Niederkofler story: 20 years (in fact 21) to get to the top

In 2016 the newly triple-starred chef, celebrated two decades of activity with a special 20-dish menu. Let’s retrace it

17-11-2017

Norbert Niederkofler celebrates the third star with sous Michele Lazzarini, pastry chef Andrea Tortora and the other main members of his brigade

Photogallery

Appetizer (tutte le foto sono di Tanio Liotta). Il menu dei 20 anni è disponibile fino al 30 giugno
2011 - Insalata di erbe del Maso Aspinger
2006 - Solo pomodoro
2001 - Carpaccio di scampi con vinaigrette di finocchio e melone

He’s just reached the top after a long climb: Norbert Niederkofler is the new triple-starred restaurant in Italy, the 14th ever in our history. Last year he celebrated two decades of activity at St. Hubertus with a special menu presenting 20 dishes, one per each year, in an unforgettable parade that we retrace with a piece we wrote on the occasion. Almost prophetically, the article ended like this: "This is the same placid yet determined awareness that induces him to focus on his new goal, with tranquillity: «I was born in the mountains. When you climb on top, you don’t go back to 50 metres from the finishing line». Christian Rainer, who’s at his side and inebriates the dining room and the cellar with ingenious perfection, nods: there are three stars on top, and now they are really close".

Tasting Norbert Niederkofler’s twenty dishes, one per year, representing an extraordinary food, but most of all life journey, is like personally testing a constant: the extraordinary modernity of a chef who’s perhaps too shy to become a communicator, too geographically peripheral to become a standard bearer acknowledged by contemporary Italy. Yet he’s also too good not to be considered a north star in our restaurant scene, one of its best interpretations, even culturally speaking. He’s a small giant defended by the mountains enclosing his Val Badia. Mountains that in his case represent both the sound territorial roots and the springboard of a vision embracing the entire world.

Niederkofler has been working at St. Hubertus for 20 years: he started in 1997 with a pizzeria, together with the Pizzinini family, as he explains in the video interview you can watch above. Since then, he’s taken an endless journey. It’s as if not only he climbed the tops of the Dolomites, but Everest too, and who knows how many times already, and how many are yet to come. With resolute steps, paying attention that the pure air always provides enough oxygen for the brain. After all Niederkofler, before being a great chef, is also an intelligent and experienced man. Thanks to his countless journeys, his knowledge of the world is good enough for him to have an ironic and detached view of the petty things surrounding him.

Travelling is indeed the milestone in his life. «I was poor. I became a chef because it was the only way to travel», he says. His trips continue in the mind even when he’s at home, as usual, because you leave not in order to find new lands, but new eyes. You start by searching for yourself, for others, for a harmony: his trips were never only “business”, as one would say, but experiential, existential. One could quote Thomas Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

This is exactly what Niederkofler did. And this is what his dishes tell, as if they were a travel journal (see the photo gallery above, the pictures were taken by Tanio Liotta).

They are totally modern, even the older ones, «that’s what I realised when I studied them in order to define this menu for the twentieth anniversary. It’s a real pity to give up on them», he says. But it must be done, he does realise it. Because the next goal is always ahead. A man who ceases investigating is a dead man.

Photo by Simona Malattia

Photo by Simona Malattia

As in the words of Eliot, after much travelling, he returned to San Cassiano. The eldest dishes are a balance found by inserting inspirations from all over: the overwhelming Risotto with wasabi and lightly smoked eel is from 2002, a trait d’union between Italy and the world, just like the migratory fish which is familiar to us but is born in the Sargasso Sea and arrives to us after an over 6,600 km swim. A coriander sauce enriches the amazing Mullet filled with tomatoes and basil on crispy calamari, a fusion of the Mediterranean Sea and the East born in 1999. The fermented black garlic chisels the Tortelli with porcini zabaglione, fir oil and porcini crumble (2009). And so on.

Later, however, Niederkofler discovers you can also travel right behind your doorstep: «It’s about getting to the essential», he sumps up. In 2013 the Cook the Mountain project is born. This is how he explains it: «I’m a person. Just like you are. I have my strengths and weaknesses. Just like everyone. I try to be genuine but I don’t always succeed. Do you? When I try to make people experience a familiar scent or taste from my land, I’m simply happy». And then: «Have you ever looked up "birch fondue" in Google? With a little embarrassment but also satisfaction I found out that [my] Suckling veal carpaccio with tubers, birch fondue and herbs is the only result. Therefore I gave myself this exceptional goal: the vision to create delicate and unmistakable dishes with the very rich treasure offered by the nature of Alto Adige. The attempt to add a touch of elegance to the original». (These are words taken from his website www.n-n.it. Frankly, we couldn’t have put it better).

In this twenty-year-long journey, the 2016 dish is Artic char & Cabbage, a basic return to Alto Adige, no frills, infinitely delicious but also with a seeming mountain frugality, behind which one can find the complexity of the awareness he’s now reached.

It’s the same awareness that led him to create Care’s (we spoke about it at length, for instance here and here); that is to say to move towards a new frontier, that of the socially responsible chef who realises he has a new role, not only as a participant but as an author of the debate on environment, sustainability, planet (here some further thoughts of his). Never stuck among his mountains, which he madly loves, so much so that that he’s planning the second annual Care’s event on the island of Salina, that is to say on the other side of the planet, compared to San Cassiano.

This is the same placid yet determined awareness that induces him to focus on his new goal, with tranquillity: «I was born in the mountains. When you climb on top, you don’t go back to 50 metres from the finishing line». Christian Rainer who’s at his side and inebriates the dining room and the cellar with ingenious perfection nods: there are three stars on top, and now they are really close.


Sections

Carlo Mangio

An outdoor trip or a journey to the other side of the planet?
One thing is for sure: the destination is delicious, by Carlo Passera


Photogallery

Appetizer (tutte le foto sono di Tanio Liotta). Il menu dei 20 anni è disponibile fino al 30 giugno
2011 - Insalata di erbe del Maso Aspinger
2006 - Solo pomodoro
2001 - Carpaccio di scampi con vinaigrette di finocchio e melone
2007 - Vitello tonnato St. Hubertus
2010 - Orto di lumache
2000 - Variazione di fegato grasso d’oca, creme brûlée e terrina di fegato grasso con anguilla
2009 - Tortelli ripieni con zabaione di porcini, aglio nero fermentato, olio di abete e crumble di porcini
2012 - Orzotto con burro di capra, gelatina di verbena al limone
1996 - Tagliolini con rapa bianca, tartufo nero di Norcia e rucola
2013 - Gnocchi di rapa rossa, terra di birra e crema di daikon
1997 - Risotto al pino mugo con petto di faraona affumicata