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Hans Neuner: The king of the sea

By: Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Portugal’s star chef Hans Neuner needs an adventure for the soul and the sea air to breathe. To find this, the Tyrolean-born chef traveled from Ghana to Goa – and has brought more than just his new menu back from this trip.

Portugal and Austria, these two countries conjure up completely different ideas. One has endless sandy beaches on the turquoise Atlantic, the other deep valleys between snowy Alps. And yet these two nations, which are more than 2,000 kilometers apart, are closely connected in the field of top gastronomy. Over the past 15 years, Dieter Koschina from Vorarlberg and Hans Neuner from Tyrol have shaped the Portuguese fine-dining scene like only a few Portuguese chefs have before them.

Just ten kilometers apart, the two Austrians run two of the top addresses of the Iberian Peninsula with their gourmet temples on the idyllic Algarve coast. But Hans Neuner in particular has been regarded as a serious candidate for the third star for years with his virtuoso and playful seasonal cuisine. But it is not only this that differentiates him from Koschina and all other chefs in Portugal. Other traits that make him unique are: His hyperactivity. His restlessness. And his unbreakable love of adventure. He recently demonstrated this impressively by following in the footsteps of Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama.

“I saw the photo with a panoramic view of the Atlantic and said to myself: I have to travel down there and see it for myself.”Hans Neuner on the beginning of his new life in Portugal
Hans Neuner, with his light, virtuosic and playful seasonal cuisine, has been considered a serious contender for the third star for years

Image: Ocean Restaurant, Vila Vita Resort

The Head Chef of the Ocean stopped at the same places as the legendary discoverer of the sea route to India back in the late 15th century: Cape Verde, Ghana, Oman, Mozambique and finally Goa. Hans Neuner as the culinary reincarnation of the Portuguese sailor. But why? After all, he has everything that his product-obsessed chef heart could possibly desire on his doorstep! 730 hectares of the hotel’s own land and vineyard including its own livestock farm, several 100 square meters of its own vegetable garden, not to mention the endless sea with all its marine life. What drives this restless top chef? Who is he, this Hans Neuner? And what is the insatiable bundle of energy planning in the future?

Chasing the sun

First, let’s take a look into the past: “As a chef”, Hans Neuner’s parents had said, “you can see the world and you’ll always find a job”. The son of a Tyrolean restaurateur couple therefore completed his apprenticeship at the gourmet restaurant of the Alpenkönig Hotel in Seefeld. From the head chef down, everyone Neuner respects all worked at Eckart Witzigmann’s Aubergine. “I undoubtedly learned a lot there,” recalls the now 46-year-old. That was back in the early 1990s. Times were different back then in the upscale kitchens of the country. Loud cries. Many hours of overtime – and two slaps around the ear that Neuner still remembers. But he doesn’t hold a grudge, that’s not in his nature.

With its panoramic view over the Atlantic Ocean, the Ocean Restaurant is also an absolute visual highlight.

Image: Ocean Restaurant, Vila Vita Resort

But not without criticism: “Too much went wrong for too long. Fortunately, many things have changed in kitchens today. “For the young Neuner, one thing was certain: He wanted to move on once his apprenticeship was complete. He cooked in Switzerland, in England, on the Bahamas. And of course, as one would expect of an adventurer, on a cruise ship. Until he joined Karlheinz Hauser and his team at the Hotel Adlon in 1999. In Hauser, Hans, aged just 23, found a mentor who challenged and supported him. When Hauser set out on his own with the Süllberg in Hamburg, he entrusted Neuner with the position of Head Chef at the Seven Seas gourmet restaurant. “I will help you for three months with the Süllberg”, said Neuner, “and you organize the next great job for me somewhere in the world. The three months turned into five years. Until things suddenly happened very quickly.

A chaotic route to the stars

Neuner heard of the Ocean Restaurant in Porches, Portugal during a catering event at the Hamburg Internorga trade fair. They are looking for a new Head Chef. Neuner called Kurt Gillig. A fellow Austrian, then F&B Director, now General Manager of the entire impressive Vila Vita Resort. Incidentally, the Ocean is only one, albeit the best, of twelve restaurants there. Neuner looked at the pictures of the restaurant. “When I saw the panoramic view of the sea, I thought: What the hell! I’ll travel down there and see it for myself. A was thoroughly sick of the weather in Hamburg anyway. “That was two weeks before the Ocean opened.

Within a very short time, the Ocean Restaurant became a beacon of the Portuguese fine-dine scene

Image: Ocean Restaurant, Vila Vita Resort

“All the furniture was gone within a couple of hours. I only took my cookbooks, clothing and chef’s knives with me. And my girlfriend.”Hans Neuner describes his escape from Hamburg

But time pressure doesn’t only encourage an inventive approach in the kitchen. In order to get out of Hamburg as quickly as possible, the chef, who was still employed at Seven Seas, quickly put all his belongings from his apartment on the sidewalk – free to a good home. He recalls: “Everything was gone within just a few hours. The only things I took to Portugal with me were my cookbooks, my chef’s knives and a few cloths. And of course my girlfriend.” That was enough.

 

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The Ocean quickly developed into a beacon on the Portuguese fine dining scene. A little too quickly if Hans Neuner’s stories are to be believed: “I quickly managed to find two people for the kitchen, my girlfriend also helped out. Since the crockery wasn’t there yet, we rented the pizza plates from the neighboring restaurant. It was pure chaos. Two years later, in 2009, the Ocean was awarded its first Michelin star. That same year, Hans Neuner was named Chef of the Year by Gault&Millau. Since 2011, the Michelin Guide has awarded Neuner’s kitchen two stars, not to mention all the other international awards. In the high season, from March to October, up to 15 chefs from all corners of the world now work at the Ocean. While the majority of Neuner’s colleagues are suffering under the shortage of skilled staff, his top address receives around 200 applications every year. Of course, this is due in part to the location on the Algarve. But with his pioneering cuisine and the resulting media presence, Neuner has made a key contribution to Ocean’s reputation as a place for forging talent. Anyone who cooks with Hans Neuner knows that even the most famous three-star chefs don’t work with such a wide variety of regional products. And most importantly: Regardless of what is being cooked this year – next year everything will be different again…

Bread on the plate and a countertop in front of Hans Neuner

Image: Ocean Restaurant, Vila Vita Resort

Portuguese cuisine 2.0

Speaking of the rest of the world: Corona gave rise to new adventures. During the first lockdown, he decided to travel through Portugal. Not to find himself, but to search for new products. He helped on rice farms and tea plantations, and rediscovered local specialties. In summer 2020, he developed his “Roadtrip to Portugal” menu based on these discoveries. This was so well received that Mr Ocean took it one step further the following year: Now it was the turn of the Portuguese islands. Madeira, San Miguel, Terceira – every course of the menu was inspired by one of the idyllic islands at the far end of Europe.

“I can only really understand a dish when I have cooked it myself in the local setting. Then I can create my own interpretation.”From Ghana to Goa, Hans Neuner learned the basics of his new menu from locals.

It’s hardly surprising that Neuner took things to the next level once again with this year’s menu: The “Routeto India” menu is undoubtedly the current highlight of the seafaring chef. “We sat down with historians, who explained to us exactly where we had to go, so that our route corresponded to that of the Portuguese explorers”, he explains, practically reciting the ship’s log. From Cap Verde to Goa, Neuner studied national dishes for weeks. He ate at simple snack stalls, “cooked with the local mums”, as he says. “Only once I have really understood a dish can I make my own interpretation of it in the restaurant.

Wild tiger shrimp from Mozambique, with tomato and XO sauce.

Image: Ocean Restaurant, Vila Vita Resort

“With the help of squid botargo from Cap Verde, yam from Ghana and mung beans from Goa, Neuner is bringing the age of Portuguese voyages of discovery to the present day and expanding Portuguese cuisine with long-forgotten worlds of flavor. After this season, he plans to continue his travels with Portugal’s former colonies. Hans Neuner can reveal one thing already: “We will have to spend lots of time, and I mean a lot of time, focusing on Brazil.”

HANS NEUNER – profile:
After his apprenticeship at the Steigenberger Hotel Alpenkönig, the Tyrol-born chef cooked at the Hotel Carlton St. Moritz before embarking on a culinary world tour. He gained impressions and experience in the kitchens of renowned restaurants in London, on Mallorca and the Bahamas, as well as on the cruise ship Crystal Symphony. From 1999 to 2004, Neuner cooked under his mentor Karlheinz Hauser at the Berlin Hotel Adlon, and then became his Head Chef at Seven Seas at the Hotel Süllberg in Hamburg. Since 2007, he has been Head Chef of the Ocean at the Vila Vita Parc luxury resort on the picturesque Algarve. Neuner has had two Michelin stars there since 2011.

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