It takes a good four hours from Vienna, but Birgit and Heinz Reitbauer are happy to make such a seemingly strenuous journey, even during one of their rare vacations. This time the destination is the Bärenwirt in Hermagor, Austria’s “Gasthaus of the Year 2018”, awarded by Gault Millau. Landlord Manuel Ressi is head chef after many years as Heinz Reitbauer’s sous chef, while Manuel’s wife Claudia is dedicated and attentive front-of-house manager.
After all, they know what culinary delights are waiting, or at least they can guess. “What can I say?”, Heinz shrugs on arrival. “It’s simple: Manuel is an excellent chef, so just the first mouthful will have made the trip worthwhile. On top of that, Manuel is more than a former co-worker: for many years he was nothing less than a valued companion. Meeting up is something to look forward to. Manuel and I made a great team together, there was a sense of unspoken understanding. So when somebody like that leaves, you have to find your feet again”, Heinz reminisces. “Manuel was – and presumably still is – an incredibly creative spirit, a craftsman, an inventor, a tinkerer.
Someone who never hesitates to try something new, someone who’s open to everything, someone who offers immense input, someone whom I could always rely on.” He’s also someone whose career at the Steirereck started earlier than at the Stadtpark with Heinz Reitbauer junior. Before then Manuel Ressi was cooking at the old Steirereck in Rasumovskygasse under Helmut Österreicher, who was chef de cuisine for Heinz Reitbauer senior. In the end his days at the Steirereck came to more than eleven years altogether.
The crunch point came in the year 2013, when Manuel was already 36. Suddenly the Ressi couple found themselves facing two essential questions that would determine the direction to take next. One: where do we want to grow old? Two: where do we want to watch our daughters Valentina and Ella, then aged two and four, grow up? Also, Manuel wanted to “downsize a little”, as he now puts it. Claudia and her husband found the answer to their questions back home, in Carinthia, in the Gailtal valley: not just downsizing, but also geographically moving down, to southern Austria. The first professional stop was the Plamenig Inn in Latschach near Hermagor, but it was clear from the start that this was probably not the last step towards working independently.
The time there was very enjoyable, but it didn’t last for that long. One day the lease was on offer for the Bärenwirt, an inn located in the centre of the old part of the nearby town Hermagor, and the Ressis didn’t have to think twice. They said goodbye to Plamenig on the best of terms, and made a new start in autumn 2015, at last achieving the professional independence they had wanted for so long. “By then we had finally arrived”, says Manuel. It wouldn’t come as a great surprise if the Bärenwirt really were the final stop in the culinary life of the Ressi family.
For starters served to the Reitbauer family there’s a traditional Carinthian soup, a lovely saffron yellow and rich with lamb, chicken, beef and pork. After that – specially for the former boss, as he likes it so much – it’s filled breast of calf with a truly fabulous potpourri of side dishes. Never mind that it’s slightly drizzling.
From down-home cooking to experimental-creative, Manuel Ressi’s cuisine is as diverse as it is excellent. Locals regularly meet at his place, especially for lunch. Both the parlour and the cosy dining room of the inn, a popular meeting place in the district’s main town for more than a hundred years, are full. Tourists and travellers as well as the Reitbauers and local residents are all here. There’s a great choice on offer, from Wiener Schnitzel to char confit, fried Kärntner Kasnudel (a local variation of ravioli with cheese) to sea bass, goulash to lamb, hummus to chicken, lights to organic steak… “Like at Plamenig’s place”, says Manuel, “there has to be something for everybody, including for the simple workman whose culinary horizon may be more limited. On top of that – again as at Plamenig’s – it has to be affordable. That’s what keeps the locals coming, and what makes them want to come without feeling intimidated.”
With the Bärenwirt it’s all come full-circle. After all, Manuel apprenticed with Alfred Süßenbacher at the well-known Bleibergerhof, which is no further away than a 30-minute drive. “Although, having said that, being a chef was never my dream job when I was a child, and I don’t come from a gastronomic family. However, I had to choose what to do after finishing compulsory school, whether to stay and graduate from high school or to train in a job. I decided on the job. I went for becoming a chef because I figured you would earn good money and get to see a bit of the world.” Well, Manuel hasn’t seen that much: after making a few stops in Carinthia and Germany he soon ended up at the Steirereck in Vienna. “I hadn’t reckoned that I’d stay there for that long.”
Unless there’s a serious reason to do otherwise, he’ll probably stay in Hermagor for good, together with his wife Claudia. Not least there’s the Kleine Bär, the Little Bear, to consider. “Yes”, says Manuel, “the Kleine Bär is our baby…” Yes, the Ressis have bought a house, diagonally across the square, to the left of the church, and have renovated and refurbished it. There’s a generous guest room on the top floor, under the roof, two elegant bedrooms on the first floor, and a show kitchen, a shop, a spare room with a large table and a terrace in the sun. “The shop offers products from regional producers, which we process and pack in our kitchen, because we consider ourselves a hub for local farmers”, says Claudia. There are plans to run courses in the kitchen, and because the terrace is so lovely, and many friends and acquaintances have made requests, Claudia has opened a little café here.
Claudia und Manuel Ressi
Tue 17–23 Uhr
Wed-Sat 11–23 Uhr
Sun 11–16 Uhr