Two Michelin-starred chef Hans Neuner lets PORT into his kitchen at Ocean restaurant in Portugal, for a chat about using local produce, cooking around the world, and why the Internet is a threat to fine dining
‘Excellent cooking, worth a detour’ is the official description given to restaurants awarded two stars in the coveted Michelin guide. In the case of Ocean, located in a remote area of the Algarve, this couldn’t be more apt. Set in Vila Vita Parc, a five-star resort spanning 54 acres on Portugal’s southern coast, Ocean pulls in gastronomes from far and wide, who come for its seasonally-driven menu and, as the name hints, a spectacular view over the Atlantic.
Since 2007, the kitchen has been led by Austrian-born Hans Neuner. Named the country’s ‘Chef of the Year’ in 2009 and 2012, he helped the restaurant earn its first Michelin star in 2009, followed by a second in 2011. Awards and honours aside, Neuner’s real interest lies in raising the standards of haute cuisine in Portugal, and, with a wealth of experience behind him, he appears to be doing just that.
The 40-year-old cut his teeth at Berlin’s prestigious Adlon Hotel, where he worked for nine years under the direction of leading German chef Karlheinz Hauser, forming a key part of a team that gained two Michelin stars. A firm believer in the importance of training in kitchens around the world, he has also cooked at Tristan Restaurant in Mallorca (two stars), Seven Seas restaurant in Hamburg (one star) and The Grill at The Dorchester in London, as well as a brief stint in Bermuda.
The son and grandson of cooks, a career in food was almost unavoidable for Neuner, but it’s his enthusiasm for local produce and ability to create contemporary dishes based on traditional recipes that sets him apart. Here, we sit down with him at the chef’s table in the newly revamped Ocean to discuss his career, travelling the world to eat, and why it takes more than culinary skills to become a top chef.
Where does your interest in food stem from?
I started out in a Tyrolean gastronomic family. My parents and my grandparents own restaurants in a ski area in Austria. That’s where I was raised and that’s where I first became interested in cooking; I grew up in kitchens, so it was normal to work in one. My Mum’s a chef, my brother’s a chef, my father’s a chef, my grandfather and my grandmother… I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t even think about doing anything else.
When did you start to take cooking seriously?
I started very young – at 14 I stopped school and started cooking. I learned with my parents, but then I had to do some training in Austria. You need to train. Sooner or later you develop your own style of cooking anyway, but you need someone to guide you through in order to become a chef one day.
What did this training in Austria teach you?
I learned that many talented chefs never make it to becoming a chef because, although the cooking is very important, it’s not just the cooking. If you’re not mentally strong, you can be the best chef in your kitchen, but you’re never going to make it to be the chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant.
What did you do after you finished your training?
I worked at the Dorchester in London for some time, when I was 19. I really enjoyed London, it’s a great city and, for me on, it’s one of the coolest cities in Europe. I went there for a year, saw what to do, and after that I went to Bermuda because I wanted to live on an island for a while. Like many chefs, I moved around until I found the place to stay and tried to grow my name.
Can you tell us about your time working under Karlheinz Hauser, who became a mentor to you?
I loved it. He’s part of the first two-Michelin star generation in German-speaking areas of the Continent. He made one of the first two-star restaurants in Germany and that’s where I learned. We’d opened Adlon Hotel up in 1997, but at that time we really just had the main restaurant, nothing else. Berlin was completely destroyed…you had East Berlin and all that, and then the Wall broke and then they started to build up old traditional places. So we built up the Adlon Hotel’s restaurant.
After I left we had six or seven restaurants, it grew crazily. In the end we had about 120 chefs, and we started with just 16.
You joined Ocean in 2007, before going on to win your first Michelin star two years later. What were the key changes you made when you arrived?
When you start up your own restaurant you cook what you learnt before and don’t do that much experimentation. You cook what you were used to in the other two or three-star restaurants, and it’s after that that you succeed.
Now at Ocean, we’re cooking completely weird things – nothing you see in other restaurants anymore. In the beginning you’re kind of insecure, everyone is, but you get braver. That’s why you experiment all over the world and in the top restaurants, so you can get a knowledge of what is perfect and what is supposed to be. We have our own style at Ocean. We’re very seafood orientated, but I think we’re doing some fancy food too.
What’s been key in carving out an identity for the cuisine at Ocean?
The product is really the main thing. If you look our artichokes, for example, they are all grown locally for us by a biological farmer around the corner. These little things you need to grow specially because you can’t find that quality in the supermarket, where every artichoke looks the same and doesn’t really have a lot of taste. That’s really what we are trying to change: it makes a difference.
Have you ever considered returning to Austria and setting up shop there?
No, not at the moment. I do not want to do fine dining on my own. It’s too risky. To do that, I’d have to start doing books and television, to support my own restaurants. There are not many high-end Michelin starred restaurants who are making a good profit. Maybe in London, Paris and Tokyo, but as for everything outside…In this business a lot of Michelin-starred restaurants are in hotels and they get supported by them. It makes it easier. Your head is more free because you don’t have to worry so much about cost and all those things, you can really just think about the cooking. It’s a real bonus – I’m very lucky!
What’s your relationship like with local chefs?
Some chefs will call us for information on our suppliers and vice versa – in Portugal they are quite open about that. For example, the contact for our artichokes I got from a different chef who works nearby.
I would say in Germany, where I worked before, I don’t think anybody would do that. They keep it just for themselves, and in London it’s the same. The more competition you have, the more people get greedy about their things. You want to be known for your products… it’s normal. The product changes the dishes, changes the flavour, changes everything we do. Everything.
What can you tell us about your current team?
We promote people to be sous chefs who have worked with me for a while. The guy coming up now as a sous chef has worked with me for five years, so he knows what I want. He knows my style and he knows the products I like. I normally don’t recruit from outside; I would always try to grow from inside, because you really get to know each other.
Where do you eat when you’re elsewhere in Europe?
Every year, we close Ocean for two or three months, then I really travel all over Europe to eat. We do a gastronomic event here every two years, where we invite chefs from all over the world to come and cook together. Then, in my time off, I try and visit those chefs at their places.
This year I’m keen to invite chefs over from South America, because everyone talks about food in Peru and Chile. There are so many good chefs all over the world and, now with the Internet, everybody sees everything. When I started cooking we didn’t have Internet, so I had to go to restaurants and ask if I could have the chef’s details. Nowadays, a lot of youngsters who don’t know how to cook just copy top chefs around the world. The Internet takes part of the fun out of it.
What do you think stands out in Ocean’s menu?
We have the limpets, the calamari that looks like popcorn, and the sea snails, which we get every day from a hundred meters down there [Neuner points to the coastline that Ocean restaurants overlooks], we just need to scratch them off. You can’t get fresher than that.
In Austria we eat a lot of blood sausage, so here at the restaurant we serve little squid stuffed with black pudding in a very nice cataplana – it’s really Algarvian. We also do an old Portuguese-Brazilian dish called feijoada. When the Portuguese conquered the world a few hundred years ago, they brought this bean stew containing everything from the bull. They just threw the whole thing in there – even the ears – and cooked it down. We mostly take just the sauces from these old classic things and then add some other ingredients so that it’s not too rustic.
How would you describe the atmosphere you’re trying to create here? What kind of palate are you catering to?
Not too ‘fine dining’… we don’t have a stiff atmosphere, we don’t need to wear ties, we don’t have a fancy dress code. You can really come in sneakers and jeans! We try to keep it more casual or simple, because people shouldn’t be afraid to come. People should eat and have a good time.
We are not one of these old classic two-star restaurants… we’re not about that. We try and make Ocean a place for 2016. We offer the same quality and service, but not so uptight. I want our diners to experience some really traditional Portuguese food brought into our times. At the end of the day if you want to experience some really kick-ass Portuguese dishes, you have to come to our place.
What’s next for you and for Ocean?
In 2007 I opened up this restaurant and since then we’ve been quite successful. We’re a great team, we received the two stars in just four years, so we’ll keep on going. We’ll keep changing the kitchen and restaurant and will try to get even better.