From running an pub to opening a traditional Viennese ‘Beisl’ may seem worlds apart – but not for Austrian master cook Georg Holzmann, whose career has taken him not just around the country, but around the world.
He spent three years until 1987 studying cooking in Vienna before moving to work at hotels and tourism hotspots around the country. With a lively winter and summer tourism scene, there is demand in Austria all year round for catering, and there are never enough good cooks.
At 23, Georg decided to take a break and head to America where a chance meeting in the city of Detroit, the heart of the car industry in America, saw him offered a lucrative job at a big hotel.
He said: “There were all sorts of congresses involving cars at the time, and of course a lot of businessmen from Germany from Mercedes and BMW and the like. The hotel were desperate for somebody who could help them reach that market, and so they signed me up. I was amazed when I turned up for the first day and found I wasn’t cooking, but rather translating the menu from English into German for the new guests.”
Fortunately the translation work did not last forever, and Georg was moved to the kitchen when managers had realised the US favourites of burgers or melted cheese on pasta would not keep the German businessmen happy, and after seeing him working, switched Georg to designing a new menu and then to teaching his new colleagues how to make alternative foods, ranging from sauerkraut through to ApfelStrudl and Sacher Torte (chocolate cake).
From Detroit, he moved on to Chicago, where he got a job creating romantic buffets at an upmarket resort hotel for couples, before moving to Canada where he worked at the Sheraton in Toronto and then to French-speaking Montréal where he gained valuable experience in cooking French cuisine and in speaking the French language.
Eventually though he packed up and flew back to Europe where he was able to combine the travel bug with at least some time in his beloved Vienna by signing up with the cruise ships travelling between Germany and the Black Sea, with his first gig on the four-storey MS Mozart, one of the largest cruise ships on the Danube at 394 foot long.
From there he graduated onto even bigger cruise liners, working for Italian firm Costa Cruises where he travelled around Africa and Latin America before switching to a Dutch company operating in Asia and travelled to places like Macau and Hong Kong.
With a wealth of culinary experience from his travels, and after learning to speak French, English and Russian as well as his native English, Georg then decided to go into business himself for the first time, opening a restaurant in Hahngasse in Vienna at the age of 28, and then renting that out and taking on the lease for the Hotel Austria in Gablitz.
But problems with the landlord and the desire to still travel led to him signing up with the Vienna city’s Stadthalle catering arm, where he travelled around the country in a company car arranging the catering at high-profile venues.
This ranged from regular gigs for Canadian businessman Frank Stronach through to high-profile events like the Hahnenkamm ski race in Kitzbühel. He provided the catering for superstar visitors like Shakira or Robbie Williams, and also organised the catering for important political and diplomatic gatherings.
At 46, Georg finally decided to go back into business himself, where despite being a teetotaller, he opened what was billed as the world’s smallest English pub – Woodman’s – in the 19th district. It was always going to be a challenge, with only 60 metres of space, and the fact that he didn’t enjoy the traditional luxury of drinking with his clients because of his aversion to alcohol.
He said: “It was a challenge as even when packed we didn’t have many people, but I built up a regular and fun clientele, and probably would have still been there today if it hadn’t caught fire.”
A neighbour of his who liked to horde paints was ill-equipped when a blaze started, destroying not just his building but the neighbouring Woodman’s pub where Georg had invested his time and effort.
Suddenly without a business, there were plenty of offers of work but Georg was determined to get back into business for himself, but was also determined that this time round he would not be centred around alcohol, but instead getting back to his Viennese roots.
That hope became a reality when Georg was walking along the 14th district after a wasted trip to discuss catering for a company in Hietzing, when he spotted the vacant Hadikstüberl.
The restaurant had previously been in the hands of the same family for three generations, and after they gave up the lease, it had been empty for two years as the owners rejected numerous offers to create yet another pizza parlour or Chinese restaurant.
When Georg walked past, it was love at first sight. He arranged to meet the owner, and a short while later the deal was signed. He promised to keep the Hadikstüberl’s Hausmannskost (traditional local food) roots comprising Austrian dishes, and was given a good rent to support the project by the owner, who believes a good restaurant is the heart of the local community.
When it opened, prices were rock bottom, food top quality and after so many years empty it was the locals best kept secret. Georg admits empty seats were a worry for the first few days but his gamble on traditional Viennese cooking, spurning typical crowd pleasers like spareribs, burgers and chips – did not take long to pay off.
While there is a McDonald’s just down the road, and several Italian restaurants a stones throw away, at Georg’s Hadikstüberl he is making a success of less palatable alternative such as chicken heart goulash, or snails cooked in a Viennese style in a mildly buttered Parmesan sauce, with only a very slight hint of garlic.
Everything is home-made, from the beef soup served in a jar with the traditional pancakes or liver dumplings, through to his pork Schnitzel fried in butter and served with butter rice. There are also squashed cheese dumplings, known as Kaspressknödel, an excellent mushroom sauce and of course the traditional Viennese deserts such as Kaiserschmarrn.
As well as his regular dishes he offers occasional treats such as the once a week Haxsalz, colourful squares of diced meat and vegetables served in a clear aspic with a mustard seed oil that is great to look at as well as to eat.
Another is Zeller, which is a celery dish that has almost disappeared from traditional Viennese menus but can still be found at the Hadikstüberl as a starter, with none complaining when instead of the more common tartar sauce they are offered a Dil mustard sauce instead.
It is now packed out, and remains a traditional family business in every sense of the word, his wife Bettina took a month off work in order to help out in the kitchen together with Georg’s 73-year-old mother Christine, and his two daughters Ulrika and Rebecca also join in. As he notes, with a big family including 15 nieces and nephews, he is never short of a helping hand on busy days.
Although the opportunities to enjoy the garden are growing more limited as winter approaches, there will still be a few decent days and despite the hum of traffic on the busy Hadikgasse, which is the start of the motorway to Salzburg, the garden with its two huge Lime trees and six garden tables still maintains a local atmosphere.
When the cold finally takes the city in its grip, Georg plans on adding a Punch stand selling mulled wine and snacks.
It is easy to understand the great reviews not just because of the food. Georg has managed to save one of the increasingly rare traditional Viennese Beisl, that instead of being packed with gambling machines filled with chain-smoking pensioners and a bored looking waitress with a coffee machine, an institution that was for generations part of the traditional culinary landscape has come back to life and not only that – it is thriving.
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