Chef Wolfgang Ban: Far from Austria, At Home in New York

Chef Wolfgang Ban and his partner Eduard Frauneder of Austrian-laced Seasonal, Edi and the Wolf, and The Third Man are two peas in very different pods. But Ban believes “that makes a good partnership, something very contrary creates a full picture.” While Edi has made their Alphabet City spots his home, Wolfgang lives close to the Michelin- and New York Times-starred Seasonal, and just purchased some farmland in the Berkshires so he can “be in touch with nature again. I want to raise some animals in the most humane way possible. I want to give them a happy life, and then… hopefully make some good food out of them!”

Make good food, he does. His cuisine is definitely rooted in Austria, but is also honest to New York and what we offer here. His sense of hospitality is a blend, too, both flowing with New York’s driving energy and as refined, formal and extremely generous as you would expect from a classically trained European chef—when a lone diner popped in between hours for an early dinner, he had his cooks whip something for her and personally got her set at a table.

Our wine-flowing conversation meandered to Austrian versus German wine, how many kinds of Hungarian paprikas exist (he estimates 180), and how long it takes before you first get the guts up to slaughter an animal (in my case he wagered a few hours for a chicken, a few days for a pig, and indefinitely for a goat). Here’s the formal part of our chat.

You’re a long way from home. How did where you come from in Austria affect you in a way that’s maybe different than it did Edi? Edi comes from Vienna and I’m from the countryside. The town that I am from is Donnerskirchen, in Burgenland, the “Land of Castles,” which is a land stripe between Hungary and Austria with one part now in Slovakia. There was so much influence from those other cultures when things were divided after the monarchy disappeared. And I think that was a really interesting thing in terms of food. This is what you experience today in New York City on a much larger scale: people from Asia, South America, Europe, and those who have been here for so long, creating what is “New York cuisine” right now.

What was food like within your family? My family owns land, which was used for agriculture, mainly vineyards. My two grandfathers were “making wine” just for themselves. So when I was very little, before I went to school or kindergarten, I would spend a lot of time with my grandfathers; sitting on their laps, helping them press the grapes. Harvest time was one of my favorite times of the year. Relatives came together because it was a such a big job and had to be done in a short amount of time; my grandmother would cook, and we would be all out there sitting at a big table, having dinner together.

You’re so far away from that life now. Food was simple and came partially from our own animals—we had pigs, ducks, chicken, cows. So that was an influence. And then of course the Hungarian and Czech came and influenced the Austrian cuisine, so that was part of my childhood; my grandmother would do at least five different dishes with paprika, which is more native to Hungary.

Was that the most obvious influence to your being a chef later? That’s a very good question. In my early teens I got involved creating a music festival, and I was in charge of making sure we had everything—the music, good wine, enough beverages, food. And that was pretty much the start of realizing that I like hospitality; the satisfaction of when you see 5,000 people having a good time, that was ever such a joy for me. I think that’s where I decided that maybe I should start working in a hotel.

Is that where you headed? My first job was as an apprentice in a hotel. I really wanted to see all the departments, so I started off as a waiter, and then I went to the kitchen. During my time in the kitchen my executive chef started trying to change my direction. He said, “You know what, I see some talent here, why don’t you just skip it and start over again and become a chef?” So I got my first degree in hospitality and was so eager to learn more that I decided to go to Vienna to study cooking, and that was actually the college that where I met Edi.

The beginning of the end! Exactly! What did I get myself into?! So I moved there, and the principal of that school had such a passion for cooking, and he always found a small group that had the same passion and tried to promote and help them. Edi and I were always a part of that small circle. And I didn’t understand that until he picked me to go to Brussels to represent our school in this cooking competition of European cooking schools and we won six out of the ten cooking competitions.

Is that where you found an actual passion for cooking? The passion was there all the time. But it was in the nineties in Austria where being a chef was nothing you would be very proud of, and people looked down on it. I think this was the main reason I was holding back. But then the principal called with two job offers—one in London and one in New York—so I picked New York.

You worked for the Austrian ambassador at the U.N., right? Exactly.

Did you envision that you’d be here for as long as you’ve been? No. The initial idea was three to six months. But once the ambassador and his wife thought that things were going okay—I wasn’t burning down their apartment, I was seasoning the food so that people wanted to eat it, I wasn’t burning the food…

High criteria, eh? Ha! They were like, “Oh, we expected so much worse, what you’re doing is okay!” They asked me to stay and give them at least a year. I was very intrigued by the city from day one—I never felt like I was a guest. From day one I felt, “This is home. I’m part of this.”

And what about the food scene here? Well, the very first thing I got in contact with were the markets. I was on a government budget but there were still plenty of things to be able to source. And then, of course, Austria has no access to the sea, and all of a sudden I was exposed to fresh seafood at such a quality, so I got really excited about that!

You can’t have too much ego. You have to recognize that maybe even if you love it, it’s not right for your clientele, so we revisit the dish and create something new.

How do you do that here at Seasonal? Figure out the balance of New York and Austria? Well, I think the core idea of each dish has some kind of root in Austria. The four stalwart Austrian dishes are always on the menu, and those staples we will always keep. The lobster egg, which is one of our signature appetizers, is still the idea of a hearty Austrian breakfast, and the only thing that isn’t something we’d not do in Austria is the lobster—we’d do a crawfish fresh out of a river. And sometimes you don’t always get things right. Sometimes you create something and after a couple of weeks you figure out it’s not the right thing for your clientele right now. You can’t have too much ego. You have to recognize that maybe even if you love it, it’s not right for your clientele, so we revisit the dish and create something new.

When a dish doesn’t do well can you let it roll off your back? I think it’s extremely important to do so. I really want an honest feedback. Telling me what you think makes me grow, and makes me do the right changes in order to please my customer.

What else helps you keep things fresh after five years? I think Seasonal needs a little bit of rethinking, with the décor and such. We have a very good following, so we want to create something a little more homey now. Our interior attracts a lot of Europeans because they like very clean, very minimalistic design, but I think for New York City we need to be warmer.

Is this at all inspired by the warmth of Edi and the Wolf? It’s obviously a very different neighborhood but after designing it are you like, “Let’s redo everything! Change ALL the furniture!” Ha, yes, of course! We obviously don’t want to transfer Seasonal into something that would be in alphabet city, but we saw how people reacted and how comfortable they are down there.

You’re expanding the mentality of what Austrian food is here. Is the idea of taking your cuisine to the next level happening back in Austria? To be honest, I’m a little disappointed. I kind of find that Austria has lost its identity for now, and is focusing on what’s happening in Spain and Scandinavia. Austria is rich in so many things, but instead they’re copying dishes from other cultures. I hope in a few years it will start coming back to Austrian chefs focusing on Austrian dishes again, to get at what Austrian cuisine is really about.