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Austrian schnitzel joint packs ’em in

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Austrian chef and restaurateur Roman Kriszta with wife Ying and son. Photograph: Michael Scholten

When you think of Austria, you think of the Alps, Mozart, Arnold Schwarzenegger, delicious Sacher tart and huge Viennese schnitzel, with the latter meat specialty being introduced to Siem Reap recently by Austrian Roman Kriszta at his restaurant, Schnitzel Wirtin.

After having cruised around the world twelve times as a baker and cook on several cruise liners, Roman Kriszta dropped anchor in Sihanoukville in 2008 and moved to Siem Reap this year. Within a few weeks his Schnitzel Wirtin diner became a popular hangout for German-speaking expats and other friends of schnitzel or roast pork with homemade sauerkraut.

Roman Kriszta, 41, was born in Hainburg, Austria’s easternmost town, next to Slovakia. He trained as a cook, a baker and a pastry chef, joined the Austrian army, and worked as a luggage loader at Vienna International Airport.

But watching other people on their way to exotic places increased his own wanderlust. Patong Beach in Phuket became his second home, and he worked as a baker for one year in Dubai and six months in Jamaica. “Whenever I applied for jobs at big hotels, I paid the flight ticket by myself and convinced my future bosses by baking bread and cakes for them – they hired me immediately,” Roman Kriszta said.

What’s his secret? “Austrians and Germans are well known for their skills in baking, since we must learn it for three years and use the best ingredients only.”

In 1998 he became a chief baker on the luxury cruise liner Queen Elizabeth 2 and did the job for four years, before he worked in the same position on Queen Mary 2 and for Crystal Cruises.

“I worked on the most famous, the largest and the most luxurious cruise ships in the world,” he said.

He travelled the world, loved Rio de Janeiro, Capetown and Sydney, hated violent Senegal, met Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Arnold Schwarzenegger and enjoyed the team spirit aboard the cruise liners.

But even the best things in life get boring after a while. Hence Roman Kriszta disembarked from Crystal Cruises in Greece, took the next flight to Phuket and relaxed on his favorite beach for three months. He decided to move to Cambodia in 2008,  and opened the first of later five restaurants in Sihanoukville, namely two Schnitzel Wirtin restaurants, the Grillhuette, the Austrian Beergarden,  and the Wiener Heurigen.

“I rented dark places, made them shine and sold them with profit,” Roman said. Then, in June 2012, he married his Thai girlfriend Ying in Bangkok, and, with his two-year-old son Roman junior, moved to Siem Reap, where the family opened Schnitzel Wirtin in a former private house.

The Austrian and the Thai flags on the walls represent the kind of food on the menu: Thai and western food, cooked, roasted and baked by Roman and his wife.

Space is limited to 18 seats, and most guests are expats. “I am desperately looking for a bigger house”, Roman Kriszta said, “But the rents in central Siem Reap are out of proportion.”

His dream is a house with garden, sufficient space for 50 seats and an additional bakery shop. So far he can use the oven of Sun Sothy guesthouse and restaurant three times a week to bake his rye bread, that is sold exclusively to his steady customers. Food favourites are the huge Viennese schnitzels that Roman Kriszta makes from pork instead of traditional veal, since that is not available at Cambodian markets. He serves his specialties with homemade potato salad, French fries or coleslaw and with Cambodian beer, or original Weihenstephan and Beck’s beer from Germany.

His personal favourite dish is beef olive with macaroni and red wine sauce, similar to the ones that his mother made for the family.

Schnitzel Wirtin is between Riviera Hotel and Central Market and open from 11.30am  until late. It’s received 14 “Excellent” and “Very Good” reviews on tripadvisor.com, making it the number 13 of 256 restaurants in Siem Reap. Phone: 099 270 175.

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