Antonia Klugmann – chef and owner of L’argine a Vencò, a little restaurant in Dolegna del Collio, Vencò, Friuli, Italy. In 2006, she opened her first restaurant and her dream of becoming a chef materialised. Barely a year later, she received a Michelin star. The part she loved most in cooking is the creative process.
The Best Chef: Can you tell us something more about the history of this place, how the restaurant was founded?
Antonia Klugmann: I really felt in love by the first sight. I saw this piece of land and I really felt related to it. I was really passionate, in the first years during the construction of the restaurant. I was 26 when I become a chef and entrepreneur. After 6 years of renting, I thought it’d be best choice for my career to be buy some place, find something I could invest my time and money permanently. So, I started the search and truly believed that this part of Collio had a great future, because of tourism, the beauty of the land, tradition, food ingredients. I’m really in love with the countryside. As a chef, I really wanted it to have a place in the middle of the countryside where I could find ingredients of a high quality, have a really good relationship with the producer. When I found this place, I was really lucky. I imagined. I dreamed about a modern restaurant, and I really had it in my mind, while I was buying this place. After four years of building process, I had my restaurant.
The Best Chef: What was it like at the very beginning, since it’s basically a small town with very few tourists?
Antonia Klugmann: I’m lucky because here we have one producer and Collio is quite well known in the gastronomic circle. Of course, it’s not like being in the center of Milan or Rome. When I bought this place, I already had some guests who knew me. It was, of course, a slightly risky adventure. During the building process I was chef in Venice in a well-known restaurant Venissa, one Michelin star. I had a great team and the restaurant situated in the middle of the lagoon, was beautiful. I was already popular when I opened the restaurant here, which helped me a lot.After only one year of opening I received my first Michelin star and this also helped me a lot. It was really challenging but I feel very lucky because I’m exactly where I want to be my restaurant is always fully booked and I think that is not something easy. I think I’m really, really lucky to have it.
The Best Chef: As you said, a fully booked restaurant means that you manage to attract people here and show them on a daily basis that this is a very beautiful place to visit. What is the secret?
Antonia Klugmann: I think that beauty helps, helps the guests and help me to be inspired by ingredients and I think restaurants today are a good reason to travel. And because if they are sincere the show in the proper way how beautiful can a countryside be and also, it’s a way to know region. In Italy, we have so many traditions locally totally different from the other so much richness about ingredients and I think this is quite unique and if a restaurant can transfer this to the guests, they have a reason go there. You’re not in the middle of nowhere also because you have the communication, you have internet today, and if there is a one thing that the pandemic period shows us is that maybe we are in the middle of nowhere maybe we are not seeing people, but we are still connected in a way. And this is something really powerful because this is the first time in maybe in human history, that we can live in a place we choose but still be connected even if we are isolated in a way.
The Best Chef: Have you always dreamed of becoming a chef?
Antonia Klugmann: I’m daughter of two medical doctors and really my family even my grandfather was a medical doctor, everyone in my family is graduated at a university. Studying is not something that you have to do because you have to, you have to study because it’s beautiful. Because if you have the opportunity to go deeply in something it’s good to go for it. So when I choose to leave the University I was studying law in Milano when I decided to try to be a cook. I didn’t know anything about being a cook so I was I think a little bit crazy about that, a little bit, you know, I was not aware of the difficulties that maybe I could have chosen this career, but it was really something about love again and passion. Sometimes I talk to my mother about that, and she said to me: “I always had trust on you, but I was really scared”.
I can remember, I was a smoker on those days, and I was smoking outside the first kitchen where I worked, and I was outside, and I could see my colleagues my chef and I thought this is my place. This is…I belong to the kitchens; I belong to this type of life. I never change my mind even one day, even if it was so difficult because of money, because of the career, because of how hard is this work. I never changed my idea. I think I’m really love with my job in the proper way.
The Best Chef: What was so attractive and beautiful to you about being a cook?
Antonia Klugmann: The creativity part really attracted me. I was lucky, because in my family everyone cooks well and for every Italian cooking, eating it’s really a main part of the day. So my grandfather was born in Pulia so there was in my DNA this Mediterranean cuisine, that past me from my mother, in my father roots there where European heritage because of my surname Klugmann. They came from Poland, so my grandfather was born in Zurich. There was this heritage – very complex, mixed with the Mediterranean and the other grandmother came from Emilia-Romania, co a lot of fresh pasta, lasagna and fritto misto all’ Italiana. Cuisine was a mixed one, but Italian, very interesting and maybe this influenced me, but I think the love with Ferran Adria was a key, because I saw how creativity in the kitchen could make you free, in a way. I want to be a pro, I want to be a professional, who could imagine new things about ingredients in a sincere and personal way. I think that being in a way unique even when you make mistakes is the key to something in the kitchen.
The Best Chef: How would you define your kitchen? Tell us more about your cooking style, what inspires you?
Antonia Klugmann: I think that my cuisine is always in progress and changing, because I’m changing and I really think about ingredients always in a new way, you know, to improve my techniques to improve how my kitchen is. But in a way I’m the same person then fifteen years ago or twenty years ago when I start to cook and I think that I’m really sincere again, authentic when I think about food and this is I think the key, because I really try to do something that is mine not imitating anybody. Of course, I’m influenced by traditions, by Italian memories that I have in myself but at the same time I try really to improve the techniques that I use, inventing new way to transform ingredients and I think that the mixed of two things, being related in a sincere way to our memories our heart and pushing every day to be a better cook is the key to my career.
The Best Chef: Sustainability is very trendy right now; everyone talks about being eco-friendly and what does it mean to you?
Antonia Klugmann: I never choose something that is rare in my ingredients. I use only what is really common, what is weeds. Wild herbs have a sense only in that way. Even in my kitchen garden, there is our first school about sustainability, because it shows us how much water, how much energy you have to use to have only one plant, so you learn a lot in a garden, you understand also that you have to choose only the seeds, only the plants that are good for your environment. I never use something that is tropical, or that is really not good for our countryside. Through the years, you understand which plants you have to use, and this process improves the menu in a really interesting way. Even talking to our producer is a really good way to be a little bit more sustainable every day; to understand how difficult is for them to have some vegetables or having some part of the animal because you are a chef so you want this taught me a lot of about what is really sustainable and what is not, also something that helps me a lot is having not many guests in a dining room. I only make eight tables, maximum 9; 22 seats for service and this is also a way to be sustainable for us and have a good relationship with a countryside.
Everyone has a way to cook that is different. Every restaurant has a life that is totally different one by the other. So as today we are talking to you, and you know exactly how many restaurants are in the world and it’s really important that we don’t copy one by the other. Being unique, challenging ourselves in our way is so important.
The Best Chef: What are your plans for the future?
Antonia Klugmann: Now we just reopen, from the pandemic stop. We are really excited, and, in a way, we are also at the window in a way seeing what happens, because we are really… every family felt in a different way, because it was really a heart time for everybody. It’s really something there is exciting being reopen again and I think next year maybe we will finally restore the meal, having four more rooms. This year we really focus about garden, because also of the needs of having guests in the garden, eating at the table in a safe way. We improve the lot to the garden and my wild garden project because also of the sustainable vision that we have to have even in the garden, not only the kitchen garden. This was really interesting for me. I really learn a lot during this year about all the things that matter for me. I didn’t have, I never have time to study because I’m always in the kitchen, so this year I could learn a lot about things that I love and yes, I can’t wait to see what future have for us.
The Best Chef: What advice would you give to young people who want to become chefs?
Antonia Klugmann: I always say to the guys in the kitchen with me, the cooks, who are so younger, so much younger than me, that they have to think about the reason why they cook, every single day of their life, being aware of want you want is the point I think, so I hope that every cook who goes in the kitchen have the strength to be unique, in a way. I hope that people can feel that coming here, worth it and also that what I show, what I say about my restaurant, what is my story telling is perfectly a mirror in the dishes. The dishes, eating my cooking is the right way to know me, because I’m totally the food that I make.