The face behind the plate: Paul Ivic’s personal journey to creating Michelin-star menus
As Chef de Cuisine of a Michelin-star and three Gault-Millau toques vegetarian restaurant, Paul Ivić creates edible excellence that both fulfills and inspires. Yet his pathway to culinary achievement was not linear, nor was it predictable. On a snowy weekday afternoon, I sat down with Paul at his successful establishment, Tian Restaurant Vienna, to discuss his personal journey to crafting award-winning cuisine.
Paul’s passion for quality produce was piqued through his upbringing when he was exposed to his grandparents’ habits of living off their land. He witnessed his elders’ utmost respect in tending to their animals and plants to subsequently realize his responsibility to think more broadly about treating nature with compassion. He says, “If it’s your own animal or your own garden, you never want to poison it. You never want to stress it. You want to live with them, the way they are, the animals, and you have a lot of respect for them… The garden’s alive, the animals are alive, and also the people around you are alive.”
Despite his childhood experience with food, Paul did not always know that he wanted to become a chef. At the young age of 14, he was forced to choose which career path would be best suited for him. All that he was sure of at the time was his aversion from textbook learning and his love of food.
Paul discovered his talent for the trade as he found his way into working with top chefs who taught him the true meaning of quality. As he moved up the culinary ranks in the culinary scene of Berlin, Paul kept his value for quality close to heart. The desire for quality was continuously echoed by his superiors, but budgetary constraints often restricted him from bringing his best work to the table. Paul recalls his frustration, stating, “If you tell me you want to be the best, I will try it, and if anyone says to me they want the best quality, then I will give the best quality. Most of the companies tell you that, but they need (to do it on a) lower budget.”
Paul’s passion for quality was not his only need that was left unfulfilled in his early culinary days. His physical health also took a toll through the extreme stress of restaurant industry work. He explains, “I had a lot of pressure because I started always at 6 am, I ended always at 1 am, 6 -7 days a week, 5 years without holidays.” As paradoxical as it may seem given his extensive time spent working with fine foods, his frenetic work schedule left him little time to eat proper meals. His lifestyle took a toll on his body, leaving him with a devastating diagnosis of heart disease at the young age of 32.
This diagnosis served as a wakeup call for Paul to reevaluate his world as it began crumbling down. He explains, “When you are very sick, you have to think about your life. You have to change something. You can go with the doctors or you go your own way.” Rather than fall into the medicated grip of conventional care, Paul chose to rise by adopting a healthier lifestyle. He carved out lasting eating habits that are inspired by quality rather than deprivation through adherence to labels of “vegan” or “vegetarian”. He explains, “Now, I think my diet is 80% plants and 20% animal food, but 100% best quality. Without hormones, without antibiotics, without herbicides, without pesticides or GMOs.”
With the onset of disease, Paul also redirected his career to widely promote wellness. He states of his reevaluation and profound realization, “For me there were 2 things that were important: I never want to work with assholes anymore; and I want to go down new paths.” For Paul, this unbeaten path was a fundamental calling to bring fine plant-based foods to the meat-heavy mouths of Austrians.
Paul explains his motivation for delving into the once-barely-existent Viennese vegetarian scene, stating, “I thought okay, I want to try it because in Austria, the vegetarian food is very boring. Sometimes it’s awful because nobody understands that we are working with the nature. And the nature isn’t boring. The nature has wonderful flavors.”
Despite his confidence in his ability to deliver nature’s bounty, Paul was dissuaded from going down the plant-based route. Friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in the culinary world upbraided his apparent naiveté, warning him that vegetarian grub could never be truly respected in Vienna. He says, “They told me never are you going to become a Michelin-star (chef) with a vegetarian restaurant.”
Paul faced a multitude of trials, tribulations, and critical judgements in Tian’s early days. He says, “It was hard work because when we started, no real cook wanted to spend time in a vegetarian ‘burger bar’ place.” He encountered challenges in hiring reputable staff, in convincing existing staff of his plant-based philosophy, and in earning sufficient profit from the salads and sparkling waters that his primarily women early clientele tended to purchase. Yet Paul jumped these hurdles one-by-one as they habitually arose, relying on his moral compass to guide him through the daily deluge of disappointment.
One plate of plant-based excellence at a time, the world warmed up to Paul’s once-radical culinary philosophy. With each innovative and outstanding vegetarian meal, Paul dispelled the preconceived notions of his closed-minded critics. Every bite served as a miraculous manifesto that rightfully convinced its eaters that food is more than sustenance; that food should work with nature’s treasures; that food should be an expression of self-worth; that food should be an indulgence of sensory expression; and that food is a means to nourish human connection.
Three Gault-Millau toques and a Michelin-star later, and society was officially awakened to Paul’s ethical edible expression of his philosophy. Yet his work is far from complete. Paul hopes that his gourmet culinary works of art can inspire us to surround ourselves with quality, to nourish the planet, and to cherish our connections with one another. This message of compassion for humanity rings true especially amidst global political tensions of the modern era. Paul explains, “We have so many conflicts around the world, but food usually connects people. Look to the politics in Austria, oh Austria is important… Yeah, but a lot of spices (in Austrian cooking) are not Austrian. And when the people understand that we have different cultures who made our food, I think they will understand that the conflicts are not necessary. We do not have to be frightened of strangers.”
Through the melting pot that makes our many contemporary food cultures, we taste the truth. With this understanding, the lines between national foodways start to soften, and interpersonal tensions may begin to thaw. Paul uses his passion for gourmet plates of holistic nature as his weapon of choice over bullets, bloodshed, or political perversion. He unleashes his force by inspiring his patrons to pursue their collective creation of a world of quality, from our individual bodies to the people around us to the natural environment that surrounds us.
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