Antonia Klugmann’s cuisine is personal, so personal that when she is invited to a congress or event she closes her restaurant. Being in charge of a small operation in Venco, in Friuli Venezia Giulia on the border with Slovenia means she does not have the luxury of a large team that can work while she is not there.
So the decision to become the first ever female judge on Masterchef Italy was huge. When she took the plunge, she decided to close the restaurant for three months. It was an experience that changed her life but one that she would do only for a year.
Like others working in the creative sector, she fears losing her creativity and spending three months way from the kitchen was something completely new for her from the day she took a cooking career at 20 after three years studying law.
Antonia Klugmann is chef of L’Argine a Venco, an acclaimed restaurant with a highly personal and unique cuisine that is worth putting on your bucket list.
When I met Antonia at her restaurant in Venco last March the conversation had to start with her experience on Masterchef. “It was fun, it was nice to experience television for a little time but this was not like my work. It felt like taking a bit of a holiday from my work. But I also had to close the restaurant for 3 months,” she said.
She knows that Masterchef is show business, that it can be considered by professionals in the industry as superficial but it is also something that has had an impact on the world of gastronomy even in a country like Italy. “It makes people passionate and has that sense of immediacy. Clients that visit the restaurant thanks to Masterchef are clients that have been introduced to the world of gastronomy in this way. Before Masterchef, there was a certain distance in Italy towards fine dining. People had the impression that it was only for the rich or the ‘gourmet’ but instead they got a feeling that it is an experience that can be enjoyed and tried by everyone. When I eat out, I do so because I really enjoy it. And it is not because I am a chef but rather because I enjoy eating out. Such an experience should be available to anyone,” she said.
“It was really strange for me to be away from the kitchen. In fact when I returned back to the restaurant, I really felt the urge to return to the pass. Doing something that was completely different to what I do was a very good experience. I changed as a person, I changed the way I think about myself. Before I did not look at myself externally. I was concentrated on my work and my image was not important. On TV, I realised the power of image, the power of communication. I am much more aware of this factor now,” Antonia said.
Is this something positive?
“I don’t know. I think it is positive. I’ve grown as a person. I am also more naive in certain ways, less in others, but for sure I am more aware,” she said.
One of the things she discovered was the power of television. “Chefs should not exclude themselves from television. They need to use it well. When they ask me if I am tired of seeing chefs on TV, I say no, it is my work, my passion, I want to see chefs all the time on TV. In Italy, our job has not yet been properly communicated. We also need to take responsibility and communicate about our work, about food. It is not just journalists who should tell the story, we should also take responsibility,” she said.
Closing a restaurant for three months is not necessarily easy particularly when you have staff. Were you afraid of losing members of your team, I asked.
“Yes, but I was more afraid of keeping the restaurant open while not being there. It is not a big restaurant with a big team where it does not make a difference if a chef is there or not. I also cook so there is a difference when I am not here. Maybe in two years time, maybe I could be outside the kitchen and there would not be a difference,” she says.
The dining room at the restaurant has a large window that overlooks the kitchen which means clients can immediately notice when Antonia is not there.
Her team sought different experiences elsewhere during the restaurant closure. “I sent my sous chef to work with Norbert Niederkofler, the person who was responsible for the service went to work for Niko Romito. It is normally not easy to find the time so it was a great experience for them,” she said.
She said that today chefs are brands but when you build an image around the chef you need to be very careful. “Personalising the kitchen is dangerous for a restaurant,” she said.
“For the time being, I’m at the restaurant even with 40 degrees of fever. But I want to have a child in future and I want to be able to stay at home if I am sick. When they call me to go to an event, there is a cost to closing the restaurant and that is why I have to be selective,” she said.
How it all started
Antonia had been in Milan studying law for three years. Her parents, both doctors wanted her to study law. They were passing through separation procedures at the time and Antonia was also in a bit of a crisis. “In Milan I discovered cooking. I still remember I called my parents and told them that I was sorry but I wanted to be a chef. This was 20 years ago when the world of restaurants and being a chef was not really known.”
“At the time, you entered the world of restaurants either through your parents or because you did not have anything else to do. The first question they asked me was how was I going to become a chef and I told them I had no idea but probably I would go and wash dishes, become an apprentice and try to enter a kitchen,” she said,
She says that her parents had a lot of faith in her. “They knew I was serious and that if I wanted to do something I would manage. My mother took it pragmatically and told me that I could always go to work in a canteen and that with cooking there was always somewhere where I could work,” she said.
Antonia took the plunge and started an apprenticeship at 20 years that would last for five years. “I fell in love with cooking by watching TV. As a young girl, I would watch Ferran Adria creating something new on the Gambero Rosso channel. I ended up buying the Gambero Rosso magazines, then Grand Gourmet and I started to become passionate and took a huge leap into the dark,” she said.
Antonia never looked back since then.
My focus is not tradition but rather to be inspired by the territory, by the memories of that territory and also my personal memories. For me, it is really stimulating to see how my cuisine changes as I change,” she said.
She moved from Trieste to Milan before going back to Venice and then the countryside. “When I opened my first restaurant at 26 years old, I was still very young and did not have experience as a chef in a top restaurant. When we opened, it was just me with a trainee and a dishwasher. When I opened L’Argine a Venco after Venice, it was the same but I was different. I had worked in Venice with a team of eight people. This made me grow in a very interesting way but now I was owner again.”
While her experiences helped her, she remained coherent to her personality and style of cooking. “What I did in the first restaurant is similar to what I did in Venice and it is also coherent with what I am doing here. My focus is not tradition but rather to be inspired by the territory, by the memories of that territory and by my personal memories and who I am.”
Antonia says that she has always focused on her ‘terroir’, what has changed is how she interprets this at 40 as opposed to 26. “For me, it is really stimulating to see how my style of cooking changes as I change,” she said.
Being on the border with Slovenia means the territory is not necessarily Italian as she buys her meat from Slovenia and the fish comes from Trieste (either from the Croatian or Italian coast and fishermen). A lot of vegetables come from her garden though she has to purchase vegetables from November to March because she has no greenhouses. “We also forage a lot and work with spontaneous herbs which is something that you cannot really buy but can only collect.”
The restaurant has limited covers so she has the flexibility to forage and to change a dish and its garnishes if they are not available.
She does not obsess that a dish has to be the same but it could have different nuances. “In the past, I knew that I needed to change a dish and I would sit down, think and within one or two hours I would go into the kitchen and the dish was prepared. Today, the approach is similar but the journey can last from 12 months to 18 months “I would prepare a dish mentally and then cook it two to three times and it would be ready. Now it takes me from 3 months to 18 months to complete a dish because I try to dig deep.
Antonia never repeats dishes from one season to another and from one year to another. “Our dishes are always different. What you try here has never been done before. I do not have a menu with classics. I don’t know whether this will change at some point. Maybe one day I will have a section with classics but for the time being I change because I am always different. Some dishes do come back but they are different when they return.”
The Trieste-born chef said she decided not to focus on traditions. “I am influenced by who I am. I lived in Trieste for 18 years, I now live in Venco. I am aware of the socio-economic circumstances of the region, of the politics, the history. All this is input to me,” she said.
“When a customer closes his or her eyes, they will know where they are.”
“One of my grandfathers was from Puglia, the other was Jewish, my grandmother was from Reggio Emilia and the other was from Trieste. Inside me there are memories of ‘Mittel Europa’ and this has influenced me a lot. I am however free and have no legacy. My grandfather from Puglia used to take me to the fish market, to eat raw anchovies, my grandmother Marisa made the tagliatelle, the lasagne, the fritto misto, the meatballs. She also made the goulash, the gnocchi with prunes, the spatzle. My grandmother from Trieste did not like to cook. She was from Trieste. She thought me that a woman does not need to cook and could still be happy, something that is not so obvious in Italy. In Italy, people expect women to cook, to take care of the house, my grandmother thought me differently. In Italy, this is not obvious. Many people ask me why there are not many chefs who are women in Italy when at home women cook so well. But these are completely different things. Cooking at home is completely different to cooking at work. I tell them I am surprised that there are not so many men who cook at home,” she said.
Antonia is afraid of losing her creativity. “Like all people who work in a creative sector, writers, artists, everyone has this fear of losing the creative streak.”
She says that to be creative you need to know yourself. “It is a slow process of getting to know yourself and to help yourself. You need to know how you generate ideas, how you are happy. In my case, I like things that are beautiful. It sounds banal but sometimes it is the mind that needs to change. For two or three days, I could be lucky watching films or being in the right mindset and this triggers an emotion in the kitchen, or I might be outside picking a herb and an idea is born.”
Today, I understand that I don’t expect a dish to be absolute perfection. That dish is my view today of that ingredient, that combination. It is therefore something temporary for me and the customer. The customer might look at a dish as the end point but that is not my philosophy.
“It is the mindset that makes the difference. It is how you look at things around you. From that moment, the chaos starts, you need to process and work. In the past, the work did not take long but now I am never happy, I dig deeper and deeper.”
So when does she know when a dish is ready. “For me it is clear. In the past I was scared of superficiality. Today, I understand that I don’t expect a dish to be absolute perfection. That dish is my view today of that ingredient, that combination. It is therefore something temporary for me and the customer. The customer might look at a dish as the end point but that is not my philosophy,” she said.
Working in a small restaurant meant in the past that she was in charge of the creative process. But just before the restaurant reopened in July last year, she worked together with her team on creating 18 new dishes. “It was really fantastic to work as a team. We developed the dishes during the week, we created, we worked, we tasted and we discussed.”
So what’s the state of Italian cuisine I ask her. “We have a problem but we are lucky that it is not a problem. Italy is a very complex country. We need to explain our cuisine in a different way. We need to say that a chef in Venezia Giulia is very different from one in Sicily. Regions are connected today. Chefs move, they are not born in one place and die in that same place. Compared to a few years ago, we do not have this rigidity when it comes to regions. There is a lot of liberty, there is contamination from different regions and we need to sell this. We are lucky but we chefs are not capable to telling this story,” she said.
Antonia is aware that the world is also small today particularly with social media and the internet. “Today I can see what a chef in Torino or South America is doing. When I am outside Italy speaking to foreigners, I can say that my restaurant is near Venice and that is fine. In a way it makes me understand how small Italy is. We think we are big but in reality we are a small country. But there are many good restaurants and we don’t speak about them. I can go to any region in Italy, stay there for a month and be busy visiting restaurants for the whole month. There are not many other countries in the world, except maybe France, who have such a luxury,” she said.
There are some who complain about social media and the era we live in but Antonia is positive about this age. “I am a child of this age. If we think of how ideas travelled 100 years ago, there was still colonialism and huge influences. It was always the same. At one stage, all artists needed to go to Paris to learn a certain style. Then they had to go to Madrid or Barcelona. If you take that same analogy for food, many chefs went to cook with Ferran Adria. I am not worried about this. There has always been artists who followed trends and others who rebelled against those trends. The same goes for chefs. There are some who are not capable of creating something personal touch, they need to copy. Then there are others who are original. But if we have to be true to ourselves how many people have original ideas? Are there five, six? In a year, they might not even have one original idea. So in the end, there are one or two who are original each year,” she said.
She warned that today’s risk and problem is speed because it is excessive. “This speed does not coincide with the rhythm of a chef. This is a problem that no one speaks about. A cook who is able to change needs time to think. They needs space and need to change themselves before they can change their cuisine. This is what is lacking. If communication must be quick, it cannot follow the rhythm of normal life.”
This is something that worries Antonia about our age.
“We are bombarded with information and one of the big risks is that you are too influenced. I have always done things the same way, isolating myself to create silence which is essential for me to be original. For me, when you try to follow a trend, you are not saying anything new or original but just stating what is fashionable. This is bad. This separation between what is fashion and what is beautiful is difficult.”
She said that she tries to cook what she likes to eat and to follow her desires but this is very difficult particularly if you have to please ‘influencers’ or ‘journalists’. “ The reality is that most of our clients don’t know what is happening in our world.”
Antonia is conscious that like in other walks of life, people could be living in bubbles. “We consider chefs to be superstars today but people not in our field don’t necessarily know them. We may be influenced by what we see on TV the day before but this is not necessarily good. Journalists are also to blame because they also like to follow trends and fashions and write about them. But that’s not what the general public is necessarily talking about. I think that by communicating directly we can try to break this trend. Communication is important but it needs to start from the work we are doing. Today, the connection between what you do and how to communicate it is more important than ever but it is not easy because there is no manual for this,” Antonia said.
L’Argine a Venco: Località Vencò, 34070 Dolegna del Collio (GO)