Life sometimes reinforces our inadequacies in a brutal, confrontational way. Soon, I’ll be introducing you to Norbert Niederkofler, an imaginative, creative chef who began life in the Dolomites, travelled the world, then returned to his homeland to bring his vision of art to the table. He’s won awards, published two books and is working on a third, and deliberately chose against a career as a professional skier in order to become a Michelin-starred chef. His restaurant, St Hubertus in the unfairly gorgeous Rosa Alpina, attracts folk like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes looking for somewhere special on their honeymoon. He’s hardworking, humorous and confesses that his girlfriend is a better cook than him.
You’ll meet him in a minute. But first, I have to reheat my frozen soup. Like I said, harsh realities.
Over to Norbert.
You’re all about food. I’m all about travel. How important do you think travel is for chefs?
To travel is the most important thing. I was born here in Alta Badia (in the Dolomites.) I was nineteeen when I left, I just wanted to get out of here. I went to America and I was amazed. I thought this is how food should be – with huge plates and all the flavours there, you know? In America you have one, two three, sometimes more flavours all on one plate. Later I realised that you have to find your own style and for me that is linear. Everything must come from nature.
So how did you develop your own style?
I spent one month with the Hopi Indians in the USA. That’s when I really learned to appreciate nature, to work with it. I’ve travelled and worked in America, Germany, Switzerland, Austria…but my time with the Hopi made me realise that the “American Way” was not for me.
(At St Hubertus), we try to make it as simple as possible, because with every ingredient you add, you distract from the original product. But the more you do this, the more perfect your technique must be.
I can make dough in one hour, no problem, but I have to use warm water and I have to use yeast. The dough expands and becomes enormous – but then it collapses again and when you eat it, it carries on fermenting in your stomach. Instead, we age the dough for 3 days so that we don’t need to use yeast. We use mother dough that’s over 100 years old. So it’s all coming back to nature, back to the natural product.
How did you get into this line of work?
Well, my parents were always cooking. When my father died, I was 16 years old. I realised I needed to do something serious. Something to look after my family. So I stopped ski racing and became a chef.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
It’s easy but hard work. Ideas are easy, you could do it right now. (He clearly hasn’t seen the inside of my microwave…)
Stop and imagine mint. Imagine its flavour. It is fresh, slightly sweet, it is alive. Then think about fish. Which type of fish and how you want to prepare it. That’s how you do it. And your success depends upon how many flavours you have…(Norbert taps his head) up here and how many you have tried.
And the hard work?
I work from 8 until 2 and then from 6 until 12. It is a hard life (he shrugs.) I could work as a chef for only eight hours a day and no weekends. I could work in New York. But it is the same with everything, whether you want to do woodcarving or sculpture or whatever.
If you want to be good, then you have to work hard and you get better. And then, on the one side it is good that people invite you here or there (as example, I’m about to cater for 300 people for three days in a row.) On the other, it is more work and you worry about whether you can get it right…
Would you do it all again?
Why do you think you returned to the Dolomites?
Look outside (we’re in the Rosa Alpina, where lilac snowy peaks overlook the postcard pretty town of San Cassiano.) Almost every afternoon I can go outside and be out there in the wild. You cannot do that in a city.
So have you gone back to skiing?
When I was young I stopped because I couldn’t race. Instead, I tried the snowboards that were old style in 1986. Now I’ve returned to skis as the new carve skis allow you to do things you couldn’t before.
And the snowboarding?
(He throws his hands in the air.) I’m 48. I’m getting old.
Abigail King is a writer and photographer who swapped a career as a doctor for a life on the road. Now published by Lonely Planet, the BBC, CNN, National Geographic Traveler & more, she feels most at home experimenting here: covering unusual journeys, thoughtful travel and luxury on www.insidethetravellab.com