An Austrian Mixologist Takes D.C.

Cocktail connoisseur Stefan Trummer imports his arts from Styria to the United States

News | Jessica Spiegel | April 2013

Shedding his role as restaurant owner to get behind the bar, Trummer indulges in his true passion (Photo: Thomas Seyoum)

The arts of Austrian gastronomy are unfamiliar to much of the wider world. Its cuisine and spirits are known mostly among connoisseurs, while its restaurants sprout gracefully from a wistful past that ignores faddish whims. But Austrian gastronomes – born with an epicurean fervor that courses through family veins – have flung this finesse to the far corners of the globe.

One of these is Stefan Trummer. The boyish 35-year-old Austrian sits graciously in a corner of his Washington, D.C.–area restaurant, Trummer’s on Main, as guests shuffle into the behemoth 19th century building. Trummer’s 15-year hiatus in the U.S. has scarcely eroded his rhythmic Styrian accent, much less his rural Austrian warmth, and an unreserved glimmer dances from his eyes as he talks about his craft.

"Mixologist" – one who makes cocktails – is the fashionable title for what he does best. "Bar chef" was the term used back when he and several colleagues reinvented cocktail-making in New York in the early 2000s, transforming the land of fruity tiki drinks to a bastion of artistic creations worthy of the finest cuisinier.

The wild card from Wildon

It takes some effort to imagine Trummer as a rebellious pubescent who despised restaurants. "I hated it!" he laughs, remembering working as a teenager at his parents’ Gasthaus in Wildon, 30 kilometres south of Graz.

But years later, it’s clear that the passion for excellence was in him –Trummer’s on Main was just awarded "Best American Restaurant" by the Washingtonian, a publication for D.C.’s elite – and shared by his siblings; his older brother Albert made it big in the New York City cocktail scene with his alchemy-inspired bar, the Apothèke, and has since left New York to start a similar concept in Miami after charges of "unlawful and dangerous actions" behind the bar. There was a lot of fire involved.

The younger brother’s more subtle artistry may be the result of a brutally rigorous start in the industry.

"Remember Karate Kid, when the boy isn’t allowed to do anything but polish cars?" Trummer asks, still grinning. "That was me."

After graduating from the prestigious culinary school at Bad Gleichenberg, winning his first and only cocktail competition and working his way through several 5-star resort jobs – and being cursed, castigated and even kicked by tyrannical bosses – Trummer made his way to the Big Apple via a cocktail shack in Bermuda. There he landed a job at Citarella, one the chicest Manhattan restaurants at the time.

His first year in the U.S., "it was all about making money," he says with faded irritation.   "I was working with carpenters and teachers just trying to make an extra dollar. And here I came – heated, full of passion – I actually ran into trouble because I pushed too hard."

In Austria, the restaurant world is not a job – it’s a lifestyle. This becomes abundantly clear to anyone who enters the dark-paneled elegance of a Viennese coffeehouse; stately tuxedo-clad waiters rule their gastronomical kingdoms. High-end Gasthöfe like Trummer’s parents’ stay proudly in the family for generations. Trummer coped with the culture shock by moving up the food chain as quickly as possible; he soon became bar manager at Bouley, a favourite among New York’s well-heeled.

It was there that Trummer’s knack for cocktail-making was catapulted into mastery. "I went on shopping trips with the chef to Chinatown… I was exposed to ingredients I’d never heard of." Kumquats, mandarin orange oil, aloe, lots of fruit purées – Trummer learned to compose sensuous symphonies with humble instruments.

From there, Trummer landed on the fast path to prominence. His drinks were featured in the New York Times, Newsweek and every industry publication of the day. He has been called a "restless futurist," a "mixological Kraftwerk," a "barista extraordinaire."

After a narrow miss on a chance to have his own TV show, Trummer managed several other restaurants frequented by the rich and famous, opened a beach bar in Long Island, and designed cocktails for Dietrich Mateschitz’s Hangar 7, the Red Bull guru’s lavish locale in Salzburg. It was during these years that he married a former Citarella colleague from Clifton, Virginia, where he opened Trummer’s on Main.

When asked about the theory behind his techniques, Trummer’s answer is as forthright as his small-town humility. "It’s not about a particular style," he says confidently. "It’s about being as creative as possible. I never want to stop learning and using new ideas."

The unintentional ambassador

The fine-dining fare at Trummer’s on Main is unmistakably American, but infused with an Austrian essence; seared salmon on Spätzle, for example, and red cabbage when in season. Trummer hopes to one day open an Austrian-style brasserie with foods that he loved as a child.

Walking through his dense wine cellar, he points excitedly to the signature red-white-red-covered corks of his Austrian selection.

"If it was up to me, they would all be Austrian," he says, affectionately picking up a grüner Veltliner from the Netzl winery of Carnuntum. He would also have an Austrian string quartet at his weekly wine tastings, playing a native tune for each new wine.

But his homeland may not need him as a missionary: More than 10 Austrian restaurants have burgeoned in Manhattan alone over the past decade, Trummer informs proudly, and a new generation of "ego-driven" Austrian vintners are producing better and more competitive wines.

But what about Schnaps, the gloriously potent Digestiv that is conspicuously absent outside of Central Europe?

"Schnaps represents a lifestyle, not a beverage," Trummer says with philosophical seriousness. "In Austria, it’s part of the celebration of the good life. This is difficult to translate – if you could translate it, it could catch on here."

There are surely many aspects of Austrian life that can never be converted, but for those that can be arranged on a plate or poured in a cocktail glass, Austria has Trummer as an unintentional ambassador. Taking time out from management duties, he worked behind the bar to make his trademarked concoction: the Titanic.

Grapes are muddled with a giant wooden club, shaken with Cîroc vodka and Trummer’s elderflower "secret sauce" (not to us: it’s Holundersaft) strained over champagne sorbet and topped with Prosecco.

Here words fail.

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