Chef Ana Roš had already been named Best Female Chef by the British magazine Restaurant the year before. This was followed by a long overdue Michelin Guide review. The guide was published for the first time in Slovenia in 2020, and the self-taught chef’s cuisine was the only one in the country to be awarded two stars. KTCHNrebel spoke with the extraordinary Ana Roš about her experience with the Michelin inspectors, the idea that saved her in the Corona year 2020 and her ambition to make Hiša Franko the best restaurant in the world.
In your youth, you were a ski racer, competed in the Yugoslavian national team and wanted to become a diplomat when you grew up. You spoke five languages, but you couldn’t cook yet. How did you get where you are today?
I started working in my husband Valter’s family restaurant. Although I was starting from scratch, I was eager to try my hand. When cooking, I always tried to approach everything as though I were conducting a study. It made me think a lot more than someone who is taught the skills and techniques, but it also gave me more creative freedom. Becoming a famous chef was not my goal. The question I asked myself was more, can we convince people to come to this remote restaurant on the countryside? Can we survive financially?
Among other things, you serve wild pear from your own garden paired with scampi, lovage oil and hazelnuts, which is not exactly traditional Slovenian regional cuisine.
My food is a symbiosis of the surroundings, the season and my personality. I am like a volcano, but also curious and full of contradictions. That’s why I work with contrasts, especially sweet and spicy, and use a lot of different kinds of fruit. In this way, I’m able to create something new and unexpected. At the same time, my cuisine draws from the nature the Soča Valley has to offer. By this I mean, for example, the trout our rivers are famous for, as well as game, forest fruits, and fruit, vegetables and herbs from the garden behind the house.
For a long time, Slovenia did not have a Michelin Guide. In 2020, the first issue came out and you got two stars right away. The year that saw the dawn of Corona…
It was of course a special moment when the Michelin testers came to Slovenia. For some, the timing was far from ideal, but for us it was just right. Due to travel restrictions, we were particularly reliant on local guests last year. In the past, you often couldn’t get a table for months and the waiting list was often too long for guests from the area. In addition, thanks to the stars, we have received more attention in our neighboring countries, that is, in Croatia, Hungary, Italy, as well as Austria and Germany. People from these places had never heard of us before, but now they were considering taking a trip to Slovenia.
Considering the success you’ve had in the last few years, did you perhaps have a feeling a distinction might be on its way?
To be honest, I had no idea what would happen when the inspectors came. At Michelin, there are certain guiding principles. I had a hard time gauging how the testers would react to the way I cooked and whether we would fit into the Michelin world. I wasn’t ready to make a compromise. However, in the end we managed to win them over. Hiša Franko is a completely self-taught venture. True, we grew up in a region that did not have a Michelin Guide for a long time – but we didn’t have any other gourmet guides either. We cooked according to our own rules from the very beginning. The fact that this special aspect has now been acknowledged makes me very happy. That said, I’m not one to rest on my laurels.
In an interview, you once said you didn’t like to subject yourself to the pressure that comes with being awarded a Michelin star. Are you beginning to feel this pressure?
No, I’ve freed myself of that. For me every guest is equally important – I always give my all. I need creative freedom and want this restaurant to be the best restaurant in the world one day. However, what I’m talking about here doesn’t have anything to do with stars, but rather only with my own standards of quality. After all, people cook differently in every corner of the world, which means it’s not really possible to pick out the “best restaurant” of all. For me, it’s more about achieving my dreams.
What would you still like to perfect?
We are currently reworking our beverage concept. At the moment, every member of our service team is visiting 13 Slovenian wineries, where they are receiving training and insight into the working methods and special features of the respective wineries. In addition, we are working together with the fashion designer Matea Bendetti. She was Fashion Designer of the Year 2020 in Slovenia and works with sustainable materials such as bamboo fibers, apple and pineapple leather. Bendetti designs crazy patterns and will dress our service team. We will look like butterflies (laughs).
What has your success changed for you so far?
I was given a voice. After we were featured on Netflix’s Chef’s Table series in 2016, I gave 515 interviews, and the following year I gave 450. This means that I now have my voice heard in the culinary world, which has helped us, especially in the year of Corona. I now have some political influence in Slovenia and can advocate for local gastronomy.
In 2017 you were named the best female chef in the world by the British magazine Restaurant. Your colleague Dominique Crenn, who has also already received the title, spoke out against the gender classification and division it entails. What do you think about this? Do you think the title of best “female” cook should continue to be awarded?
Yes. I personally think there is a big difference between male and female chefs. I’m not talking about quality, I’m talking about the effort a woman has to make to even get there. We mothers and housewives in particular have to make so many compromises in order to work at the same level as male chefs. This title gives us the opportunity to talk about the reality of our lives, which in my eyes is quite different from that of men. I’m grateful for the prize.
Do you lead in a different way?
Yes, compared to the standard way, I probably do. I listen more, I am not strict and I am very solution-oriented. In a nutshell, I don’t act like a general, but rather more like a psychotherapist.
You have had an extremely challenging year in 2020. The Slovenian borders were closed, and you and your 37-person team had to endure the lockdown and keep up morale. How did this work out for you, and how did you use the time?
We established our own food brand and developed 32 of our own products, thus creating a link between Slovenian farmers and households. Because, as you know, a lot of things were interrupted by Corona. Schools, kindergartens, restaurants – everything was closed. It was a great challenge for the families to put a varied and healthy diet on the table for everyone every day. On the other hand, farmers had to dispose of gallons and gallons of milk because they could not find buyers. Cottage cheese, whey, meat, everything got left behind. We contacted the third largest Slovenian supermarket chain Tuš and signed a contract. This was and still is a very difficult process, because we have to convince the industry to play by our rules, also in terms of pricing. The industry cannot squeeze farmers on price, and we use tests to verify that processors are meeting our standards. But it worked. Last year, this allowed us to sell 300,000 products as of October. We rescue the farmers, we stay creative, I share the profit with my team, and the people at home get to enjoy the best possible food that comes from a transparent supply chain.
Can you give us some examples of your products?
We have created some ice cream flavors, such as high alpine milk with sage honey, curdled milk with chestnut honey, baked apple and kiwi with bergamot. Then there is, for example, lamb pastrami, pumpkin gnocchi with mountain cheese and sage, crackers with Slovenian rye flour, sourdough bread, dulce de leche from high mountain whey, toffee with Slovenian hazelnuts, spicy caramelized walnuts and the nut cake Potica. 30 additional products are currently being developed. Our goal is to fill the entire shopping cart within three years. We have a lot to do.
It sounds like you’ve come through the crisis really well.
Well, for every problem, there is a solution. You can never give up. Still, I also sometimes have sleepless nights. I have thoughts like the easiest things would be just to throw in the towel. But I’m really happy that we didn’t do this because there really is always light at the end of the tunnel. We found that light and the food project made us bond even more as a team. We are allowed to open again on May 28. Even if we are not out of the woods yet, we are definitely heading in the right direction.