In an interview with the national daily newspaper “Die Welt”, Holbein’s award-winning chef Mario Lohninger talks about the story behind his profession as a gourmet chef, reveals the challenges of this business and why he loves what he does.
TV cooking shows can almost be seen around the clock. It would be wrong to say, however, that being a chef is high on people’s dream lists. They often burn the midnight oil working for little pay. None too pleasant conditions. This business is saddled with recruitment problems. The number of trainees has fallen dramatically over the last eight years: from 42,857 training contracts recorded by the German Hotel and Restaurant Association in 2006, the number had fallen to a mere 23,029 in 2013. The German Chefs Association (VKD) is therefore sounding the alarm. Award-winning chef Mario Lohninger runs two restaurants in Frankfurt and is counted among the crème de la crème of international chefs. During his interview, he talks about the changes in the industry and why he still loves his profession.
Chefs often make little money and have to work hard. Did you ever have to deal with the fear of losing your livelihood?
I’ve never really thought about that. I’m the kind of person who wants to make a difference. But I wasn’t determined to stay in that profession right from the outset. I was surrounded by mountains and I was wondering what happened behind them. I knew that this profession had no limits. You can live wherever you want and, for example, work as a hotel manager, too. When I went on to work for the Michelin-starred restaurant Obauer in Austria, I realized that I wanted to be among the top league. But first of all, I wanted to cook.
When did you start your apprenticeship as a chef?
It was in 1988, three weeks before my fifteenth birthday. I went to the Tourism College in Tyrol and I’ve learned a lot there. Moreover, my passion for cooking was somehow natural. My parents had a restaurant in the mountains of Salzburg. My mom was responsible for the service and my dad took over the kitchen. I was lucky that I was introduced to the joys of the restaurant industry. Our restaurant was virtually always a harmonious place. I learned how to cook classic dishes like Wiener Schnitzel in next to no time.
So the wish to become a chef was there ever since you were a child?
No, I never actually wanted to become a chef. A skiing accident shattered my dreams of becoming a sports professional. Then I said to myself: I enjoy cooking. And this is how I started my apprenticeship.
Today you train budding chefs at the Holbein’s Restaurant yourself. Why do you think is that important?
You can’t complain about a shortage of new entrants as long as you’re not training people yourself.
Do you receive fewer applications today than you did a few years ago?
I used to have at least 15 applicants for one job offer. This number has not been quite so high in the last two or three years. But as long as you’re listed in restaurant guides, you will always reach enough interested candidates. It’s not only that you notice it yourself, you can read in newspapers and hear from your colleagues that the number of chefs is gradually decreasing. The way I see it, there are various reasons for this problem. One thing is, of course, that we have become a society with pretty low birth rates. But the central issue is that it’s fairly difficult to earn money in the restaurant business. When too much money is pocketed by the state, employers can’t afford enough manpower. Cooking teams were much bigger when I started my career in the 1980s.
As a chef, should you always expect to work a lot of overtime?
Being a restaurant owner, you cannot simply tell people things like bank assistants would do: “Sorry, we’re closed, do your business online.” You’re happy about every single guest. I try to leave my cooking staff enough space for an easygoing life beside their job, but I always tell them: You have to work hard to be able to work hard. You could even say that this job is like a religion you have to believe in. That’s why you need to enjoy cooking and be enthusiastic, otherwise the job is going to be too hard for you.
Published on 24 April 2014 in the online edition of Die Welt. Written by Sylvia Meilin Weber.