A CULINARY RUN FOR THE BORDER,WITHOUT LIMITS
We interviewed Antonia Klugmann, Michelin-starred chef and head of her restaurant on the border between Italy and Slovenia. A woman of culture and culinary traveler, there is one thing she would never leave: her land.
Cooking is also about interpretation and she, Antonia Klugmann, has this gift. As the chef at “L’argine a Vencò” in Dolegna del Collio — in the region of Friuli Venezia Giulia — she is one of the most innovative and courageous “border” chefs today. Her cooking history began when she was still studying law in the city of Milan, where, between one textbook and another, she gravitated to cooking courses. After fine training, she found her calling, drawn by an ancient mill, along the Judrio River on the Italian-slovenian border, and turned it into a creative, explorative cuisine mecca: the name, L’argine, in fact, means the embankment where the restaurant is located.
Antonia knows that land well, her home, and embraces it every day: dishes waft local aromas, while innovation is her beacon. Antonia is a woman of passion, for her work and for her land, and she pours this passion into her emotional kitchen, made of reduction and essence. Her personal garden is an integral part of the restaurant and among many of the reasons each creation sings of freshness. Harmony, creativity and seamless composition earned her a Michelin star, a crown for the chef’s indelible love for her calling.
Trieste-born Antonia Klugmann, you were studying jurisprudence when you were 22-years old and opened your first restaurant when you were 26. What happened in those four years?
Complete folly. But I was missing some element I needed to feel personally accomplished: I felt that I had to follow and feed my creativity. So during university, I thought that cooking might be the right creative field for me. I did not have any prior education, so I started by attending amateur courses: in the end I left law and returned to my region where I started doing an apprenticeship. I moved from dishwasher, to cleaning: that is how I came into the world of dining and I’m so glad.
Your return back to your region, your home, was the pinnacle... That was the choice that opened the door for my intimate relationship with ingredients. Up until then I was fine with the technical aspects of cooking, but living in a rural environment, growing my own garden, let me bond with the basic elements and build a personal exchange that has been cornerstone for me.
She started her career as a cook 15 years ago, in Milano, after having finished her law studies. This was a good decision, as soon became apparent after her classical cooking training.
Cuisine is not only the ability to prepare; it is also history, research, and storytelling. What does it mean to be a chef?
I love my work and hope to continue for all of my life, but certain conditions must be met. Becoming an entrepreneur at such a young age, at 26, means that I earned the right, through my work, to be creative. Being an entrepreneur is the price I willingly pay for my freedom.
Your cooking is about personal and geographic borders. But it is an embracing ‘border’, not a dividing line. What gifts does this approach bring to you each day?
I am not inhibited to seek out foreign traditions and ingredients from cultures that are somewhat close to Italian. The fact that I was born in Trieste and to have a restaurant on the border gives me access to the best of Austrian and Eastern European traditions. And beyond that, I source my ingredients from Italy and Slovenia, taking the best from both sides of the border — culturally and culinary. It is an unending fountain that should be included, not excluded.
Truly, Italian cuisine is taking on an ever more explorative approach, seeking out new paths. Is it a move away from traditional values or a move back towards Italian cuisine’s origins?
It is a mirror of today. Since I believe that Internet has opened the door to know what is happening on the other side of the world in real time, and a multiethnic society, and cuisine should reflect this, because that also is the meaning of contemporary. Italian cooking has an ancient and well-rooted tradition, but this probably makes us even freer to go beyond and welcome those influences from outside. Those ‘contaminates’ do not dirty, they make it all the more interesting.
Do you believe that Italian cuisine currently is effectively promoted abroad? How much do think foreigners really know about Italian flavors?
I think that singing the praises of Italian cuisine is a very strong way to reach an overseas audience, but it’s also a double-edged sword: superficial messages are risky, especially for a deep culture like ours. Quality is distinguished by our flavors and must be promoted beyond the borders.
Antonia Klugmann, a native from Trieste, is among the most sensational shooting stars of the northern Italian gourmet scene.
How would you describe Italian cuisine if I have to explain it to a tourist?
Very often we forget that Italian cuisine is a regional cuisine: to the tourist I would recommend considering our peninsula in its entirety and to visit even the most far-flung places, because it is surprisingly unimaginable for those who think in that the country is the land of pizza, lasagna and little else. What make us great are rich shades: who says that simplifying is better? We are “complex” - in the most positive sense of the term - and we have to tell that story.
Is it more important to export products or to stimulate tourism to promote the experience directly?
I believe that both aspects are paramount. Obviously, the journey is a more complete emotion, a unique experience, which doesn’t have to cost a goldmine, either. This is also an important message for tourists: traveling to Italy in search of an epic, excellence experience isn’t just for the wealthy, but also for the curious.
You have said that you visit kitchens around the world and that leaves a mark on your cooking. Where does your inspiration come from?
Undoubtedly, I would like to travel more, but my work has a demanding and strange schedule. Yet it is true that if I don’t manage to travel to a place, my imagination does it for me, goes and discovers and invents. There is a lot of studying behind my cooking — my own and from other countries — but also from cookbooks and historic research. Cooking moves through history, discovering the resources and knowledge necessary to create awareness.
What dishes make you feel at home?
I believe that the sensations that make you feel at home change a lot over a lifetime. Sometimes it just takes walking into a kitchen and smelling familiar aromas. I am not a very nostalgic person, so I don’t dig deep to find childhood flavors. Sometimes just sitting down seems like a luxury. That is why just sitting down to a plate of pasta with tomato sauce is enough for me to feel at home.
During these first four years, Antonia Klugmann earned her first merits at the Baldovino restaurant with master chef Raffaello Mazzolini, before gaining professional experience in further premium restaurants that inspired her to find her own style.
Oxtail, peppers and yogurt
Small, roasted wildchicory Ravioli
Credits: Cesare Genuzio
Baby spinach, parmigiano and juniper