With earthy flavors to the stars
When I left Vienna for London last summer, a friend gave me a voucher for dinner at the Lecture Room & Library, where Tyrolean Johannes Nuding has been head chef since 2014 – only the second Austrian to receive the enviable three Michelin stars, its highest honor. The idea, I suspect, was to make me homesick for Austria, my home for three wonderful years.
I went with mixed feelings – not all the reviews were positive. But although Nuding’s cuisine didn’t exactly have me packing my bags, my evening at the Lecture Room was otherworldly and exceeded expectations.
I meet Nuding just before the start of dinner service in the extravagant dining room of the restaurant. His hazel eyes match the ginger shine of his thick, short brown hair. His plain good looks and his immaculately white chef’s jacket are offset by the red, ochre and purple velvet chairs, yellow and mirrored walls, dramatic curtains and pink, baroque carpet. We are dwarfed by a gigantic red lamp, reminiscent of a Chinese lampion hanging down from the domed ceiling. You could have mistaken the dining room for an oversized boudoir, or perhaps a grand theater where the staff are the stagehands, from the moment the maître d’ sweeps open the doors and the diner walks onto the stage. And it worked: With all its opulence, the décor was harmonious and neither camp nor – God forbid – cheap.
Nuding himself was friendly, talkative and generous, in no way the “don’t-waste-my-time bulldog” people often expect in restaurants at this level. He promised me 20 minutes, but gave me an hour.
Paris – Moscow – London
Coming out of school at 15, Nuding, now 35, had thought his future cut and dried. Enrolling at the acclaimed School for Tourism in Innsbruck, Villa Blanka, he hoped to become a hotel manager. But once into his course, he realized the kitchen was his turf, and from then on, the learning curve was fast and steep.
He did apprenticeships at restaurants in Switzerland, Germany and Austria, taking on his first job at Konditorei Munding, an Innsbruck institution, to improve his pâtisserie skills. From there, it would be military service. And here fortune played a hand, when his predecessor at Munding, who had moved to Paris to work at Joël Robuchon, promised him a job there after the army.
“It sounded too good to be true,” he remembered. “But he kept his promise. That is how I ended up in Paris.”
Two years later, he moved on to Pierre Gagnaire, a top chef with 20 restaurants around the world. “So there was a constant flow of employees who advance through the ranks,” he said. “It really helped get me where I am now at a relatively young age.”
Not to mention the talent, perseverance and stamina required to succeed at this level. Still, Nuding is modest and down-to-earth; a career depends also on luck and timely help, and he knows it.
After a couple of years, Gagnaire sent Nuding to Moscow, where the young chef met his Armenian wife. Soon after, The Lecture Room was granted a second Michelin star, and Nuding was appointed head chef in London, to make sure they kept it. “But soon I became eager to bring the restaurant to the next level,” he admitted, “[while] Pierre was convinced the third star would come, but thought it better to create a solid base.” He tried to slow Nuding down.
Did this mean tension? Disagreements? No need, apparently. “Pierre has the final responsibility,” Nuding explained, “but he isn’t in London very often. So I make all the daily decisions, including the design of the entire menu.
“But I obviously work in the spirit of Gagnaire,” he said. “Pierre sets the beat, we join in with our instruments.”
Nuding describes Gagnaire’s gastronomic empire in terms of a solar system: everything revolves around the great chef. Gagnaire has a “huge personality”, he says admiringly; he is the “Al Pacino of gastronomy”. But at the same time Nuding emphasizes how humble Gagnaire is. He doesn’t consider himself too good to brush the floor if it helps the team to focus on what they need to do, just as Nuding doesn’t shy away from peeling potatoes. Nuding assumes that Gagnaire’s erstwhile bankruptcy has taught him not to take himself too seriously. You are only as good as today’s success.
Gagnaire is known for his cuisine d’instant, says Nuding. “Gagnaire doesn’t have a test kitchen. He creates when he is standing with his back against the wall – or, not until a client orders it, as it were. It is cooking in the moment.” To balance things out Nuding provides the skill to perfect a dish and make service flow. After years of cooperation, the chefs are so well attuned that feedback now shifts from impeccable technique and perfect produce to the minutiae of service, decoration and labour conditions: the shoes of a waiter, a napkin or the light in the kitchen. Apart from humbleness, it is this passion for perfection and eye for detail that binds the two.
Nuding considers Gagnaire a visionary. “He doesn’t follow trends, he creates them,” he said. “Right from the start, 20 years ago now, he served a full vegetarian tasting menu at The Lecture Room.” Building on Gagnaire’s experimental approach, Nuding serves daring flavor combinations, which, even today, Nuding admits, tempt critics to dismiss his style as “just chucking some things on a plate.”
His duck, flavored with coffee beans, angelica (a herb), buckwheat and grapefruit is one such misunderstood dish – it sounds wild, but is, in fact, heavenly. The bitterness of the coffee, the herbal sweetness of angelica and the earthy crunch of buckwheat give complexity, while the duck fat, cut by the grapefruit’s acidity, brings everything brilliantly together, a combination that reveals a highly advanced understanding of flavor and texture.
“When my parents read the menu, they think it is Latin or Greek. But although my ingredients may seem eclectic, I use well-known techniques.” His pork dish (made from the rare, English pig breed Middle White), for example, is an old-style roast.
Both Nuding and Gagnaire draw inspiration from small things, creating a gastronomic ensemble. Their classic, continuously evolving Parfums de Terre illustrates this: Taking the descriptor “earthy” as a starting point, it consists of four small plates served together, each showcasing one or more flavors fitting the theme – Nuding refers to it as a centerpiece with satellites. My version was mustard ice cream with spring beans, almond and thinly sliced mushroom, foie gras – Nuding’s cuisine is undeniably French – with creams of celeriac and blackcurrants. Then a vol-au-vent of snails (likewise undeniably French) and, finally, the centerpiece: a smoked Mammole artichoke (edible in its entirety) stuffed with Knödel, and with spinach, lardo and a brunoise of 12 different vegetables on the side.
Seated on a soft armchair in the Lecture Room’s ornate dining room, the aromas and flavors of damp soil, autumn leaves and farmyards couldn’t have been more exotic. However, when served together, the exquisite dishes enhanced each other, illustrating the richness and diversity of what we call earthiness.
The snails trigger a discussion of the importance of local produce. Nuding buys local when he can, but doesn’t want to compromise on quality. So his Kürbiskernöl comes from Austria, but the snails – that utterly French delicacy – are from Dorset. And what a treat they were! Tender with just the lightest, most pleasant sensation of chewiness.
Apart from a few details, the Austrian influence in Nuding’s cuisine was marginal, I decided. Like nearly every celebrated top chef, Nuding is an international nomad: He speaks English with a French accent (charming), is fluent in Italian and is learning Russian. As much as he misses his family, friends and the mountains, he seems – at least for now – firmly settled in the British capital. He loves his international clientele, the museums and the hustle and bustle of city life.
So his cooking won’t transport you back to Vienna – but, then again, that isn’t why you visit London anyway.