When it comes to the creative process Konstantin Filippou loves quietness. As chef of a fine dining restaurant of the same name in Vienna, Austria, he finds that it is best to concentrate and to trigger ideas either in the dead of night after a dinner service or else when he is completely quiet.
While he enjoys music on his days off, in the kitchen, he does not even allow music to be played because it makes him nervous. “Creativity starts with quietness,” he told Food and Wine Gazette in an interview.
That sense of quietness, of focus and of searching for answers and taking the time to think may be what has led this talented Austrian chef to retain his focus even when times were hard. So when Michelin called Konstantin Filippou’s name and awarded him two stars for his restaurant earlier this week it was the culmination of a dream he has laboured on quietly and within.
In 2013, just when he had signed the lease for the restaurant in Vienna and signed to purchase the equipment he receives a short email from his bank telling him that they were pulling out of the project because they did not believe in what he or his wife were proposing.
Many people would have given up on the spot and walked away dejected. But Konstantin and Manuela were not for turning even if they knew it was going to be a difficult tight-rope to make ends meet. They knew that they only had two months to make it work otherwise they would have to close down and lose everything.
But just like in a fairy tale when a silver lining always emerges they were surprised with the response they received having accumulated business cards from people they met during the construction phase and inviting them once the restaurant was about to open.
Walking this tight-rope has helped Konstantin and his wife focus more than what might normally be necessary. “In the end it worked well and with the problems and all, it feels like we did the right thing.”
Now, after going through that experience he would not change one thing.
He says the experience has helped him in the process because he says he is more careful about the needs of his staff making sure there is money to pay them first together with the suppliers before he pays himself. “I learned how to run the business and I am also grateful for the people who helped us not necessarily with the money but everyone from my mother to the painters who got us to where we are today,” he said
“It was hard,” he says with the benefit of hindsight, “but it is also nice. Maybe it is a better way because it kept us moving and working hard to ensure that we would not go bankrupt,” he said.
Konstantin’s father was Greek while his mother Austrian and that it what gives him his unique style. He therefore grew up with two distinct cooking styles, Mediterranean and Austrian cuisine. His love of all things from the sea comes from his roots but he mixes them with Austrian ingredients because that’s where he comes from.
“I have to thank my parents for my cooking style, for exposing me to different cultures. It is thanks to them that I am who I am, that I have my own cuisine and my own story. I am thankful that I can pick ingredients from these two different worlds and combine them together without feeling uncomfortable, without having to struggle. When I cook, I cook from the heart. Sometimes, if I am cooking something that is very Austrian I can get bored of it and vice versa if I am cooking something Mediterranean I realise it is not perfect. It needs something else. So for me, mixing both worlds makes me happy,” Konstantin said.
When Konstantin opened his fine dining restaurant he wanted to make it accessible. “It was essential for us to open a place that was not expensive, that young people could come for a lunch at EUR 28 or a dinner at EUR 68 which is not cheap but it is extremely good value. While outside Austria it was common to go to a restaurant with no table clothes, this was new in Austria particularly in a fine dining restaurant. We were happy to be able to welcome not just tourists and in particular ‘foodies’ but also Austrians who returned.”
Three years ago, Konstantin and Manoela opened a bistro O’Bouffes next door to their fine dining restaurant Konstantin Filippou.
He tells me the two work extremely well together also in terms of economies of scale because it means that he can buy whole animals such as a cow or a lamb and than make full use of everything within the restaurant and the bistro. “There is one thing which is important to me and that is that I really don’t like waste. When we have new chefs working, before we start that is the first thing that I explain.”
Working with humble ingredients for fine dining restaurants is becoming more and more common but Konstantin believes that it is important for people to remember the tastes of the past. “When I was young and my mother would serve me brain, she would cook brain and tell me that it was mushrooms,” he said.
I laugh because I can recall similar stories and it is a sort of deception that parents of children sometimes have to deal with when getting them to try different food. “I think it is nice to see this return to the past. Before it was necessary, because Europe was coming out of a war and there was no money so people were constrained to use everything, including the cheap ingredients,” he said.
Today, serving offal in restaurants is done not just because it is tradition but also because it is very good. “In Austria we have many recipes with offal. There is one stew in particular which is amazing which includes using the heart, the lung, the kidneys and the liver. It is cooked in a stock with vinegar and then chopped thinly and further cooked with a stock, some cream and anchovy oil. It is amazing,” he said.
Konstantin is very proud of what is happening in Austria at the moment when it comes to food but he says that they have also been lucky to have had GELINAZ! put the spotlight on Austrian cuisine and young Austrian chefs last summer.
“Something interesting has been happening for the past 7 to 8 years. In Vienna, a lot of new natural wine bistros have opened, things are starting to happen. We are lucky to have exceptional produce around us which means that we don’t even need to use produce from elsewhere. So there is potentially a big future. I don’t know how long it will take us to put Austria in the spotlight but there are very talented chefs from Heinz (Steirereck) to Philip Rachinger, Lukas Nagl and many more.”
He said that what is essential is to talk more about Austrian cuisine, to be proud of what exists and to tell stories because chefs are working differently with the same produce they have. “We need to be more proud of what we are doing. But we also need more restaurants which focus on produce and which have the support and understanding from the government because the reality is that taxes are high and this discourages many young chefs to take the plunge particularly if they had no one in the family who was in the business before.”
Manoela, his wife had never worked in the restaurant business before she opened the restaurant together with her husband. You could say that she has been the driving force behind Konstantin. She is not only responsible for the front of house and the wines but also the communication since this is her background. “If it was not for my wife, it would have been impossible to get to where I am today,” Konstantin said.
Although Konstantin does not consider anyone as his mentor he’s had experience in many top restaurants from Steirereck in Vienna to several international experiences like Gordon Ramsay in London, La Gavroche in London and Arzak in San Sebastian. “My father died when I was 13 and in a way he is my mentor. His memory keeps me focused and working. I want to show my father that I was a ‘good boy’ and a ‘good chef’. Unfortunately, he is not here to see it,” he said.
It is ironic to say that when Konstantin cooks in the bistro he feels more free and also not under any pressure. “It has nothing to do with creativity but in the restaurant I am always trying to make smarter dishes, trying to reduce ingredients from a dish while giving the customer the feeling that there are lots of ingredients. I love what I do but it can be really hard to eliminate what is not necessary,” he said.
Most of his creative thinking comes from being outside the restaurant when he can find quietness. “I need quiet to be able to focus. If it is too loud, I get uncomfortable. That is why I write all my menus between midnight and 3am.”
Konstantin said that creativity does not happen if he feels stressed out. “When you are forcing yourself to come up with new things, it does not work. That is why I need to have time to go away from the restaurant. My wife hates me when I am in a period of creating a new menu because I not only need quietness but I also don’t want to speak to have the time to think and think and think.
Fundamentally he cooks for his guests and he says this is something that should never be forgotten. “We always need to ask who we are cooking for. Guests have to come back to the restaurant. They will tell you whether it is good or bad. We feel happy when our customers like it but listen to their feedback.”
Quietness and listening have taken Konstantin far. The journey is just starting.