Image credit: Daniel Töchterle

In 1996, armed with conviction and experience under some of the best cooks in the world, a gutsy young chef with the support of a forward-looking hotelier decided to embark on a gastronomic journey that would bring glory aplenty to an Italian alpine haven. Thus, St. Hubertus was born — in a small area of the pizzeria of the family-owned Hotel Rosa Alpina in San Cassiano, Italy.

Its beginnings were humble. The staff were all but two — Norbert Niederkofler in the kitchen and Hotel Rosa Alpina owner Hugo Pizzinini as waiter.

Fast forward two decades, and St. Hubertus, whose name stands for the patron of the hunters, has become a real culinary institution in the heart of the Dolomites mountains — at over 1,500 metres above sea level. Awarded with two Michelin stars and still helmed by Niederkofler, the restaurant is tied strongly to tradition, simplicity and innovation.

To mark the momentous occasion, from 1st to 20th June, 2016, St. Hubertus will present a special menu called “20 years, 20 dishes, 20 days”. The menu will feature 20 of the restaurant’s most memorable dishes over the years.

Niederkofler, also a Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux, admits however it was “very hard to decide” which dishes would go into this celebratory menu and 20 are, in his opinion, not enough.

Ahead of the hotel and restaurant’s summer opening, the 55-year-old culinary maestro also shares with Quotient some of the highlights in his career in “cooking the mountains” and  his favourite Italian restaurants.

Norbert Niederkofler

Niederkofler’s inspiration comes from nature and from old traditions. Image credit: Daniel Töchterle

Quotient: Hi Norbert. Tell us a little about your love for the culinary art. How did you become a chef?
Niederkofler: I have always liked the kitchen. For me, it has always represented the most important place in the house. It’s warm, it provides you with food, and allows you to constantly meet people. And if you think about it, most of the important things done in history where first thought around a table.

Who has been the most influential person in your career?
My mother and father. They owned a small hotel in Valle Aurina and both of them were always in the kitchen, so there was always real life going on — arguments and harmony, great satisfaction, discussions, motion and concentration — all of this in just a few hours of service.

How different is St. Hubertus’s menu and style today compared to when the restaurant was established in 1996?
The foundation always remains the same. The most important aspect in the culinary world is the product and not the chef.  The only thing that has really changed in the last year is the technical approach. The focus now is more on health, lightness, sustainability of food and working closely with local producers and farmers.

Norbert Niederkofler and team

Niederkofler and his team of chefs share an immense passion for the mountains. Image credit: Daniel Töchterle

Share with us some of your favourite moments at St. Hubertus over these past two decades and what’s in store for the restaurant in the near future.
The most important thing for me is having lots of regular guests. For years, we had one guest who visited us over 80 times, and this means what we did was not wrong. We spent so many hours sitting with guests around the table talking, discussing about food and life; some are really great guests who changed or are still changing the world, guests who became friends and are following us around the world with events.

In the future, we will try keeping the same way of working with respect and stay curious like children. We will try to find new products, new producers and tell our guests the story of our hard work — so there are still lots of things to do and explore!

St. Hubertus in the Dolomites

Niederkofler’s cuisine focuses on simplicity and locally sourced ingredients. Image credit: Daniel Töchterle

What have been your biggest challenges during your career as a Michelin-star chef?
Actually, I am the biggest problem. I’m never happy with things. I am a perfectionist. But I think it’s very important to find your balance and accept you can never make everyone happy. You have to be yourself and to be sure about the quality of the products you serve.

How would you define your culinary creative process? Where does your inspiration come from?
It’s a mix between curiosity, knowledge about products and technique. I create 80% of the dishes in my head. Just by thinking about certain dishes, you will have their taste in your mouth. But of course, there are also some rules. Food is like yin and yang: sweet and sour; soft and crunchy; hot and cold.

Norbert Niederkofler's cuisine

Niederkofler uses ingredients from the region’s farmers and producers. Image credit: Daniel Töchterle

Describe your cooking style using three adjectives.
Simple, clear, clean.

Nowadays, Italian cuisine is renowned all over the world and constantly receives praise from both critics and diners. What does authentic Italian food mean to you?
We are a very lucky to be blessed with great produce and a great food culture. Also, thanks to the great work of chefs such as Massimo Bottura and Giancarlo Morelli, who have been travelling to Lima for years in search of more inspiration, Italy has earned respect all around the world.

What are your favourite Italian dishes and restaurants?
I like good produce such as olive oil, tomatoes, mozzarella and speck so I am thankful for all the people who bring quality in the food business. Some of the restaurants I like are Giancarlo Morelli’s Osteria del Pomiroeuin Seregno, Massimo Bottura’s Osteria  Francescana in Modena and Pino Cuttaia’s La Madia in Licata, Sicily.

Which non-Italian dish can you eat over and over again?
Ceviche and sushi.

What is your favourite city in the world to indulge in good food?
New York City is definitely the greatest melting pot for culture and cuisines. The first time I went there was in 1986 and I still love it today.