Resident: Maria und Joesf Steffner
Photographer Bernhard Müller in conversation with Maria and Josef Steffner, owners of the gourmet restaurant Mesnerhaus in Mauterndorf
Josef Steffner born 1979 in Mauterndorf, Maria Steffner born 1979 in Maria Pfarr.
“We Lungauers are doers”
How has your life been until today and how did you come to Mauterndorf?
Josef: I was born in Mauterndorf and my wife is from Maria Pfarr. My parents had an inn in Mauterndorf and my grandmother also ran an inn, my uncle does that now.
Maria: We have a farm at home in Maria Pfarr, which my sister took over. I really wanted to learn how to cook, so I learned how to cook in the Mesnerhaus in 1995 and then worked there until 2000. Then I went to Austria for a while and worked abroad in Switzerland. I was all alone in Switzerland, Josef was also in St. Christoph in Switzerland, and we met more often and fell in love and have been together for 22 years. When the previous tenant offered us the sacristan’s house 15 years ago, we opened it on 4 July 2007. On 5 July I wanted to lock up again, it was not so pleasant on the first day.
Josef: The first two years were very hard!
Maria: It was extremely hard!
Josef: Our people there are very hard on you and at 27 you are not yet so stable, we were always employed, you don’t know the economic background yet. I was always in the kitchen, my wife was in service and then retrained as a wine sommelier. When you open up, you get to know the other sides of the business. We had many loyal regulars from our predecessor and we are now the first owners to run the Mesnerhaus. We were very sensitive at the beginning and then realised how brutal people can be. But we persevered and after two years the tide turned. After three years we had the opportunity to buy the house and then things really took off. When you own something, you naturally have a different energy.
Maria: It’s always been a gourmet restaurant, now it’s not such a problem anymore, now everyone is young who starts their own business, even if you look at all the start-ups today, and 20 years ago it wasn’t like that.
Josef: We just changed the concept here and many guests didn’t agree with it, maybe we were too brash. If I were to do it again today, I would do it more gently and slowly. Guests criticised us a lot and after we got the third bonnet, they said “we always knew that”. That’s funny, isn’t it? Of course, the Mesnerhaus also lives from regular guests and at the beginning that was difficult because we don’t live in a prime location, the Lungau and Mauterndorf are very beautiful, but you are a bit out of the way. But at the moment it’s also trendy. We don’t have such a large catchment area and you have to be in a good economic position to survive here.
What motivated you to return to Mauterndorf after living abroad?
Josef: Well, in the past there were always the in-between seasons and then you come back home and meet up with your friends and acquaintances. In the Lungau it was always either too warm or too cold, but when you were abroad, for example in Spain, where you can’t sleep at night because it’s so warm, where you can’t just drink the water, where there’s crime, we don’t have any of that. If we had stayed in Switzerland, you’d be a foreigner for three days, you’re just not integrated, if you can put it that way.
Maria: And that’s just at home. And we were also lucky, because we negotiated for 8 years until we got the house next door, and where we are now, it’s all new. We now have 7 rooms there and that is our breakthrough. At the weekends we are very busy because of the rooms.
Josef: Because of the exposed location, the guest comes and asks, of course, what do I do there now, I can eat and drink well, one or the other bottle of wine, and then it is scarce to go home and now the guest can combine it with skiing or hiking the next day, with us you can do a lot. But we are not a classic hotel where you stay for a week, we sell the table with the room and the room fills the restaurant, so to speak.
Maria: We got so many regulars last year because of that. It is very personal with us. The guests also say that they don’t meet so many people in any other restaurant. Last year we were open on Christmas and New Year’s Eve for the first time and really thought about how we could do that. For example, we had a kitchen party and the guests from the New Year’s Eve gala dinner all sat together the next day and many guests are now networked with each other. But that’s the best thing, no matter how well Josef cooks and how good my service is, if people don’t understand each other, it doesn’t help. And you’re kind of proud when it all works out and you bring people together.
Josef: Of course, guests also say to us, if you were in Munich, for example, we would come much more often. Then maybe you’d have more business and you’d quickly become trendy, but tomorrow another restaurant would be trendy and in five minutes no one would know you anymore. In the city, the same people who come to us are, I would say, more superficial, and with us they feel at home and are more relaxed.
Are the people here in Lungau more open?
Maria: You are absolutely right. You have to say that we Lungau people are very hard-working. There are companies that say I’m so happy to have a Lungauer in the company. We Lungauers are already doers. We are proud that we are Lungauer.
Do you get your products for the kitchen mainly from the Lungau region?
Josef: We have always done so because of our history, because it has always been important to us and it is easier to get the products. But it is also a challenge to find the right farmer who understands this. Unlike wine growers, who are the simplest farmers, who produce something and then like to drink it themselves and know that it has to taste good, dairy farmers have almost forgotten that, they produce milk and don’t even know why. Accordingly, it is our task to find farmers who also have a philosophy and can identify with us. Of course, we get all our meat and game from the Lungau. You always have to be behind it, no one has ever come by themselves.
What do you see as the great cultural value of the Lungau?
Maria: For me it’s the peace and quiet and that everything is so beautiful, the nature, that the houses are so nice and well-kept. Everyone greets you. I’m not from Mauterndorf, but I love to walk through the village and feel so comfortable, it also has an Italian touch with the narrow streets. There are also so many young people who do something and come back again. And that’s culture for me.
Josef: I don’t belong to any clubs, but the fact that there are still traditional clubs like the shooting clubs and the music clubs and many others is a cultural asset. On the other hand, there’s also the unenclosed, like the jazz things they do. The same goes for the intact nature, the sports facilities. If you compare it to Leogang, for example, there are great hotels there, but somehow they are too pompous. The people of Lungau have to find a middle ground, we don’t need resorts with 1000 beds, but good family businesses where everyone does something different. And that’s what makes the Lungau interesting.