With her career plan to become a diplomat, Ana Roš’ life changed dramatically when she and her husband inherited his family’s restaurant, Hiša Franko, in the Soça Valley in Slovenia, close to the Italian border. Now almost twenty years later, Ana has undeniably mastered the art of cooking, by trial and error she says, and by eating at other people’s restaurants. Ana has recently been named the 2017 World’s Best Female Chef… not bad for someone without any formal cooking training!
As I sat in the restaurant’s lobby waiting for Ana to take a break from the kitchen, I was thoroughly amazed and entertained by her dynamic, young staff buzzing around. Every few minutes the telephone would ring, and depending on the nationality of the diner wanting to make a reservation, the staff would quickly change language in order to communicate – Slovak, Italian, English, German, French – I’ve never heard anything like it! At one point, a Canadian couple turned up asking if they could get a booking over the following few days… the answer was a polite “no”; the restaurant is booked out for months in advance.
I started by asking Ana how does it feel to be the “best in the world” at something?
Ana: It’s definitely something to be celebrated, but more importantly, the award is providing a very good platform for the restaurant, and it’s destination.
Being in Slovenia for the first time, and not knowing much about the country’s food history, I was keen to understand more.
Ana: I think Slovenia went through a difficult transition period from the 1950s to about the 1990s; it was a time of communism, and there was no real interest from the authorities, regarding creativity in the kitchens. Fortunately, Slovenia has some very beautiful food traditions and many of these were preserved in the countryside. The “Slow Food Movement” in the 1990s, started to wake up Slovenia, and I think this movement helped develop some very interesting chefs who started to rethink the country’s culinary identity.
I was keen to gather some insight into what the early days were like for Ana in the restaurant, given she originally had no plans for a culinary career.
Ana: When my husband and I first took over the restaurant, I didn’t work in the kitchen; I was in management and on service. Then a few years later, we decided that one of us should take over the kitchen. It was a big challenge, because we had a vision of what we wanted to do, but no knowledge on how to do it! My husband was already in the wine business and a sommelier, so we decided he should stick with that, and I should take the challenge of entering the kitchen. For a number of years, I had been very interested in food flavours; we would often travel around Europe to other restaurants. It was a very long, tough, ten years; I needed to continuously find new ideas and motivation, but I was curious to see what we could create from our local environment.
At Creative & Co we love to explore creativity; with an extraordinary menu on offer, I was curious to know how Ana comes up with ideas for new dishes.
Ana: Creativity needs to come from an open mind. I think my lack of formal culinary training helps me in some ways, as I am not limited by traditional ways of doing something! I also think creativity comes from our personalities, and your personality is the result of a patchwork of your life experiences.
The drive to Ana’s restaurant from the Italian border is sparsely populated and you are surrounded by beautiful natural environs and dense forests. I ask Ana how important is the restaurant’s location, and access to local produce, for her cooking.
Ana: A lot, in our case, because we are influenced by local ingredients and the seasons. We are passionate about sourcing our ingredients locally and have set a seventy-kilometre radius from the restaurant in which to source our ingredients. For us, this means we can source from the sea (in the gulf around Trieste) to the meadows in the mountains behind us. Foraging is a traditional Slovenian practise and we have a young local forager we work with. He is from a family of foragers, so brings with him historical knowledge, but his youthfulness brings new ideas. I believe the local environment is the most important part of our cuisine.
As my time wraps up with Ana – she still has to finish lunch service, prepare for the dinner service and in between check on her kids and pack for a trip the next day to New York – I finish by asking her about what the award means to her local suppliers, and this region.
Ana: It’s probably having an effect on the whole environment. It’s not only that the restaurant is now booked out months in advance, we have to make sure our guests have somewhere to sleep. We only have ten rooms here, so it means other local accommodation places are now benefiting. And most importantly, it has given a lot of young, intelligent people a vision that they don’t have to remain in the large cities for their careers; there are excellent career opportunities evolving for them here in the valley. Gastronomy is a beautiful connection between people, because by buying from local producers, we are not only helping them economically, we are at the same time, keeping traditions alive. I think it is only a positive story in this case!
As I start to drive away, down a narrow, winding road, a spot a figure emerging from the forest. As I glance back out of my rear vision mirror, I realise it’s a forager, with a large basket on his back, packed to the brim with forest greens. Until this day, I had thought that a forest forager was a character in a mythical fairytale; but now I well and truly know they are real!
If you would like to read more about Ana Roš and her restaurant, or make a booking click here.