Severin Corti

5th July 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

5th July 2016

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

As food editor and chief restaurant critic of Der Standard, Severin Corti is one of the most influential food journalists in Austria. Visiting him on an overcast Tuesday in May, we are also keenly aware of how busy he is. In addition to the Standard job, he writes for the magazine News, co-edits a Slow Food guide to traditional taverns around Austria and raises three young boys with his Danish wife Majken. Corti is slightly addled when we arrive – he has managed to lock his iPhone in a shared car – but as soon as the situation is resolved he switches into relaxed mode and chats easily over beers for a couple of hours.

He lives in a beautiful apartment in northwest Vienna, on the second floor of the building where he grew up. “My great-grandmother bought it, now my whole family lives in it,” he says, adding wryly: “It’s pure luxury, except for the family living in it.” His two older boys greet us politely at the door and then disappear into their rooms; the youngest, Linus, loiters curiously as we talk and becomes especially interested when his father starts preparing lunch.

Not every restaurant critic should be trusted in the kitchen, but Corti has cast-iron cooking credentials: he ran the kitchen at a successful restaurant in Vienna for over three years before becoming a full-time food writer. Today he is giving us an Austrian take on the Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich, using leftover venison from last weekend’s barbecue. No less unorthodox are the sour cream and horseradish he puts in the spread, alongside more traditional elements such as red chilli, holy basil and fish sauce. A big, messy cultural mash-up, it all comes together surprisingly well: the sour cream offsets the competing heats of the horseradish and chilli, and the fish sauce and lime add umami and sharpness to the mix. “I find it intoxicatingly good,” Corti tells us before serving it up, “but you’ll have to decide.”

Continued below...

How many times a week do you eat out?

Well I try to do the review thing, where I have to sit for a long time and eat a lot, only once a week. But I tend to go for lunch quite often so I can have a look at new places and see what’s going on.

You’ve been writing restaurant reviews for 10 years. Is it difficult to avoid making friends with chefs who you might have to review at some point?

That’s certainly an issue, especially in a town like Vienna where the scene isn’t that big. I used to work only for Der Standard and I went to extreme lengths to make sure that no photograph of mine would be searchable on the internet. Of course after 10 years I got to know some chefs, from doing interviews and so on, but still it’s a bit more difficult to be recognised when they don’t have your picture in the kitchen. Then, last April, I got hired by this magazine called News and they insisted on having my photograph. So since then…

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People recognise you and give you special treatment?

Yes, perhaps. Although the chef doesn’t suddenly learn to cook better when he knows who he’s serving. I’ve been in a situation when the chef knew who I was and we got rotten fish on the table – literally. How’s that possible, no? [laughs] So you can’t be too sure.

I’ve been in a situation when the chef knew who I was and we got rotten fish on the table. How’s that possible?

Do you take notes while you eat?

I do, most of the time. And I go with the photographer, Gerhard Wasserbauer, because we want to have a picture of the restaurant in full swing as well as taking a picture of the food – and the expense account doesn’t allow for two outings. Gerhard loves food, and this way we can try more dishes. But we always make sure that the food is already on the table before he takes out his camera. Once the cooking is done, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re recognised or not.

I guess you can blend in because these days everyone is taking photographs of their meal.

Exactly. And he has this really fancy camera which is very discreet but incredibly powerful. He’s a great, great photographer.

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Do you mainly review in Vienna?

I travel around, but as the readership is concentrated around Vienna, Lower Austria and Styria, that’s the main focus. I’ve been to the Tyrol maybe twice, I must admit, but not much happens there. You get a few luxury hotel restaurants which open every season, but they tend to be very formal and focused on tourists, so not always interesting enough to justify the trip.

Is there a lot to sustain you in Vienna?

Amazingly enough yes. There was a really quiet phase before Christmas, which is usually a season when a lot of new restaurants open, and there have been quite a few closures these last months. So everybody said, well the crisis is finally kicking in in Austria. But there are going to be some interesting places opening in the next few months – among them places that cost quite a lot of money.

“I’m convinced that Steirereck is one of the great restaurants in Europe. Almost all the young interesting chefs in Austria have done time there.”
Severin on his favourite restaurants in Vienna – see Address Book

Would you say it’s an exciting time for Austrian restaurants?

I think there’s a greater variation of cooking styles and restaurant styles in the last few years. Generally I think that the Austrian customer is rather conservative in his tastes. If the place is expensive, it tends to be rather conservative in style. But then you have somewhere like Restaurant Konstantin Filippou, which was almost revolutionary in Austria, in the sense that he has a single menu and it costs a lot to order it. Konstantin is really good at attracting customers, so that’s definitely a good sign that times are changing here.

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Has the job changed how you approach restaurants?

Definitely. It’s inevitable. If you go out so much, the amount of excitement that is brought by going to a restaurant diminishes. It gets harder to be excited by food.

Many people imagine that reviewing restaurants is a dream job.

It is extremely nice.

But sometimes you just want to sit at home and have a plate of pasta?

Exactly. I get enough of this fussy food. A lot of times you have the impression that the chef very seldom eats what he serves his customers. It looks nice, has fancy ingredients and uses fashionable techniques, but that doesn’t mean it’s a pleasure to eat. I’d say at least 70% of chefs who think of themselves as creative don’t really eat what they bring to the table. What has changed for me over 10 years of reviewing is that now I’m looking for great simple food in a restaurant. Except for a few rare geniuses who do intricate dishes that blow your mind, I think a chef who concentrates on doing a few things really well, better than a home cook could ever do them, delivers a much more satisfying experience to the customer.

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How did you get into the job?

I was a normal journalist. For four years in the mid- to end-90s, I was a correspondent for an Austrian newspaper in London. When I turned 30 I asked myself, what am I going to do? I was having a great time in London but the amount of interesting work I could do was limited. If I wanted to do something totally different, I would have to do it then.
I always liked to cook. In London, we had this amazing shared flat in north Kensington, 10 minutes from Portobello Market, with a dinner table for 16 people. We did dinner parties twice a week and my cooking got more ambitious. At some point, I thought, yeah I’ll do it, I’ll become a chef. A friend of mine Georges Desrues had two restaurants in Vienna and wanted to change one of them. It used to be a very hip cocktail bar but now it needed an extra attraction. He told me to come back and try it out. So we created a small dining room with about 25 covers [it was called Castillo Grill Room] and did French brasserie-style cooking, which amazingly enough is very hard to find in Vienna.

I get enough of fussy food. A lot of times you have the impression that the chef very seldom eats what he serves his customers

Really?

It’s one of the few major cities in the world where you can’t eat proper French food. I have my theory why this is so, I don’t know whether it’s accurate. Austrians are completely in love with Italian food, whereas French food is considered antiquated, heavy, indigestible, stuff for rich people, not something for us. I think it goes back to Napoleon: we still haven’t gotten over him running over us and finishing off the Holy Roman empire.

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It’s still a sore subject.

Yeah. Austrians would never admit it of course, it’s in the subconscious. There is no other logical reason, because French cuisine is so varied and it’s ridiculous to say it’s all full of butter and foie gras. Even now, there’s only maybe one proper French restaurant in Vienna. Anyway, Georges and I love French food and we thought, well, nobody gives it to us so we’ll do it ourselves. And it worked quite well. I cooked for three and a half years. I got a tocque Gault Millaut, which is the main guide in Austria. So I had gained official recognition. Majken, my wife, came with me from London.

Is she English?

No she’s Danish. She studied in London and agreed to follow me. After those three-and-a-half years, she said, listen, how is this going to continue? I’m coming home from work, you’re going to work. Vienna certainly is a fantastic place but compared to London, not exactly. Either we rearrange our plans in life or I have to think of something different.

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You received an ultimatum.

Well not really. She just asked, what is your plan? I thought, well, it’s very hard work with just me and a washing-up-guy in the kitchen. I got this stamp, so how much more do I want to achieve? Let’s try to use this knowledge I acquired and go into food journalism. That was 2004.

I love Vietnamese food and I made sure that some tiny places got publicity – and all of a sudden there’s a vibrant Vietnamese restaurant scene in Vienna

Not many restaurant reviewers have worked as chefs. Do you feel that experience is essential?

No, I wouldn’t say that.

But it surely helps.

It certainly helps in that you have an idea of what happens behind this door where the food comes out. Maybe it makes you a little bit more understanding if something goes wrong. But it might also make you less nice if stupid stuff is on the table, if you see that the chef didn’t think the menu through. From my own experience, I think I have an idea of how a menu should look, how you balance it, how you think of your customers and make sure there’s something for everyone. It’s intelligent business: you have to really think about a menu, you can’t just write it down.

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How does it feel to have the power to close a restaurant with a bad review – or make it a success with a good one?

Well I’ve written bad reviews of restaurants which do extremely well, so I’m not sure that’s always the case. I think one area where I can make a difference is ethnic cuisine, which is something that Austrian customers aren’t too enthusiastic about. A Chinese restaurant in Vienna has an uphill battle because everyone thinks they’re cooking up rats and it’s all horrible. I wanted to change that perception. For example, I love Vietnamese food and I made sure that some tiny places got publicity – and all of a sudden there’s a vibrant Vietnamese restaurant scene in Vienna. Some of that might have to do with me blowing some wind under their wings.

Is Southeast Asian food one of your favourites?

Absolutely. I like the lightness of the cooking even though a lot of the food is fried. When I go to a good Vietnamese restaurant, I can eat more than anywhere else and still won’t feel full. After an hour you think, oh I could have a little snack [laughs].

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How often do you cook at home?

Always on the weekend. We have a very small house in the countryside about an hour outside Vienna. I do a lot of barbecuing there. It has one large room where we live and cook, and as soon as there is heat and fat involved, the whole room is full of smoke – not so nice. So quite often, even in bad weather, there’s a fire on outside.

And you’re huddled over it.

Exactly.

On The Menu

Lunch with Severin Corti
Vienna, May 2016

To eat:
Venison bánh mì with sour cream and horseradish sauce »

To drink:
Eggenberg beer

Do you divide cooking duties equally at home?

I used to cook quite often in the evening, but now my workload has increased so much that most of the time my wife cooks. She probably is a better cook anyway.

Are the kids interested in food?

Yes they are. One of them is really interested, he likes to cook as well, and our youngest eats amazing amounts of food. It’s unbelievable. Adult portions. He’s only 20 months old. He doesn’t speak yet but he’s busy eating.

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When you had your restaurant, did you have the experience of being reviewed?

Yes obviously I did [laughs]. It was very exciting, of course. It really only happens in the beginning. Then you have these anonymous guys who review for the annual guides.

Were the reviews positive?

Yes. Absolutely. The place was a success. They were all very nice really.

Is the restaurant still running?

No, Georges sold up and moved to Italy and is now writing about food as well. He does what I cannot do anymore since the family got so big: travel writing about food. He is a fantastic reporter and writes for all kinds of respected publications in Austria, Germany, Italy.

I was going to ask if you had many opportunities to travel.

Yeah I did a lot, but much less now because it’s too difficult. With kids you have to know your priorities. There aren’t that many years when they are interested in who you are, and those years are now.

You can find Severin’s column for Der Standard here

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Posted 5th July 2016

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Dan Dennison

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