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The conductor of culinary symphonies

Every day Leonhard Rainer, the head chef at ADLER Dolomiti, conjures hundredfold happiness onto the plates. He works very much behind the scenes, conducting his team with calm, precision and great creativity.
The welcome is warm, the buffet a feast for the eyes, and every dish a dream. Apart from the attentive service, that is all guests notice during their evening meal. But they can be sure of a culinary experience based on quality, creativity and perfection, from the starters to the desserts. They need not know that outside the dining room and behind the wooden swing door, a complex system of people and processes is running like clockwork – although that is precisely what it all depends on. In the realm of Leonhard Rainer, the conductor behind the swing door, twenty chefs are at work. Each knows what needs to be done, where and with what. Rainer’s kitchen is a world of concentrated activity, with not the slightest sign of chaos. Everything has been done a thousand times before. The setting is reminiscent of a symphony played at a concert. And when the expectant guests stream into the dining room in the evening, the conductor increases the tempo for the next movement. In the midst of this fascinating interaction of bodies, pots and pans, mixers and cookers, Leonhard Rainer is a pole of calm. Strongly built and with his dark hair tied in a pony tail, he gives clear and considered instructions, has his eyes on everything and an ear for everyone. Rainer is the head chef at ADLER Dolomiti and has known the kitchen there for half his life. For over twenty years he has set the rhythm for his ensemble and developed an interesting and varied culinary repertoire. When Leonhard Rainer speaks about his work, there is no stopping him. He discusses in great detail the art of producing pleasures of the palate for hundreds of people or the principles of buying: “The very best quality goes without saying; we buy a lot of regional and Italian produce and only from abroad when absolutely necessary.”

But he does not gloss over the pressure under which a chef works: “The glamour, that’s on the other side of the door, in the dining room.” His kitchen produces four set meals: regional, Italo-international, vegetarian and the ADLER Highlights, with soups, terrines, pasta, fish, meat and desserts. That makes twenty dishes and more every evening. Culinary art in series. And when guests ask for lobster or venison goulash, they get it – usually for that meal or on the next day at the latest. “We rarely have to say ‘no’,” says Rainer. “And we apply the same high standard to all our dishes, including simple things like spaghetti with pesto. Our guests like the variety.” As head chef, Leonhard Rainer could hardly have found a better place to work. “I like both South Tyrolean and Italian cuisine,” he says. For him, north and south, hearty Alpine fare and light Mediterranean dishes are “a perfect combination” – and a source of great variety; Rainer and the second chef, Daniele Gaudiello, are constantly developing new creations. The two men obviously harmonise: the South Tyrolean and the South Italian from the region of Campania. “In that regard I’m completely open-minded,” says Rainer, and he adds, “That’s modern cuisine; that’s how it should be.”

Cooking has been a part of his life since he was a young child. On his parents’ farm in Novale di Basso near Vipiteno, every- one had a part to play. Leonhard, the seventh of ten children, helped bring in the vegetables, slaughter an animal and feed or milk the cows. He also helped cook barley broth, smoked meat and ravioli with spinach for guests staying in their holiday apartment. “We didn’t have any good schools to go to, but we learnt a lot of common sense,” he says. At the age of fifteen, he went to help out at the Berghotel Hohe Gaisl, which his sisters were running. At half past six in the morning he would travel from Alta Pusteria at 1986 metres above sea-level down to the valley bottom and collect the bread for breakfast. The work usually kept him busy until midnight. In the first year he did not have a single day off between June and the middle of November. After that he began an apprenticeship as a cook, which he completed under Andreas Gfader in Gasthof Ansitz Fonteklaus, one of the best-known restaurants in South Tyrol. “That was a challenge,” says Rainer. “If I’d not grown up used to hard work, I doubt whether I would have managed it.” When the Fonteklaus closed temporarily in 1991, Leonhard Rainer hired on for the summer season at the ADLER in Ortisei. After just two weeks, the head chef promoted the 19-year-old to head saucier with responsibility for the hot and cooked main dishes and the sauces. “The ADLER was already very well known in those days, and it was an honour to work there.”

So Rainer set about proving that he had deserved his promotion. And wore himself out in the process. After a few years he felt he needed a break. There followed various positions in Bressanone, Bibione, Munich and Hamburg before he obtained his first post as head chef at Ansitz Heufler in Anterselva. In 1999 he returned to the ADLER in the same position. In the meantime, the culinary standard there was higher than ever before, and the hotel always full to bursting. “Up to 200 guests in an evening is no problem,” says Rainer, “but 250 makes it more difficult, and 280 or even 300 is extremely demanding.”

That is illustrated by the fact that ADLER Dolomiti has four regular chefs in the kitchen just to handle requests for alternative dishes to the set meals, including French fries, Wiener schnitzel and sole – plus vegan and gluten-free requirements and food prepared specially for allergy sufferers. From 7 a.m. to at least 10.30 p.m., there is practically always something cooking in the kitchen. But the position of head chef involves more than that: organisation, personnel management and also stress management. “The best chef is not always the best cook. He has to be able to lead and motivate a team. He must be able to spot and foster talent and also to combine discipline with the right degree of freedom,” Rainer explains. As he puts it, a conductor can only be as good as the orchestra. Rainer is accordingly generous with praise for both his colleague Gaudiello and for Claudio Munno, who has been working at his side with responsibility for the hors d’oeuvres for twelve years now. And he listens to the suggestions made by the junior chefs and apprentices. He involves his team when he wants to make changes or completely revamp a dish. And he invites award-winning chefs to seminars held in Ortisei with the objective of generating new ideas. “In the old days a meatloaf was made the way it had always been made, and woe betide the chef who tried to do things differently.” In the past, the head chef would shout and rage if a pan of pasta fell off the stove. “But things don’t work that way anymore,” says Rainer, and he adds: “But I would always want to become a chef. Even more so today. The job is now quite different from what it was.”