Back to the roots

Celeriac: when Michael Wankerl cooks with this root vegetable, you won’t find many other things on your plate. If that sounds like a dreary meal, you’ll be surprised to discover it’s anything but. Thoroughly local and natural cuisine: one example of sustainable gastronomy.

Celery. When Michael Wankerl cooks with it, you don't find many other things on the plate. Local and close to nature: an example of sustainable gastronomy.

The proprietor of Gerüchteküche in Graz, Austria, dries celeriac, stews it in the oven or serves it raw in wafer-thin slices. ‘The root – not the stalks,’ he clarifies. ‘It has its own unique saltiness and such a strong flavour that you hardly need to season it.’ Wankerl’s bookcase groans under the weight of tomes full of formulas and amino acid compounds. To make the most of a root vegetable’s flavour, you need to study cooking and fermenting processes or experiment with temperature to change the sugar content and by that the taste experience and texture.

Michael Wankerl’s restaurant is located in the university district of Graz. It has been awarded 2 Gault & Millau toques. Gerüchteküche offers a small lunch and 4-, 5- or 6-course dinners – and guests don’t find out what they will be eating until it’s on the plate in front of them. Their allergies and culinary aversions are taken into account, but otherwise, the diners eat what they are served – and they love it. ‘We don’t cook based on a menu, so we don’t throw anything away,’ Wankerl says. ‘If I have celeriac one day and run out of it, but I’ve bought parsnips that morning, then there’ll be a parsnip course.’ Wankerl makes use of the whole plant: roots, fruits, flowers, greens. He almost never peels anything, but when he does, he uses the peelings, too. He pickles, he ferments. ‘Those aren’t quite the same,’ he says. ‘You can pickle things in various liquids. Fermentation is always controlled spoiling,’ he laughs. ‘Or to put it another way: a lactic-acid-based metabolic process.’ Wankerl only uses a food when it is in season locally – or months later, preserved. He has made umeboshi, a salted, dried and subsequently rehydrated plum used in Asian cuisines. ‘It tastes sweet, sour, salty and umami,’ he explains. Umami, borrowed from Japanese, essentially means ‘delicious’. It is its own distinct flavour category, often described as ‘savoury’ or ‘meaty’. Currently Wankerl has a try at soy sauce. ‘It’s a bit tricky,’ he says. He also makes his own miso pastes. ‘They take at least 3 months. We make them from buckwheat and emmer wheat, or from lentils or butter beans.’ The pastes are used as a seasoning. ‘We cook with about 80% plant-based ingredients. The miso pastes are great at coaxing the different aromas out of the various vegetables.’

Gerüchteküche, Wankerl

‘Looks like maggots, but it tastes a bit like salsify’

The 20% animal-based ingredients in Wankerl’s dishes are almost exclusively eggs and dairy products in desserts. He is uncompromising in his ‘buy local’ stance here, as well. He buys cream, milk and yogurt only in glass containers from an organic farm. ‘On average, they’re 15 to 20% more expensive than the conventional stuff,’ he says. ‘But we also use the products differently, so that in the end, it’s not just sustainable but also economical. I could buy a plastic bag of carrots for €1 – but I buy them open at the local market for €1.50. They still have the greens on top, and I use those to make pesto. This approach to cooking seems more expensive at first glance, but you’ve got to be creative.’ Wankerl has adapted his style of cooking to match his convictions and his own standards of sustainability. Originally, he cooked very differently: ‘I mean, I worked in big hotels and restaurants for years!’ It was his family that inspired him to change. ‘My wife studied in the construction field, and she’s dealt intensively with sustainability in that sector – a lot of that has rubbed off on me,’ he says. ‘My stepson is a competitive swimmer, and we were faced with the challenge of feeding a kid who needs 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day! In a healthy and balanced diet, no less. When you do such a deep dive into every aspect of nutrition, at some point you have no option but to make a change. Because you can’t avoid thinking about what sort of legacy you want to leave for your children. All I can say is I’m still having a blast working this way!’

The chef loves root vegetables – especially Japanese artichoke. ‘Looks like maggots,’ he says, again laughing. ‘But it tastes a bit like salsify. You can roast it or eat it raw.’ He and his wife go out into the woods almost every weekend. ‘We gather herbs, wild garlic, spruce tips and capers, and we dig up the roots of sorrel and evening primrose – then we make dishes with the fresh ingredients, or we preserve them.’ He recently got a call from a friend who found something unfamiliar growing in his garden. Wankerl came and dug it up. When he’s not out foraging himself, he knows ‘2 dear guests who are always out in the woods foraging anyway.’ They supply him with mushrooms and herbs for example.

Wankerl says many people have no idea what treats are growing in their gardens – or in Austria as a whole, for that matter. ‘There are around 2,000 species of plants that grow here,’ he says. ‘About 20 of them are poisonous, and only 5 are deadly. The amount of edible plants growing here is just enormous!’ His wife always jokes that he will die from eating something poisonous, Wankerl adds with a chuckle. ‘Because whenever we go anywhere, I’m always plucking leaves off some plant and chewing on them to see how they taste, whether or not they’re bitter, and trying to figure out what I could do with them.’ But people are beginning to learn, and slowly but surely, they are coming to appreciate the natural world around them – and the dishes it inspires. ‘When our guests came back to the restaurant after the first shutdown,’ he says, ‘they were incredibly motivated and curious – everything we had invested in our way of working with different ingredients at Gerüchteküche had really borne fruit!’

Michael Wankerl, Gerüchteküche
Top chef Michael Wankerl, originally from Bavaria, cooks regionally – out of conviction and without compromise – with a special focus on vegetables

‘You just have to talk – then anything is possible!’

Whatever this top chef with a touch of the enfant terrible can’t source from local farmers or forage, pick and harvest himself, he buys at METRO. Wankerl’s sales force manager is an old friend and colleague: ‘The first time we got in touch, I said, “Look, here’s what I want to do.” Initially, we weren’t sure if a lot of it was possible, but METRO made an incredible effort and offered solutions to make my plans work. When I inquire something from my sales force manager, he always knows right away what I have in mind.’ That shared basic understanding of cooking and food service saves a lot of time. The platform DISH also grew out of this fundamental understanding, as well as the desire to provide food service professionals with the best possible support in their day-to-day work and give them more time to concentrate on the essentials: their cooking and their guests. Wankerl uses the tools DISH Reservation and, for his takeaway business, DISH Order. ‘With the online reservation system, phone calls have decreased by 90%,’ he explains. ‘I used to have to run out of the kitchen every time the phone rang. I’d clamp the phone to my ear with my shoulder and keep cooking! Then I’d scribble the reservation down on a random scrap of paper. Now, people also make reservations in the morning or at night – times when they wouldn’t be able to reach anyone at the restaurant before. They would have to leave a message, and we wouldn’t be able to confirm the reservation until hours later. The online system confirms their reservation with just a few clicks, and then they can plan their day or their week better.’ Wankerl says he even noticed that one of his suggestions for improvement had been implemented in the reservation tool: ‘Originally, there was only one setting for the length of the guests’ stay, regardless of whether it was for lunch or dinner. But people eat faster at lunchtime and only stay for an hour, max, whereas in the evening, they usually stay for 2 hours. Now, I can set that in the system, which lets me plan even more precisely.’ He can now make maximum use of his restaurant’s capacity, helping him to increase revenue.

Recipe: Wankerl's Carrot Green Pesto

  • 30 g carrot greens
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 100 ml rapeseed oil
  • 70 g hard cheese
  • 30 g sunflower seeds
  • 1 pinch salt

Makes one jar.

Cover the surface with a film of oil – this way, when sealed, it will keep for several months.

More on the Topic

For Wankerl, fewer calls also means more time in his kitchen without interruption. Asked if wholesale and sustainability are a contradiction in terms, he responds, ‘You just have to talk – then anything is possible!’ He is certain that bolder promotion would anchor sustainability in more restaurants and people’s minds. If there were a labelling requirement for the origins of a schnitzel, for instance – not just in supermarkets, but on restaurant menus as well. Then more people would grasp the concept. Hygiene, Wankerl says, is the only area where sustainability is difficult. Cleaning agents used in the food service industry need to have certain levels of acidity; detergent for industrial dishwashers comes in non-returnable plastic canisters that he has to dispose of. He understands the reasoning behind the regulations, but wishes for a change in thinking here, too – along with some compromises.

‘I’m just not interested in fillet or roast’

When it comes to meat, however, Michael Wankerl makes no compromises. When he uses it in his cooking, it must be very local, just like all his other ingredients. If the nearby farmer that he knows and trusts slaughters a cow, Wankerl takes half. ‘I always leave the fillet and the roast behind,’ he says. ‘I’m just not interested in those cuts. Slap it on the grill, brown it on both sides – to me that’s so uninspired. There’s no character or feeling in it for me. Any meat that comes in my kitchen gets braised!’ Shoulder, cheek, heart, liver, lungs – at Gerüchteküche, nothing is wasted, and everything gets eaten. Even cockscombs. Yes, the combs from the heads of roosters. ‘They take on the flavour of the sauce they’re braised in, and they have a funny texture – a bit like calamari,’ Wankerl explains. ‘If you cut them into little bits, most people won’t even realise they’re eating them.’ But that isn’t Wankerl’s style. He’s provocative. He presents more than just his surprise menu every day; he also serves up his philosophy, and his guests love it: ‘I leave the jagged edge on the combs and lay them across the dish. And then my regulars say, “Look, we’re having dragon again today!”’

  • Digital tools help restaurateurs to operate their businesses in an efficient and thereby resource-saving and economic manner.
  • With DISH Order, meal pick-up and delivery services, for example, can be easily integrated in a restaurant’s own website. The tool DISH Reservation optimises restaurant reservation management. DISH MenuKit increases the marginal return per meal through the calculation of the ideal cost of goods sold.
  • To support customers in matters of sustainability, METRO has developed a practical how-to guide: ‘My sustainable restaurant’ offers restaurateurs information and advice on such topics as energy efficiency, waste management and the use of plastic and packaging. Beyond this, METRO sales force managers provide individually tailored consulting – because each restaurant’s path to sustainability is as unique as the restaurant itself. More:

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