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Viennese Virtuoso

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By reviving, adapting and systematising the Austro-Hungarian imperial tradition of boiled beef, Vienna’s Plachutta restaurants demonstrate the power of historical association in developing a world-famous culinary attraction. For Mario Plachutta key success factors include focused culinary standards, technical excellence and a consistent identity.

Tell us about Tafelspitz?

Tafelspitz was an old-established way of cooking and serving beef and, back in the 19th century, was eaten everywhere in Austria, particularly at middle-class restaurants. But that tradition faded in the last century until my father revived it as a culinary highlight at his Hietzing restaurant. It was a big hit and took off immediately. I was working at Hietzing as a young man and it immediately struck me that it was a great idea and would be worth featuring at other restaurants. It subsequently became the core offer at the larger restaurants I opened at Wollzeile and Nussdorf in 1993.

We see Tafelspitz as an honest and authentic cuisine which captures Vienna’s culinary traditions in a contemporary form. We also pay a lot of attention to the way we serve it to table, with the meat and broth in steaming copper kettles alongside bone marrow, apple with horseradish, chive sauce, fried potatoes and toasted black bread. We even devote special table information to explaining diagrammatically how the diner should deal with the meat and trimmings, helping create a special ‘eating ritual’.

What made Tafelspitz so special?

Boiled beef does not perhaps sound too glamorous in English and, indeed, pork is a more popular meat in Austria itself. But its appeal to diners is very simple and unique to Vienna. The way of cutting beef here – the Viennese Cut – is completely different to that practised in the rest of the world. In our kitchens, we have twelve different cuts of beef, always prepared the same way. Boiled beef dishes account for about 70 percent of our total sales. As well as Tafelspitz, the three Plachutta beef restaurants also serve other typical Austrian beef specialities such as Schulterscherzel, Mageres Meisel, Hüferscherzel, Tafelstück, Gustostückerln (selected cuts of beef), more hearty dishes like Beinfleisch, Kruspelspitz, Kavalierspitz, Lueger-Topf (with ox meat, calf’s head and ox tongue) and cured tongue. All are served in copper saucepans. We also include Viennese veal schnitzel and various steak choices.

How do you plan your kitchens?

We have four different menus at our six restaurants but the same back-of-house system, based on our 20 years’ experience, is operated at all of them, with exactly the same tools. It’s much better for control and consistency. Otherwise we could not handle so many diners daily (over 1,000 covers daily at Wollzeile, where we boil about 200 tons of beef a year). With the emphasis on cooking fresh daily, we break operations into a production kitchen and finishing kitchen, located one above the other. Key equipment includes bratt pans, induction hobs and combi-ovens.

It’s important to concentrate and avoid menus with a wide range of different dishes and styles.

What do you think of the restaurant scene in Vienna?

Tourism keeps growing but there is not much happening at the moment. The city started to move ahead in the 1990s but now it has stopped. Compared to other cities there are very few new concepts. I wonder where all the big foreign groups are: they certainly don’t come here, that’s for sure.

Around 40 percent of our business comes from tourists and I think it’s great. We get an interesting mix of people from around the world, including a lot from Eastern Europe (Czech, Russian) as well as Germans. The proportion of Italians has diminished following their financial problems and so far the UK market is rather small for us. America is an important source of customers; Tafelspitz is a meal which is very popular with Jewish people.

Could Austrian cuisine be better-known internationally?

Austrian food is typical of Central Europe and the Imperial connection is very special to this region. Further afield there does not appear to be much of a demand for a boiled beef dish like Tafelspitz. For example, the British eat a lot of beef but prefer it roasted or as steaks. Despite its huge variety, London has hardly any Austrian restaurants.

There are some in the USA, including quite famous ones such as in New York, but it is not a high profile cuisine. A few Austrians have become well-known in foodservice internationally, like Wolfgang Puck. Going back a few years, Friedrich Jahn grew Wienerwald into Europe’s largest fast-food chain in the 1970s but then had big problems in the US market.