Vegetarian Michelin Chef Shares Philosophy and Who Inspires Him

It’s not every day that a Michelin-starred chef, tweezers in hand and with surgical precision, delicately places a slice of dehydrated beetroot on your plate. It was a gourmet and sensory  experience for ethical muse as we enjoyed a coveted place at the Chef’s Table in Vila Joya, a boutique resort located in Portugal.

Paul Ivic, the chef of Tian located in Vienna, is one of only four chefs internationally to be awarded a Michelin Star for a vegetarian restaurant.  He was featured in the Rota das Estralas (Star Route),“Taste of Tomorrow,” which has restaurants from Porto to the Algarve open their doors for a series of gastronomic Michelin-starred events.

Let us introduce you to Chef Ivic, who is inspired by Steve Jobs, listens to the advice of his sister and now encourages us to understand the thinking behind his philosophy on vegetarian cuisine.

What was the catalyst that propelled you to become a chef?

The journey began in my hometown Serfaus, in the Austrian Alps, when I was 14. I didn‘t want to continue with going to school. My sister told me to become a chef. She listed all positive aspects of the job: you can travel the world and be creative. What came to my mind were the buzzwords free and independent. And I just thought, that’s it!

What is the recipe for being a successful restaurant entrepreneur?

Steve Jobs said, “Great things in business are never done by one person. They are done by a team of people.” I relate to this quote 100%. I consider myself very lucky to have a great team around me. They share my beliefs – my strive to use organic, regional products, my philosophy of uncompromising quality and my urge to use the whole product from root to leaf. On top of that, over the past years we really became good friends and we sometimes even spend our days off together checking out new restaurants.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them.

“Bonjour, this is Le Guide Michelin. We are calling to inform you that you will be included as One Star in Vienna.” When did you receive this call and has this always been your aspiration?

Of course, a Michelin star is something you aim for and work for very hard as a chef. You can never get there by yourself. It is always the work of the whole team.

When we heard that we got the Michelin star, we could not believe that we had made it. A lot changed that day. Customers know that they can trust us. They can rely on the fact that they are going to be served a great menu. And, of course, a lot of international guests were suddenly interested in us. We are really proud that we got this recognition as a vegetarian restaurant, considering that there are only 4 vegetarian restaurants worldwide (including us) with a Michelin Star.

What is your vision and philosophy regarding Vegetarian Cuisine?

For me, what we do is way beyond just minimizing it to vegetarian cooking. Food is more than just sustenance. Food is about taking responsibility for all the resources and all the hard-working people behind them. Food is about connecting people because it doesn‘t need a specific language – all it needs is a soul.
What I mean is, behind every meal we eat there are people who have been working hard on the ingredients we find on our plate. They have, for example, put a lot of thought in the right soil where they sow the seed. They have experimented with the right timing when to harvest, they went over the top with bringing the products to the restaurant fresh from the farm. And, my team honors their hard work by always trying to use the whole vegetable – from root to leaf – and not throw anything away.

At Tian we have great relationships with our suppliers. We know them, we know their goals; for example, keeping alive old species that are almost extinct. Together we try to keep the variety of nature alive.

I don‘t see what we do as a trend – I see it as a necessity. There would be enough food for everybody on our planet but most of the crops go into industrial farming.

Over the last years, the food industry has taken directions that are not necessarily good for us and our help. Just think about the drugs that are used in intensive mass animal farming. On the long haul, this will destroy our planet. So, we will all have to think a little more about what we eat and what products we buy.

Thank you for sharing your journey and memories through your menu at Vila Joya. I am a romantic and was touched by your story of “Sunset” and “Fava Bean.” Please share with our readers the story and vegetable choices.

I like to be inspired by situations, people, and landscapes. A few years ago I was staying at Vila Joya and was lucky to enjoy the beautiful sunset. It combined all kinds of colors like different shades of red, orange and a little yellow. This picture was stuck in my head and I got inspired to do a dish that reminds me of this sunset.

The dish “Fava Bean” is inspired by my childhood. My grandmother grew beans in her garden and I remember her picking them in summer. Every other weekend I went looking for mushrooms in the woods with my grandfather. We wanted to create a dish with earthy flavors that meet the taste and smell of wood, that is not heavy but lighthearted, and the combination was just perfect.

Vila Joya Sommelier, Arnaud Vallet, paired organic wines with earthy aromas to complement your dishes. He mentioned that this was a difficult job. Why?

Usually, wines are paired with meat or fish. But we don’t have either of those on our plates, so this doesn’t make it easy for sommeliers to pick the right wines. In the restaurant, we put a lot of thought in the wine pairing, because we want our guests to have an incomparable experience. For the most part, we offer natural wines because their nuances complement our dishes very well.

And what are Paul Ivic’s plans for the future?

We will see what the future holds for us. Our number one goal is to clear away the old misconception that vegetarian food tastes boring. People are still a little bit afraid of an 8 or 10-course menu without fish and meat. So we are on a mission here, and it is always a great pleasure when guests that were doubtful in the beginning have a big smile on their face by the end of the evening. That’s when we know, that we did a perfect job.