Thomas Brandner

Thomas Brandner

Nenad's First Apostle

The Austrian Thomas Brandner is one of the most important cogs in the wheel of Nenad Mlinarevic and Valentin Diem's gastronomic empire. As head chef at the «Bauernschänke» in Zurich, he operates in the background and ensures high standards every day.

The «Bauernschänke» has been a culinary hotspot in Zurich's Niederdorf for over four years. The figurehead: Nenad Mlinarevic. But the chef who once had 18 Gault Millau points to his name does not cook himself. He leaves that to someone else: Thomas Brandner is the man behind the scenes. Brandner is not shy, but he doesn't put himself centre-stage either. He manages the daily business, and represents his boss and mentor in such a way that it makes no difference to the guests. «When I feel comfortable in a place, I run the business as if it were my own,» says Brandner.

And Thomas Brandner feels very comfortable. Despite the tiny kitchen, where his team works back to back. Familiar, homely, personal. That’s how the Austrian likes it. Thomas grew up in Carinthia, where his grandparents ran an inn. «I loved it when grandma lit the wood-fired oven. I cooked with her, baked biscuits or made blackcurrant juice, even as a child. And when I'm back home today, I always go to grandma's for lunch,» Brandner says. He did his apprenticeship in a restaurant serving traditional fare, and was later repeatedly drawn to the 5-star Arlberg Hospiz Hotel. He worked for Heinz Winkler in Aschau, Bavaria, for eight months and for Hubertus Real in Liechtenstein for just under two years. He first came to Zurich to cook with Antonio Colaianni's team at the «Mesa».

Free rein to concoct the dishes

The Konro grill is hot, it is smoking like mad, Thomas Brandner is putting the finishing touches to the steak. It will be served with a marinated lettuce with herb cream, tarragon butter, some jus and a grilled lemon. The sourdough bread with an ever-changing dip is practically part of the furniture. The king mackerel is marinated and doused in a truffle dashi. Brandner combines the porcini mushrooms with labneh and Jerusalem artichokes. In the Bauernschänke, the food which ends up on people's plates is for sharing. The sharing concept has proved successful. Nenad Mlinarevic set the style from the outset, Thomas Brandner now implements it as he sees fit. «Nenad gives me free rein with the menu. But if I have questions or get stuck with a dish, he is always there. Nenad is my phone-a-friend lifeline! I only have to tell him a few ingredients and he immediately knows what to add to the plate.»

Nenad and Thomas were an instant, mutual match. The two met for the first time at the Arlberg Hospiz Hotel. «Nenad was a guest chef and I participated in a competition for young chefs. Nenad found my dishes by far the best.» A few months later, Nenad had new positions to fill, and Brandner moved to Lake Lucerne to cook with the team at the «Focus» restaurant in the Park Hotel Vitznau. «On my third day there, Nenad was awarded 'Chef of the Year'.» A tough time was to follow. The restaurant was permanently booked out, and assembling the dishes with tweezers was new territory for Brandner. But the Austrian fought his way through, was promoted and has been at Nenad's side ever since.

I feel comfortable in a place, I run the business as if it were my own

Thomas Brandner

New challenge, old boss

Even when Nenad Mlinarevic left the Park Hotel Vitznau, Brandner moved with him. He was Nenad's sidekick at various pop-ups and the first choice when it came to designating a head chef for the «Bauernschänke». Brandner jokingly refers to himself as «Nenad's first apostle». If one disregards the religious dimension and the fact that Nenad does not consider himself to be the Messiah, the comparison is not so wrong. Thomas represents his boss's values like no other, conveys them to the guests and has the same high standards for himself, his staff and the quality of the products. And that is not expected to change any time soon. Brandner is also working on Nenad Mlinarevic and Valentin Diem's next project, the opening of the «Neumarkt» in November. And for the mega-project in Zurich's main station (end of 2023), he is to take on the role of Executive Chef. When asked if he doesn't dream of doing his own thing, Thomas says "No" surprisingly quickly and clearly. End of story.

Text: Kathia Baltisberger, Photos: Olivia Pulver

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