Michi Ploner: Cooking world champion, junior manager, economist

“Cooking is one thing, but running an enterprise is a different thing. It’s getting more and more difficult to take over a business. For this reason you should prepare for it by studying business management”, says Michael Ploner. The young man who’s normally called Michi chose an accompanying course of studies he could pursue after work and during the mid-season. The Tyrolean is 26 years old and junior manager in the Alpen-Comfort-Hotel in Nauders which is owned by his parents. In 2016 Michi Ploner was Austrian state champion and in 2018 world champion as a member of the Austrian national cook team (Culinary World Cup in Luxemburg).

“I’m deeply rooted here in this region. This plays an important role in my career plans and in my everyday life”, says Michi Ploner who already worked in Bangkok, in Copenhagen and with German and international leading chefs. “I’m always looking forward to getting home. I’m a passionate mountain biker and in our area there are bike trails as far as the eye can reach. That makes my head free and room for new ideas.”

In the world-famous NOMA in Copenhagen he took hours to collect herbage and wild ingredients in the wood. “They didn’t have to buy anything during the winter. Everything was pickled, frozen and conserved. That inspired me a lot. Here we also have all sorts of meadow herbs and other cool stuff nobody knows. This is regional cuisine, but on a different level.” Michi Ploner thinks further ahead: “In my opinion sustainable tourism starts with cooking. On the plate you just find what grows here at this time or was conserved here months ago. We don’t serve ice-cream with fresh strawberries in wintertime!”

As if to proof this he mixes a gin larch smash. He reveals that this is his favourite drink at the moment. “Some months ago we sweet pickled young larch cones. Just infuse the syrup with some good gin and tonic and it’s ready!” The fascinating thing about Michi Ploner is his mixture of down-to-earth tradition, know-how, cooking talent and naturally the analytic mindset of the economist.

Michi Ploner: “Gastro needs motivated employees and clients who are ready to pay an appropriate price”

According to a study waiter is the most unattractive job in Austria. In Michi Ploner’s opinion this can be put down to irregular working hours and workload peaks, for example before Christmas. Partially there is an outdated image of insufficient labour rights in the heads, he says. The situation is far from being perfect, but it isn’t either right to badmouth everything blindly. For Michi Ploner gastronomy is the best job in the world. Nevertheless the Corona situation is a blow for the whole scene – especially in typical holiday and tourism regions like Tyrol. “What’s the best regional dish good for – whether inn or award-winning gastronomy – if nobody is allowed to get here?”

In the future, that means after Corona, it will be important to find motivated employees and clients who are ready to pay an appropriate price for quality. The salary level is increasing constantly, an adequate development because of the work quality of most of the employees. Nevertheless especially small enterprises couldn’t pay higher salaries before Corona due to the high non-wage labour costs. Michi Ploner: “The manpower already accounts for more than 35% of the average revenues. It isn’t a matter of gastronomers who don’t want to pay higher wages, but they just can’t afford it.”

Michi Ploner himself grew up in his family’s hotel and appreciated and loved it as he says. The good cuisine including butter, eggs, onions and his favourite dish “Paunzen” (potato dough fried in clarified butter) with apple puree his grandfather always cooked for him. It was his grandfather as well who taught him his first recipe and at the age of five years he was already allowed to delight the guests with his flambé pancakes.

Already as a teenager Michi Ploner had great plans

“During my apprenticeship the point was the general gastronomy. Cooking wasn’t enough for me.” That’s why he extended his knowledge at the age of 15 together with his schoolmate Thomas Penz and his trainer and friend Philipp Stohner. “Our cooking team still exists”, Michi Ploner says (Penz was also a member of the world champion team of 2018).

Working at international places, among them NOMA in Copenhagen or Johann Lafer’s Stromburg he got to know the star-studded cuisine. “But haute cuisine is different from hotel cuisine. Hand grips in haute cuisine and in a traditional inn or restaurant are different. If one is good at one of the two cuisines this doesn’t mean automatically he’s good at the other one. At the end good food is the most important thing although this is a very extensive term that includes the three-star menue and the perfect dumplings of the inn.” There’s only one thing he can’t stand: If guests aren’t able to distinguish between passionate cuisine and mediocre convenience food.

At the moment Michi Ploner does everything what a junior manager is supposed to do in a family-run business: working as a cook and waiter and studying. “It’s diversified and I like that!” For the future he would like to see more focus on regionality, seasonality and quality, but yet this isn’t concrete. “The future will come early enough and plans always change – because of Corona for example. I just see what’s going to happen. Life is no schnitzel, but it’s beautiful anyway!”