It is no surprise that the culinary concept at St Hubertus has been awarded with three stars in the latest Michelin Guide when you understand the full extent of chef Norbert Niederkofler’s commitment to sustainable food.
Whether this commitment arose because of the extreme conditions surrounding the restaurant at Rosa Alpina Hotel, or whether it was borne out of a desire to get closer to the provenance of his ingredients, the clear result is that Norbert’s culinary concept of ‘cook the mountains’ has grown organically into an entire food revolution.
In recent years, Norbert Niederkofler has been on a mission to create a more sustainable approach to ne dining, using only the seasonal products available at an altitude of 2,550m.
“Well there was two opportunities growing up: one to become an architect and one to become a chef. My sister chose the first route so I chose to do something different to her, but I remember always feeling that the kitchen was the most beautiful place to be in.
“I also really loved that cooking allowed me to travel the world and see new cultures, while also making me very knowledgeable about food.
“Eckart Witzigmann, the second chef outside of France to be awarded a Michelin star, was probably what initially inspired me to become a chef and the style that I most aspired to. He had restaurant Aubergine in Munich, and he was always a big influence on my cooking style and philosophy. He was a real complete chef; he was very classic and outstanding. He was very focused on the product and really into classic techniques.
“David Bouley from New York is also someone I respect a lot. He was a chef who was very opened-minded and always looking for new and innovative systems for working. He is what I would call a food junkie, and is all about the food and nothing else. He was also always ahead of trends, so was already in Spain before anyone even knew about Ferran Adrià and equally with introducing the Japanese food movement to the wider audience. These are two very important people in my culinary life.
“Moving forward to my style today and the truth is there is no concept any more. Nature is the concept and supplies the product, and then you work around the product. This means that you have to have a very high level of knowledge on classic cuisine so that you can produce innovative dishes using ‘limited’ products. For example, we don’t have olive oil, we have no citrus fruit, so this is interesting because you have to learn other places that you can get this acidity. Equally we don’t want waste, so you need to know what you can do with the off-cuts to be able to produce a dish from this.
“If you lack a solid base in classic cooking, then when it comes to this natural approach to food sooner or later you will fall on your face, especially if you want to try and work towards Michelin stars.
“In my case, the important thing for me was the first star, but then the second star is a different kind of pressure. It is the one that takes time and allows you to really explore what you are doing if you want to maintain it.
“When I changed my concept a few years ago from a more international menu of foie gras and cheese to mountain cuisine with seasonal products, there was no second thought in my mind. It happened very naturally for me and felt appropriate for the location and my personal philosophies. You know I would love to have a fish restaurant serving beautiful seafood, but I am not by the sea.
“I believe you have to respect the place that you are and respect the products that you have around you, and cook with the ingredients accordingly.
“Perhaps this idea comes from age, or experience, but when you are young you always think you have to do it today, now. However, when you work with a concept like our ‘cook the mountain’, plans always take at least a year. If you plant something now, it will come back next year. So you learn to deal with the time and be patient with it.
“Also, there is another important side of the business. You can put a lot of money in PR and you will grow to a certain level and probably quite quickly, but it takes a lot to stay there. This is one of the most crucial things that I explain to my chefs. The problem is not doing a Michelin-star menu for one night; the problem is doing a Michelin-star menu for 365 days a year.
“You have to learn to deal with this, and I do think this has a lot to do with age. Today I am much more calm, I am much more relaxed and I try to work on more long-term projects as they are much more fun. You really get to see the changes that are going on. You get to go back to a time where food is more in tune with nature, and in turn your whole rhythm becomes more in tune with nature, even if this does mean only having certain ingredients available when they are in season.
“I am 56 years-old, and I am definitely in the second part of my life, so my approach is completely different. When you are young you just want to move fast and be everywhere, whereas for me I am at the stage where I don’t have to worry about building up a career. I have more or less done everything so I don’t feel the need to be at every congress, every event, so this is already a much calmer attitude.
“You also naturally start thinking about what is good for you and others around you in order to stay well. You think about the responsibility you have to the next generation and what you can do.
“When you approach food in this way, you are often opening up a whole new dialogue with people that come to the restaurant. It was very interesting to hear people comment in the beginning that I was very tied in by this approach to food, or perhaps even limited, but then you explain how it works and how you must adapt by using different methods, different techniques, and you can really see that people are interested in learning about this.
“The other main response we get from guests, let’s say 80-90% of the people that visit, is that you know exactly what you are eating. This is a very respectful way to use the product, not showing o by using certain techniques, but just to use the technique enough to bring the most out of the product. I think this is the right way to do it.
The menu now still focuses on the product, but before it would be a question of calling my supplier and asking where I could and the best scallops, let’s say. He would tell me that they would need to come from America, or Australia or wherever had the product I wanted, and then they would be own in.
Now, we work only with local farmers and have quality ingredients based on what’s in season. You really have to learn to use the product in the right way and also how to store them, so that you can have them available to you at a later date. Because once they are gone, they are gone. There are three important points that we work with to create the menus: the mountain, the season and the most important, no waste.
“I say to my chefs that following these three points are the most important as they allow for the freshest ingredients, the best quality produce, the best prices, the fairest commerce and virtually no waste. If you follow these then you can run a two- or three-Michelin-star restaurant and still make money from it.
“If you can promote this idea with chefs, then you give younger people a reason to enter the industry and also make chefs responsible for the future of food.
“Of course, there are a few things that have stayed the same in terms of my concept or style. It was always very clear for me that the number-one priority for the chef is the product.
“So, I have always made this the main focus, but perhaps before I was doing it differently. Before, I would think about an ingredient and maybe fry it in olive oil or add a dash of lemon, but today it’s completely different; I am looking for the product where I am. The only way to ensure that you get ingredients that are top, top quality is by having it in front of your house.
This is very important and this is showing respect for the product. This was the biggest change for me, but the focus on the quality of the product was always there.
“You go out of haute cuisine and you enter into the culture of food. You begin to understand why certain things have to be done in a certain why, why certain products have to be used in a certain way, why you have to work them in this way. There is always a reason why, and this is the most interesting thing that appeared when we changed the concept into our more recent approach of, ‘cook the mountain’.
“We are bound by nature, so this means that dishes are always changing. We have to work with the season’s offerings, so this can dramatically affect the shape, colour, taste and texture of the dishes. If you work with nature then you don’t really need to follow any recipes.
“And guests love it because it means that all the dishes have a story and a journey. What we are using has a face and people feel connected with the culinary moment they are experiencing.
“Is this the future of fine dining? Well, it always depends on the client and what you want to do, but it’s also very complicated to source locally 100%. Maybe 90% of people do it because it’s current and trendy, but to make a whole way of thinking out of it and follow the philosophy of it is much more of a big deal. By following this way, you can even change the economy around you. For example, we have one guy who we buy vegetables from and because there is no middleman, the money goes directly to him. This is around€8-10k a month, so a whole family can really live from it. But you have to commit to this 100%, not just because it is in fashion.
“The problem is that 60-80% of chefs try to ride the train and as soon as the next train comes along, they will jump on that one instead. So, the problem I see is the long-term commitment to this approach to food.
“But there is no denying that to live sustainably raises the quality of food, it raises the standard of living and betters the economy around you. It sets positive standards for the future.
“Today, we have to set up certain things. We have to offer a certain quality of living in this job. It is a very tough job; when other people are celebrating we are working. So, you have to make young people not only understand this but give them a reason why they should do a job like this. Then you have to let them experience it by themselves because you only understand these things years later. It is very important to go out and experience things in order to be respectful, not just in terms of life but also food, products, and cultures. It is so important to always stay curious like a kid.
“I have learned so much through this approach to my life. To work in this way at the restaurant, we realised that you really need to build up a whole database, a network of the people around you, to understand why sometimes the products would change. For example, you might wonder why the meat is tougher at certain points and find out that the animals had been running around more at that stage, or why the flavour is different from one week to the next and you find out that they had been grazing on certain mountain herbs that week, and then dry hay on another week. You know there are so many things that go into learning about the food around you, so a database of all this information is crucial.
Chefs have to be very careful in future about how they want to approach food. One thing already is that they are flying around the world too much. When St Hubertus is open, I try to be there as much as possible. I try to be very much there and not missing any service. This shows respect for the guests as many might have come a long way to be there. They expect that we are there, and this is a very crucial point because when you create a fine-dining restaurant and you charge a lot of money, then it’s only fair that the chef is there.”
Find out more about Norbert and St Hubertus here | www.rosalpina.it