“We are very unusual for a European hotel,” explains Mario Corti, culinary director at Schloss Elmau Luxury Spa Retreat & Cultural Hideaway. Hinting at an omnipresent ethos, it is as much what they do as where they do it. The castle – built in 1916 as an ideology-free space rife with culture – has long been a regular haunt for scholars, thinkers, and movers-and-shakers – most recently, hosting the 2015 G7 Summit. The only of its kind in Germany to exist as a tri-fold culinary, cultural and wellness institution, it offers tongue-to-toe stimulation through its dialoguing pillars. Minutes into the conversation, Corti ‘digresses’ towards the non-food benefits of overseeing 10 F&B outlets surrounded by picturesque mountains and trickling streams. This includes a concert hall for symphonies and panel discussions; a renowned bookshop and libraries featuring tomes ranging from the arts to children's titles; a vast rotating activities schedule from archery and e-biking to yoga and dog sledding; a traditional Finnish outdoor sauna, and more, all within grounds housing two distinctly stylised hotels featuring 162 rooms and suites, which all overlook the pristine, peaceful landscape. “It’s a dream part of the world,” he explains, and reveals why, beginning with an appeal to foodies.
Working 10 years with Mandarin Oriental in Munich, Macau, Hong Kong and Singapore, Corti joined Elmau 8 years ago and has since refreshed its culinary approach. “We didn’t initially have as many, it increased because you need to have something different,” he clarifies. “We focus on authenticity – when you go to Fidelio [Thai], you have expectations. Our diners are international, they travel, they know how things should taste. I travel a lot, you must, but even if we incorporate Asian influences, we still stick to the basics.” Corti embraces a supportive philosophy, noting his kitchens could not otherwise produce the outstanding level: “That’s my role, making sure they can deliver.” However, sourcing and ensuring that authenticity isn’t always easy, so he engages collaborative give-and-takes. Regularly hosting international chefs for learning exchange is key – “you must also give back” – feeding into Elmau diners’ adventurous palettes. The sophistication of Lebanese cuisine holds a particular soft spot, and Corti has brought Lebanese Head Chef Ahmed Aziz, Hilton Ras Al Khaimah, over for a third time this October. “You need to swing with the times,” he says. “Find the right vibe, develop a menu, pay attention to trends. It keeps us busy, but it’s fun. It’s a big playground, very unusual, and experimentation is important.”
Deviating from the norm, paired with a love of nature, is what separates Schloss Elmau. It is also what brought Corti and Chef Christoph Rainer together, now working towards a goal of achieving a second Michelin star for Elmau’s gourmet outlet Luce d’Oro. Rainer, an extremely focused chef who worked in two-Michelin star restaurants, made his name at renowned venues such as Tigerpalast and Villa Rothschild. “He’s always been one of the top 20 in Germany, trained by the best, including three-Michelin star chef Dieter Muller,” shares Corti. “You can see it in his hand. It’s like art.” Since taking over Luce d’Oro as head chef a year ago, the 18-Gault Millau point chef’s experimental take – including towards service – has revamped the culinary institution, resulting in significant increase in turnover, with many guests purposefully driving up to two hours to attempt to snap up one of the 20 seats. “My philosophy is traditional high end French cuisine, but it’s interpreted with Japanese influences,” explains Rainer, “a lighter way of cooking, so that you still feel good after a great meal.” He recently introduced a vegetarian selection, in part due to increasing demand from the guests who come for periods of up to two weeks or simply spontaneously as the result of beautiful weekend weather, however, remarks it can be difficult to deliver that in a two-Michelin set up. “But that’s the goal,” says Rainer. “It’s always been there, hidden, but it’s not easy. You may think vegetables are simpler, but it’s double the work because to bring the taste and true essence out, it’s tough! You need the best in order to get the best.”
Elmau is located in a verdant valley after a forest drive, and this arresting scenery grants them their flavourful ingredients, which arrive on a daily basis. “We keep it regional, but if you look outside you won’t find much more than potatoes,” laughs Corti. “So it’s important to grow our own tomatoes, for example, but in 30 minutes you are in Tirol, great for vegetables, or 30 minutes the other way, we have fantastic farming, with our own Wagyu-style beef. The quality is stunning – live fish arrive in under 24 hours straight from the coast. We always cook fresh.”
Fish and crustaceans mark Rainer’s cooking, infused delicately with Asian nuances, but without cliche or pastiche. He is also known for acidity play. “I work with acidity to bring out hidden flavours and acidities that give a difference balance. It’s about sauces, vinaigrettes, marinades, textures… not fancy, dry fine dining,” asserts Rainer. “Not like these young guys running their first restaurants and putting 200 things on the plate and forgetting about the sauce, with no taste experience, no feeling. Visual impact is one thing, but at the end of the day, taste is paramount. Everything on the plate must give real pleasure – perfect the basics to create a flavour explosion.” Rainer shares his signature dish: Atlantic Turbot with fresh eel, Nashi pear and Lima beans – “It’s a real good one,” quips Corti. Rainer adds that although he’s tried to remove it from the menu, “sometimes the chef’s favourite dish isn’t the favourite of the guests, but when you take it away and they ask for it night after night, you have to bring it back.” Corti interjects again: “His Turbot is fantastic.”
But what distinguishes the 5* property is how the hotel channels the talents within it. Given Elmau’s three inclusive, interconnected tiers, the entirety of Schloss Elmau responds to specific needs and desires of their discerning visitors 365 days a year. From it's noted food offerings, Rainer proves a contemporary interpreter of history, Corti, a cross-cultural networker, both of whom seamlessly orchestrate and execute strategies with precision, genuineness and refinement. Visitors know that every outlet they stumble upon and discover wandering through the castle’s winding hallways embody elegant luxury, rife with context and playfulness. And, lest we forget, ‘feel good’ realness. Whether attaining the increasingly rare traditional fondue at Elmauer Alm, which involves a healthy walk (or e-bike ride) in clean Alpine air; to indulging in adults-only breakfast in the hotel's signature coloured robes at Ananda Spa, which may occur after experiencing the Physio-Floating Therapy, an exclusive, one-of-a-kind treatment that relieves debilitating back problems. Schloss Elmau may be a ‘hidden’ venue, but if the fully booked tables and burgundy, gold and elephant-themed rooms are any indication, the masterful balance of skill, experimentation and diversity isn’t going unnoticed.