#FOODMISSION 2024 – Hans Neuner, Ocean Restaurant, Algarve, Portugal

Hans Neuner is a talented chef with a passion for culinary exploration and storytelling. Born into a culinary family in Tyrol, Austria, Neuner’s culinary journey began at a young age. His culinary philosophy emphasizes the importance of locally sourced ingredients and the storytelling potential of food. He believes in the transformative power of travel and its ability to inspire creativity in the kitchen.

The Best Chef:  What motivated you to pursue a career in gastronomy and travel extensively as a chef?

Hans Neuner: Yeah, I went to Switzerland at that time, then to London, and then to France. Those places were always places my father said, “You have to go.” My father is also a cook, so it was like, “Yeah, you have to go there. You have to go there.” And I enjoyed traveling. I think traveling is one of the biggest benefits we have as chefs. You see the world, you can go anywhere, and wherever you go, you know someone as a chef. It’s super connected. So you say, “Okay, I’ll fly to Bangkok,” for example, and then you go, “My Instagram, I’m here,” and there are always chefs inviting you. It’s amazing how the community is still amazing as a chef, I think.

The Best Chef: Could you tell us about your culinary journey?

Hans Neuner:
I came from Hamburg down here, I was a chef de cuisine in a two-star restaurant in Hamburg. But before that, I was the head chef at a place we had, the Stuhlbarg, outside of Hamburg in Blanc. I also worked in Spain at Tristan, a two-star restaurant. Then, my chef from Hamburg asked if I wanted to join him in opening a new place. Hamburg is where the people are shit, but the rest is amazing. So I moved to Hamburg and later opened my own restaurant here in Portugal 17 years ago. It’s been running well ever since.

The Best Chef:  When did you start this restaurant?

Hans Neuner:  In 2007.

The Best Chef: How did you approach the redesign of the restaurant to reflect your vision, and what elements were most important to you in creating the modern, oceanic atmosphere?

Hans Neuner: When I came, the restaurant looked very different, and the kitchen was very, very small. The restaurant was much bigger. But now, the part of the kitchen was the whole restaurant, and we had just a tiny corner. The deal was to get one star in four years. That was the deal I had with the management when I came from Hamburg. They said, “Yeah, we would love to have you, but we need one star in four years.” We’ve been lucky—we achieved two stars in three years. So then they asked, “What can we do to make you stay?” Because I said, “Okay, I think we’ve reached everything.” They said, “Okay, you have to change the restaurant.” It was a very old-fashioned place before, you know, roses on the carpet and stuff—not bad, but very old school. And then we earned two stars in a very short period of time, which was a sensation in Portugal at that time. In 2011, I think there was just one two-star restaurant in the whole country. So, they changed it the way I wanted it, and I think we made a beautiful place out of it. It’s modern, it’s timeless, it’s oceanic. When you walk inside, the doors open, it’s all blue. Since 2011, it looks like it does now.

The Best Chef:  Can you explain how your travels to countries related to Portugal influence the menu at Ocean Restaurant?

Hans Neuner:
The products are mainly Portuguese—vegetables, meat, everything is from here. But five years ago, we started traveling to colonies or countries that were connected with Portugal during the Age of Exploration from the 15th century onward. They’ve been everywhere. So, now in August, we sit down with history teachers. I have a history teacher I consult with and say, “Okay, explain where they’ve been—Vasco da Gama, etc.” Then we choose our direction. We fly with the team to that country for three weeks. We research and look into what the Portuguese brought there and what they brought back. Out of that, we take our inspiration and create our menu.

We started with Mozambique, then Angola, which was also amazing. Then we did Brazil, followed by all the islands. This year, we’ve been to Asia. We explored Macau, which was under Portuguese influence for many years. From Macau, we traveled to Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Tokyo. So, the menu we are currently offering is Asian-inspired, based on our travels.

The Best Chef: How did your vision about Portuguese cuisine change?

Hans Neuner: Big time. Yeah. I think the main thing was COVID. When COVID came, you know, we had to close. And I was sitting here in the kitchen thinking, “What the hell? What do we do? What do we do?” So, I bought a tent and a sleeping bag, and I traveled with my bike. I have a Harley. I traveled through Portugal and visited producers like my rice producer, my vegetable producer. Out of that came the idea that we had to travel.

Everything was connected to Portugal, also for the storytelling, and also for me to make something new every year, to stay motivated and focused. If you always cook the same for many years, I think it would get boring for me, and then maybe I’d have to change and go somewhere else. But by reinventing the restaurant every year, we always have new things to do, and it keeps you interested. I think that’s the main thing for me—that you don’t get bored and that you always keep learning. It’s the main drive behind all this traveling, and it’s also great for the young chefs. It’s nice to teach them what it means to be a chef worldwide. It’s not just sitting in one restaurant cooking. I mean, cooking is the main important thing, but it’s also about connections, different flavors, and the various philosophies in cooking worldwide.

In the 90s, everyone cooked French because that was the standard. Then they all started cooking Spanish, and later Nordic. Now, it’s a mix of everything. I think that’s what makes it so interesting—it never stops, and the learning is never-ending.

The Best Chef: It’s more local now.

Hans Neuner: It’s very much local, I believe that for sure. Noma started it with this hardcore regional approach. And I also believe that people now understand more that a product doesn’t have to travel for 3,000 km. If it’s locally grown, it just tastes better because you can harvest it when it is perfectly ripe. If you buy a product, let’s say from Brazil, like a normal pineapple, they take it green from the tree, put it in heating trucks, and then bring it here. The taste is completely different when you eat a ripe pineapple straight from the tree compared to one that has traveled over 3,000 km. There are worlds of difference. I think people are starting to understand that it’s better to maybe not have strawberries every day, but to have them in the right season. The satisfaction is Yeah. Because I mean, you know that it’s ten times better to eat one perfect strawberry a week, let’s say, than every day ten shitty strawberries that taste like water and like cucumbers, you know what I mean? So the sensation in your brain is ten times higher if you have one amazing strawberry one time a week. And I think people are starting to understand that more and more. But this also comes from history, you know, in the 80s, let’s say in Central Europe—in Italy, food was always great—but let’s say in Central Europe in the 80s, they cooked shit. They cooked fucking toast. Yeah. No, seriously, because nobody had any idea about it. And every day they thought they needed to have a fucking strawberry. So I think people are starting to understand it’s the same with experiences. You know, having one kickass woman, a beautiful woman, is ten times better than having ten shitty ones.

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