SAN CASSIANO: Norbert Niederkofler loved the mountains but wanted to travel so he left South Tyrol to cook his way around the world. In 1993 he returned to the region and was given the opportunity to be chef at the pizzeria of the Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano at the base of the Dolomite mountains in 1994.
At the time, the hotel restaurant was a humble pizzeria and signs of this are still visible in the restaurant kitchen of this 3 Michelin star restaurant. Norbert took this restaurant and slowly but surely has turned the St Hubertus into one of Italy’s culinary meccas and one of the latest Italian restaurants to get the 3 Michelin star accolade.
To get there, he’s had to change direction and that breakthrough came with the birth of his first son a few years ago. Prior to that, he had been cooking with some of the best ingredients he could get his hands on from langoustines to caviar and fois gras.
“The birth of my son made me realise that I needed to change my ways,” Norbert said. It may have been a blessing for the chef whose been following the ‘Cook the Mountain’ philosophy which has given him more freedom despite the constraints he placed on himself to use ingredients that grow on the mountains nearby.
“Cook the mountain is a philosophy to cook with what is near you,” he told Food and Wine Gazette as we were driving from one of the vegetables gardens which supply the restaurant with produce. “That might sound like a cliché but if I was by the sea I would cook with what the sea provides me with,” he said.
Being in the mountain means he need back-up plans to ensure that he has produce all year round. The weather may change to the extent that produce might not grow in one area and that is the reason why he has a number of small suppliers from where he buys all the vegetables for his restaurant.
“Having abundant fruits and vegetables means that you need to work with what you have. There are periods where nature provides you with abundance and you need to be ready to make use of what is available.”
It was on one of these occasions that the Italian chef came up with the idea of making ketchup out of plums. Plums have a similar acidity to tomatoes and they were in abundance so he worked to make use of this abundance. The result is the sweetness of ketchup without any additional sugars other than the natural sugar of the plums. He served it to children and they could not really tell the difference. Today, it is also served as a mountain ‘bruschetta’ in one of the first dishes at the three Michelin star restaurant.
If your taste buds are not attuned or you have not been warned, it is unlikely that you will realise that it is plums and not tomatoes that you are eating.
It is this coherence and study of the terroir around him that has made the chef famous. With his events Cook the Mountain and Ethical Days he has been exploring together with colleagues ways to practice what he preaches.
You will not find lemon or olive oil in his kitchen or in his cooking because it is not something that grows in the area. Instead he makes use of fermentation for acidity and butter or grape seed oil for fat.
He has used mountain lentils to make soy sauce and when it comes to the use of fish or animals, he will adopt a no waste principle even going to the extent of frying scales to add texture and crispness to a fish dish.
Norbert has a team that visits the farmers to know exactly what is growing and what they can pick and work with in the restaurant kitchen.
“The kitchen changes from summer to winter. The summer months are easy but it is different in winter and requires a lot of thinking and planning,” Norbert told Food and Wine Gazette.
When we visited in early autumn, his team of producers and chefs had gone to the first and at 2,000 metres above sea-level they found wild garlic. “They will now be thinking of what we can do with it in February and March where nothing goes here,” he said.
They go to Valentin to pick up the vegetables and they will also dry, smoke, ferment or put in vinegar to be able to make use of them when nature does not produce the vegetables. “Without this we would not have ingredients,” Norbert said.
South Tyrol may only be a small region of Italy, near the Austrian border but 21 restaurants have achieved 26 Michelin stars
Norbert was born in 1961 in Luttago, a small town in the heart of the Dolomites. His parents owned a hotel for the skiers in winter and climbers in summer, and he was always exploring the outdoors. Despite his love for the region, he wanted to see the world and thought becoming a chef would be a good opportunity to travel.
After finishing his studies at a culinary college in Tegernsee,Germany, Norbert worked in London, Zurich and Milan, before arriving in Munich.to work with Eckart Witzigmann, his greatest mentor. Eckart taught him how to respect nature and its produce to achieve culinary perfection. After seven years in Munich, he travelled to New York and learnt the secrets to innovation under restaurateur David Bouley.
It was here that he truly began to develop his own style, but after a while he started to miss the mountains and flavours of his hometown. He returned in 1993 and started working at Castel Colz in La Villa for a year.
Today, Norbert is also in charge of one of the most spectacular restaurants in the world, the AlpiNN where he is also giving it his distinct style. At this restaurant, which has also been designed with the ‘cook the mountain’ philosophy of using materials from the area, he has been inviting some of the world great chefs to cook over the past months like Jorge Vallejo, Ana Ros and Albert Adria.
At the restaurant on top of the mountain on the outskirts of Brunico, a buzzing town in South Tyrol, 2300 metres above sea level, he remains coherent to his philosophy. You will not find bottled water here despite the pressure he faced from some of the world’s top brands in water. “It does not make sense to transport water bottles up here and then have to bring it back down each day.,” Norbert said.
On the outskirts of the buzzing small town of Brunico, in South Tyriol, 2,300 metres above sea level lies a stunning restaurant, AlpiNN which is Norbert Niederkofler’s second restaurant in the region.
The Italian chef rose to fame for his restaurant St Hubertus, which entered the 3 Michelin star hall of fame in 2017. At Alpinn, he has taken the Cook the Mountain philosophy not just in his cooking but also in the way that the restaurant has been designed.
Together with Mexican chef Jorge Vallejo of restaurant Quintonil, Norbert Niederkofler and his team organised a unique four hands dinner in this incredible location. This was the first such even which will see other internationally renowned chefs visit the mountain restaurant.