20th October 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin
20th October 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin
Konstantin is perhaps the brightest of Vienna’s rising food stars. When he opened his eponymous restaurant in 2013, it gave the city’s sleepy dining scene a genuine jolt, sweeping away fusty traditions in favour of a more experimental, outward-looking approach to fine dining – and when you meet the bearlike 36-year-old you see where all the energy came from. (He attributes his passion to the Greek side of his family.) Manuela, who had no restaurant experience before she went into business with her husband, seems more cool and collected at first but it becomes clear that she, too, can get very impassioned about food and wine.
At home, a cosy attic apartment in the Alsergrund district, Konstantin does most of the cooking (Manuela’s specialty is bolognese). Today he’s making a salad of pear, white asparagus and smoked Austrian char. It’s about the best early-summer dish you can possibly imagine – light, fresh, subtly indulgent – though it’s just one element in the magnificent spread of cured meats, cheeses, fruit and caviar they’ve laid out for us. We sense that this is not the first time breakfast has drifted into lunch at this table, with wine and good chat to ease the transition from one meal to the next. But who are we to resist? With good grace and almost saintlike forbearance, we submit to their generosity.
Konstantin: My father and my mother both like to cook, but they are not in the restaurant business. We spent a lot of time in Greece and I remember we’d drive three or four hours to a restaurant to have the best squid, or the best langoustine. My mother likes to cook Austrian stuff all the time, and my father likes to cook all the Greek stuff.
Konstantin: Yes, my father moved to Graz in the 60s or 70s to study engineering. And then he sees my mum and says, “Wow” [laughs] and stays in Austria. Anyway, they like to cook all the time, so the main place at home was not the living room, it was the kitchen. There was always a big table there. And now, when we are looking for a new flat, we have to find somewhere with a table in the kitchen, or right next to it.
Konstantin: I was helping a lot. When I was seven or eight, I made nice pancakes. My father would always do French fries in olive oil and all my school friends would always come over.
Manuela: Because of the French fries.
Konstantin: They were used to French fries from McDonalds, but he did it all by hand with good olive oil, very crispy. So I grew up with good food and that’s why I wanted very early to work with food. My mother wanted me to train to be a chef in the countryside, because she thinks the city is dangerous, maybe, so I trained in a hotel in Filzmoos [Hotel Unterhof] where the head chef was very good. I learned to do less fancy stuff like how to butcher whole animals and make sausages. Things that most chefs now don’t know how to do.
Konstantin: Yes, of course. We weren’t working with caviar and lobster, we learned to work with what we had around us. And we learned not to waste things. At our restaurant now, we’re very careful not to waste food, water, anything. It’s the most important thing. Maybe it’s a little bit old-fashioned, but…
Manuela: It’s also very new-fashioned. Sustainability is the word of the day.
Manuela: No, actually. I studied English and communication at university and I worked in a PR agency for a very long time.
Manuela: Not even close – I was working in external PR for Google in Austria for six years. I did a lot of businesses, trade, completely different stuff.
Food basically rules our life. Our whole life is organised around what to eat next, where to get the best bread. All our travel is organised around food.
Manuela: Yeah, more or less. And I’m still learning.
Manuela: I grew up in the countryside, the youngest of four kids, and our mum was always at home taking care of us. She cooked for us every day. It wasn’t particularly healthy, or stylish, but everything was homemade. Like for breakfast, we would have Gugelhupf [Austrian bundt cake]… But that changed when I came to Vienna for university. In a city you don’t have any money, everything has to be quick. I had three jobs at the same time to keep everything going and I lost the connection to good food for a really long time.
Manuela: When I finished university and started my first job. We were travelling with the Slow Food Guide, going to all these cool places in Italy and stuff…
Konstantin: With your ex-boyfriend.
Manuela: Yeah [laughs]. But I was always meeting people who shared this passion and it came back… We’ve been together for 10 years now and I can’t even think about what life was before. It was funny: when we met and Konstantin first visited me at my place, we were talking the whole afternoon and we got hungry I said, “Okay, I don’t have anything to eat at home”. It was a Sunday so everything was closed. And he’s like, “Oh, could I have a peek into your fridge and cupboards?” I said, “Yeah you can, but there’s nothing”. And then he made three courses out of nothing. And I was like, “Oh my god!”
Konstantin: We had pasta.
Manuela: Yeah. I remember that I had a lot of olive oil in my house, but after the three courses I had no olive oil. I had never seen anyone using so much oil to prepare food. So this was a very important part of Konstantin’s life: olive oil.
“There are maybe two places you can get good Kasekreiner [Austrian cheese sausage] – everywhere else, you die after.”
Konstantin and Manuela on their favourite food places in Vienna
Manuela: Yeah, he was very happy that I had Kalamata olives because his father is from Kalamata. And he was very happy that the olive oil was from Greece and not from Italy or Spain.
Konstantin: I’m crazy – a little bit – about that sort of stuff [see Things].
Manuela: And I had spring onions and a bit of crème fraiche – and you made a wonderful pasta.
Manuela: I was. And ever since that day 10 years ago, food has basically ruled our life. Our whole life is organised around what to eat next, where to get the best bread. All our travel is organised around food. Before, I was always good at organising the cultural part of travelling. And now it’s always good restaurants. All our friends, before they go on a trip, they call us asking where to go. At some point we thought we’d make a business out of it. I’m sure it’s the same with you, right?
Manuela: So everybody’s calling: “I’m going to Stockholm, where do I go to eat?” I have a twin sister who is a lawyer and she’s doing a lot of city trips. She’s always happy, sending us pictures, really proud that she found a spot that Konstantin recommended.
Manuela: Where did we not have any great meals?
Konstantin: Do you remember the first time when we went to Spain?
Manuela: Oh my god.
Konstantin: I said, Let’s go…
Manuela: …to Barcelona.
Konstantin: And she was like, “No problem”.
Manuela: He said, “Okay, I want to go here, here, here and here.” And I had no idea because we had known each other only half a year. So I started organising and realised that most of the places where he wanted to eat were outside of Barcelona. Okay, so why not do lunch-dinner-lunch-dinner and then we’re done with that and we can drive to the city? But I had no idea that we would have 16 courses for lunch, and then 16 courses for dinner. And this went on for three days!
Manuela: I was dead. And at the last one, with Carme Ruscalleda at Sant Pau, she served offal, which I don’t eat. There’s not too many things I don’t eat, but I can’t eat offal. I didn’t even have the chance to pretend that I could finish this dish. And all of a sudden half of the kitchen staff was at our table asking if something was wrong. And I said no, just, I’m done with eating.
Konstantin: At the first restaurant we went to, the guy served us 14 courses of different types of gelatine. Too much gelatine – everywhere in every dish – and Manuela was like…
Manuela: “Is this what food is all about?”
Konstantin: But the next day we had lunch at Can Fabes. And it was…
Manuela: It was the best experience.
Konstantin: Santi Santamaria was there and he was super. And the food was very good. I remember this dish he did with mashed potatoes, sous-vide pork belly, white wine sauce and caviar [makes exploding noise]. Crazy dish!
Manuela: After this trip I learned how to organise food trips with Konstantin.
At the first restaurant we went to, the guy served us 14 courses of different types of gelatine. Gelatine in every dish and Manuela was like: “Is this what food is all about?”
Manuela: He was perfectly fine.
Konstantin: No [laughs]. That’s not the truth, that’s not the truth.
Manuela: In Barcelona we didn’t use the bus, we were walking all the time [laughs].
Konstantin: I remember one time I was with my friends in Strasbourg and we had a heavy lunch with pork and sauerkraut. And then we went to this old-fashioned three-Michelin-star restaurant and they cooked us all the old stuff, like sardines in aspic. And I remember afterwards my friends said, “Oh let’s go to a pub or disco”. And the food was here [puts hand to neck] and I just exploded. In every direction. I was sick and fucked. Too much foie gras. Boom.
Manuela: We’re off Saturday and Sunday, and the most important thing on our days off is breakfast.
Konstantin: When we invite people, we start with breakfast, and then we make hot dishes and then it’s on to champagne… And then it’s one o’clock.
Manuela: On the weekends, yes. In the week we have something quick – maybe an egg, a slice of bread, or maybe cornflakes. When we’re at home and we’re tired, it’s basically about comfort food.
Konstantin: I really want to say that Manuela makes the best bolognese.
Konstantin: So there’s always bolognese in the freezer. Coming home: bolognese, TV, black pumpkin seed salad. It reminds me always of my childhood, what my mum would make.
Manuela: Before we had our own restaurant it was different. We had a lot of invitations and we did a lot of cooking.
Konstantin: Back then we’d always do a whole chicken or a rib-eye steak in the oven, everything on the table… Not so much these days.
“I don’t really like fancy knives. For me a knife has to be really practical. In the kitchen I always have one small knife, one medium, one big – no more.”
Konstantin on his favourite kitchen objects
Konstantin: When we opened three years ago, it was a really hard time. Nobody believed in us. We didn’t get investors for either of the restaurants. We had been speaking with a bank for half a year, and the day that we ordered everything and signed everything up on the contract, a small email arrives…
Manuela: Just one line.
Konstantin: “We won’t do it. We don’t believe in the project.” It was a hard day, right?
Manuela: Many hard days.
Konstantin: But in the end I said, “Okay, let’s continue”. If people didn’t come, we would have had to close after two months – for sure. But the restaurant was fully-booked from the first day. Now the bank calls us to give us credit. It’s crazy.
Manuela: We always had the feeling we were on a tightrope without any net below us. But somehow we kept going, because customers were pouring in. During construction, we were collecting business cards from everybody we knew and we made this email list and we just sent out this one email: “We are opening for a few trial days, anybody who would like to come, tickets are ready to be ordered”. And it was like we’d opened a Pandora’s box. They were calling and emailing…
Manuela: It was our big luck, actually. That it worked out so well. Then the journalists came and they were very kind…
Konstantin: It was very emotional. I was alternating between screaming and crying. You know, with my half-Greek thing [laughs]. No it was crazy, crazy.
Konstantin: You’ll have to ask that to Manuela, because I always want to keep investing.
Manuela: It’s not that we sleep very well now, but we sleep better than before. What you always will have, when you are self-employed, is responsibility to the people you employ. And we have 28 right now. So this is what you will always think about.
Konstantin: [softly, incredulously] 28!
Manuela: Yeah, it’s crazy. But we need every single one. He’s strolling through the two restaurants every day and if he sees paintwork in one corner that’s been scratched, immediately someone has come with some paint and fix it.
Konstantin: They hate me already [laughs].
Manuela: Yeah. We open the restaurant at noon, and we always have guests coming early and trying to get in. They can’t believe it’s a quarter to 12 and we’re not open. It’s so Viennese. But we don’t let them in. We always say to our staff – and also to the guests who maybe don’t understand – that it’s like when you go the opera and the curtain opens and you still see someone wiping the floor. We see our restaurant in the same way.
Konstantin: But it’s a bit of a culture thing, right, to come a little bit early. They are always afraid that if they come any later they will have to wait too long for their food. So they come early, because then they are the first to get the schnitzel.
When we invite people, we start with breakfast, and then we make hot dishes and then it’s on to champagne… And then it’s one o’clock.
Manuela: I’m an early bird: I’m usually up around 8am and in the restaurant between 9 and 10. Konstantin sleeps a bit longer.
Konstantin: Yeah. Minimum 11.30.
Manuela: But he’s always the last one to leave the restaurant.
Manuela: Between 12 and 2.
Konstantin: Oh yeah: bad things. Sorry, that’s a stupid answer. But we went to a restaurant once and had wild rabbit soup. The guy who owns the place is a very nice guy – and you cannot send the food back.
Manuela: Because they know him and he doesn’t want to upset them. So he keeps eating his soup and I see him sweating.
Konstantin: It was like an old goat pissing directly in your mouth. Sorry, but that’s what it was like.
Manuela: I felt so sorry for him. But I couldn’t do anything.
Konstantin: I’m also not really a big soup guy.
Manuela: Especially after that.
Konstantin: It’s boring.
Manuela: He always needs excitement. Every mouthful needs to do this [makes exploding noise].
Konstantin: Also, I don’t like parasites in fish.
Manuela: This happened in a restaurant in London.
It was very emotional. I was alternating between screaming and crying. You know, with my half-Greek thing [laughs].
Manuela: We were at a one-Michelin-star place and we were served a clean white turbot fillet, and Konstantin says “No, no this cannot be true”. I looked at his plate and all of a sudden this orange…
Konstantin: It was still alive!
Manuela: …worm came out of the fish and looked at us. Konstantin called the waiter and said, “I’m really sorry but I cannot eat this, we’d like to leave now”. It was a set menu and they let us pay for the whole meal. Afterwards we wrote them an email saying, “Come on, you made us pay”.
Konstantin: And they wrote back saying, “The fish is from this producer and it’s always very good.” You know, I cannot imagine that happening in my restaurant. I would go out on my hands and knees.
Manuela: Yes of course stuff happens. Things happen and you make mistakes, because you work with natural products and people – nobody is free from failure. But it’s what you make out of it. And if you can say I’m sorry – or, What can I do? Can we reset? – then I think, as a guest, it’s fair enough to forgive and move on.
For more about Restaurant Konstantin Filippou and O Boufés, click here
Konstantin Filippou: The Cookbook has just been published. More info here
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