheese Steak or the Pulled Pork Sandwich from the menu. His guests are a constant source of new ideas and direct feedback. Philipp also likes to get creative according to his humble motto “you can basically serve everything in a bun”.
“Everything“ comprises challenging weekly specials featuring deer hearts, which he gets directly from a hunter, cow tongue or blood sausage hotdogs with sauerkraut. In return, his guests surprise him with their open-minded attitude regarding the offal on the menu: “Those who know me, know that I’m all about shopping decently and that I prefer regional products. It’s a matter of trust. One doesn’t really eat blood sausage without knowing where it is from”, Philipp explains.
Consequently, he applies the same quality standards at The Hungry Heart as he used to at the gourmet restaurant Prato. A kitchen is a kitchen, after all. This starts with selecting the products: He only uses Austrian produce, preferably from small farmers. However, these high standards can also be limiting: “I have problems with the small producers, especially regarding my pig farmer in Sankt Rupprecht near Weiz. He doesn’t have that many sows, so I take what I can get. The rest, I have to buy at the whole sale. In summer, I sell approximately 30 kilos of pulled pork and he simply can’t provide me with that much meat.”
If you think that the magic at The Hungry Heart only happens between two slices of bread, take a closer look at the drinks on offer. After all, how many street food joints do you know where the prices for drinks exceed those of an entire meal?
The Hungry Heart is Philipp’s experimental field for his passion: craft beers and natural wines from the Italian-Slowenian border. “I only buy one or two crates with a few bottles of the same wine. When I run out of it, I get something new. So, I don’t have a fixed menu”, he explains his selection. “It’s all about having fun. There are two types of beer in the permanent selection and the others change. If I find something cool, I’ll get some more a few months later, simply deciding based on what I feel like. This freedom of choice was one of the reasons for me to become an entrepreneur.”
He’s currently planning to offer wine tastings with a set of courses in The Hungry Heart every few months. His motivation: giving natural wines and the wine makers behind them a platform.
Insatiable and highly addictive
Obviously, Philipp doesn’t risk getting bored any time too soon. He’s even taken on an additional challenge: Despite the property prices in Graz being almost as high as in Vienna but the city lacking a concept-hungry audience, he has decided to open his second joint in August – The Thirsty Heart.
As the name indicates, the main focus of this project will not be on fast food but drinks –craft beer, to be precise. Philipp and his business partner Kevin Page, originally from French-speaking Switzerland, have rounded up an impressive selection of ten beers on tap and 40 bottled versions. To keep things interesting, he plans to mix up the selections every month. Apart from offering a solid range as an easy introduction for newbies to craft beer, there will also be some more extravagant brews. “It’ alright to shock people a little”, as Philipp puts it with a grin.
According to his motto „addicting people to fast food“, drinks will be accompanied by laid-back snacks in a clean, cool and relaxed setting. Bagels and sandwiches, salmon and trout sashimi as well as briskets are supposed to highlight the beer flights instead of stealing their lime light.
Regarding the concept and interior design, self-made man Philipp and Kevin have rolled up their sleeves to craft the furniture and decoration themselves. Despite the excitement about the new project and the immense work load about to bear fruit, it’s obvious it isn’t easy for Philipp to no longer be at The Hungry Heart around the clock. “Of course, it’s about putting your heart into it. I want to be there and chat to the people”, he admits.
Once The Thirsty Heart has rung in its first events with brewers as the new hot spot for craft beer in Graz, Philipp will surely feel more at home at his new location. After all, there is a lot at stake for him. Such an endeavor requires a lot of guts. How fitting that the word courage is derived from cor – the Latin word for heart.