Envy Italy Magazine catches up with one of Italy’s freshest thinking and most innovative chefs, Norbert Niederkofler.
Surely, only one man can stake the claim to have been awarded three Michelin stars using mostly natural ingredients sourced from an Italian mountainside?
During the winter ski season in the heart of the Alto Adige, you can barely see a blade of grass beneath the waves of snow drifting across the landscape, let alone anything that looks barely edible. Yet, this is not how award-winning gourmet chef Norbert Niederkofler sees the mountain. Through his eyes, this is a veritable organic market of delicious, seasonal ingredients.
Norbert was born in 1961 in Luttach, a small village right in the heart of the Dolomites. His parents owned and ran a hotel that hosted skiers in winter and climbers in summer.
It was here, on the slopes of the South Tyrol, that the original culinary seed was planted in Norbert’s mind, but he had a strong desire to travel and experience new things. “I wanted to become a chef so I could travel the world,” he says. “As a young man, I was tired of looking at mountains all the time, so I left the first chance I got.”
Following the birth of his first son Norbert became further inspired to take positive action and improve his personal and professional global footprints, championing sustainable business ethics.
Having worked with both David Bouley and Eckart Witzigmann, Norbert has gained the core values of an inspiring chef: bundles of creativity, valuable experience, strong technical skills and endless energy. He has successfully drawn on these qualities in building a network of suppliers, farmers, growers and supporters who help make his kitchen and its dishes quite unique.
In 2004 Norbert controversially removed foie gras from his menu, one of the most popular dishes at the restaurant, to make a statement about his Mountain Menu. “I didn’t care what they would say, I wanted to do things my way. I’m stubborn like that.” What Norbert realised was that to survive as a sustainable restaurant in one of the most difficult terrains in the world and to continue to produce quality menus all year round, he needed to build a network of friends and experts he could rely on in the local area.
He decided to shorten the supply chain and be in control of what his producers grew, even if that meant taking his car to pick up produce for the restaurant that evening. The network, now called “Cook the Mountain”, is over 10 years old. There was one pivotal moment in particular with his producer Valentin Innhofer that would define the success of his kitchen model.
“When I arrived in the restaurant kitchen one morning, I saw this plum roll past my foot, then a second and then a third. Looking up, I saw over 200 plums on my kitchen top. Standing there was Valentin and Michele (my sous chef). Valentin told us he picked them from the tree in his front garden and asked us if we could take them.”
Norbert’s kitchen works methodically, but their goal is to use 100 per cent of the ingredients at all times, leaving no waste. Eventually, the idea was to ferment them. “We often experimented with finding alternatives for citrus fruits because they don’t grow on the mountains and we must find other ways to add acidity to dishes.” They stored the plums for six months in salt and grapeseed oil and waited to taste the results. “In the winter, as I was in my office, my sous chef arrives with a jar and passes me a spoonful of purple fermented plum. He adds a leaf of basil and a few sourdough breadcrumbs on top. It tasted like bruschetta with tomatoes. A taste of Tuscany in the Dolomites without ordering the ingredients from 1,000 km away.”
The dish called “Pomodoro?” is on the menu today along with Norbert’s incredible Cook The Mountain tasting menu that was awarded by Michelin in 2017 as being a pioneer for a new generation of cuisine.
The concept, Cook the Mountain, gave Norbert and his team the right platform to start creating new ideas about dishes, combinations and products. Another great dish that showcases the process is the White Fish Tartare.
“We decided to spend two days with the mountain lake fishermen to understand preservation techniques and research different ways to prepare the fish. We were determined not to waste any part of the fish coming in from the lake.
“At first, we clean the fish, remove their insides and bones but keep them to one side. Remove all the scales and keep the meat to one side. With the scales, we keep them under running water for a few hours, then put them in the dehydrator and fry them. These become the crispy part of the dish. The meat of the fish is marinated with salt and sugar. Washed and chopped as the tartare should be. We roast the bones and add them to our white wine sauce along with the insides to get all the flavour out of it.” It is a popular dish on Norbert’s menu, elegant and clean. This a perfect example of how “Cook the Mountain” influences his dishes and the process he goes through to achieve his desired “no waste” approach to cooking.
In 2019 Norbert is expanding his mountain cuisine further by moving beyond the classical concept of the restaurant with his new project AlpiNN. Located in a unique setting at Plan de Corones, in the heart of the Dolomites, rightly proclaimed a Unesco World Heritage Site, AlpiNN enjoys breathtaking views and a welcoming, homely ambience brimming with local culture, tradition and innovation.
The new Food Space & Restaurant by Norbert is housed inside the LUMEN Museum of Mountain Photography where local designer of international fame, Martino Gamper, has endowed the location with an exclusive combination of traditional, yet contemporary style, offering the snug, welcoming ambience of a cosy living room. The menu designed by Norbert Niederkofler reveals the true flavours of the local mountain cuisine developed and refined over 20 years of experimental work and culinary alchemy.