Italy’s inland Friuli is not one of the world’s tourism hotspots – at least not yet. Although the word is slowly spreading that this historic spot nestled between Austria, Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea produces what is widely reputed to be Italy’s best white wines – not to mention the panoramic view of the Eastern Dolomites, the Julian and Carnic Alps, which will take your breath away.
Antonia Klugmann knows this region like the back of her hand. With her restaurant L’Argine a VencÍ, which opened in 2014, the Italian star chef has created something like an international tourist attraction – and this virtually in the middle of an idyllic nowhere that belongs to the 1550-inhabitant municipality of Dolegna del Collio. Right after the opening, the native of Trieste received her first star and also made a name for herself in the media, perhaps most notably as a judge on the Italian edition of the cooking show Masterchef.
“Actually,” says Klugmann, “I prefer it when people don’t come to the restaurant just because of me. I like it best when they come because of the region. When this is the case, my restaurant gives them a taste of everything Friuli has to offer.” In fact, the dishes you get in her restaurant, complete with its own vegetable garden, couldn’t be more terroir-driven.
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For example, the radicchio leaves marinated in red wine vinegar and truffle butter or spaghetti cooked in orange stock with pumpkin tartare impressively demonstrate that she has discovered her style here. And this despite the fact – or perhaps precisely because – Antonia Klugmann really didn’t have an easy time of it.
Forget home cooking!
Born in 1979, Antonia Klugmann is the daughter of a doctor couple. Perhaps that is why she decided early on to study a conventional professional subject. “I really wanted to be a lawyer,” the fastidious perfectionist recalls in print-ready English, which she says she feels very self-conscious speaking.
For three years, she studied law in Milan. “It still fascinates me how law shapes a society,” says Klugmann. “On the other hand, since high school I had the problem that I couldn’t find an outlet to express my creativity.” This changed rather by chance during her studies when she discovered cooking while living with roommates at the time. “What inspired me, however, was not standard home cooking, but rather this aspiration of haute cuisine, where the focus is on expressing creativity in cooking.”
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So Klugmann read magazines and watched cooking shows – and slowly but surely, the core temperature of a fried monkfish fillet just became more important than paragraph 19 of the Italian penal code. After three years, the native of Trieste quit her studies and decided to become a chef – although she didn’t know exactly how to do this.
Antonia Klugmann’s decision to open a restaurant in Friaulia’s inland region initially had people stratching their heads. “Back then,” she recalls, “it wasn’t really trendy to become a chef.” No wonder the decision made by this promising student horrified her parents, not to mention the rest of the family. After all, no one in the family had ever stood behind the stove full-time.
An accident as a turning point
Klugmann became a dishwasher in a small Friulian restaurant. Around the same time, she heard the top chef Raffaello Mazzolini would soon open a restaurant in the area. She began as an intern, became a commis and then completed a four-year apprenticeship with Mazzolini, who taught her skills and unorthodox innovation.
Armed with the basic tools to launch a career in cooking, the obsessive kitchen lover moved on to other top restaurants in Italy – but fate obviously had other plans in mind. In retrospect, perhaps in knew the better path. In 2005, Klugmann had a serious car accident. For a year, she couldn’t stand in the kitchen, let alone for all those long hours a day. “During this year”, the top chef remembers, ” I decided to become a restaurateur. That is, open my own restaurant.”
She did too. And opened Antico Foledor Conte Lovaria in Udine in 2006, where she worked for six years as head chef. “It was an incredibly educational time for me, especially because I had time to develop. I think that was also because the Internet with all the social networks was not so prevalent back then. This gave me room to improve my techniques and slowly find myself as a chef.”
Klugmann’s signature began to focus heavily on ostensibly non-luxury products; in particular, she ceaselessly honed techniques to make local vegetables stand out and dazzle. She also discovered vegetable cultivation during the year following her accident. Klugmann’s conclusion was therefore: a new restaurant. One that was truly her own, with its own land and garden – here in Friaul.
The first star
She found her home in Dolegna del Collio near the Slovenian border. Next to an old stone mill from the 16th century, Klugmann commissioned the construction of the current restaurant building, a modern-looking architectural gem made of wood and glass. “For some, this decision was bizarre. As for the others, let’s say they thought it was brave,” says Klugmann with a wink. This dragged on for four years. One of the reason was because Klugmann also had to earn money during this time. On the side, she earned her first star for the restaurant Venissa in Venice.
“It was an incredibly intense and, yes, stressful time. For Venissa, which after all has a certain status in Venice, I had to deliver and I also wanted to get better and better.” It was worth it, not just for the star, but also because the journalists who dined at Venissa now had Antonia Klugmann on their radar. Less than a year after opening L’Argile a Vencò in 2014, Klugmann also received her – somehow again first – macaron there.
Soulfood from the dark kitchen
“This was a gift for the restaurant. You should know that the importance of a star should not be underestimated, especially for a remote restaurant like ours. Without the guide, a lot of people wouldn’t even know we exist.” In contrast to her time as head chef in the Venissa, seafood plays a less prominent role at her inland restaurant. This is simply because it becomes difficult to maintain transparency and sustainability when you’re not cooking right by the sea, Klugmann says.
“I have the feeling that my cuisine here has become a little more Italian, a little more traditional. To put it more personally, because after all, I was raised on traditional Italian cuisine, too.” This return to the past also has something to do with the Corona crisis. Since take-away or pick-up service is not very popular in Friuli’s no-man’s land, the star chef came up with something different: The L’Argine a VencÍ kitchen became a dark kitchen, and traditional Italian soul food was cooked and sold in a shop in Trieste.
An unexpected enrichment for Klugmann: “I’m rediscovering this cuisine, infusing it with some of our techniques from the restaurant, and noticing how much I’m growing as a result, personally as well.” In this way, things never get boring in Friuli’s karst plateau – neither for Klugmann nor her (future)guests. Whether or not they come for that reason.