Ana Roš is 42-years-old and only started cooking 14 years ago. Her curriculum makes no mention of internships in the kitchens of prestigious international restaurants, but reveals an adolescence as a competitive skier and a degree in International and Diplomatic Sciences.
Nevertheless, this Slovenian chef now occupies a place among the international culinary elite, a status ratified by the episode thatChef's Table dedicated to her in its second series, when the entire world became familiar with Hiša Franko, the restaurant on the Italian-Slovenian border she co-manages with her husband Valter.
Ana moved to the remote country house set in the heart of the Isonzo valley for the love of her husband, whose family used to run a holiday farm business. “We were young and ambitious. When we first took over the restaurant, the customers did not understand the concept of our cuisine and did not come back. To make a living, we did other jobs: I translated for an oil company and my husband taught in a hotel management school”.
Completely self-taught, she developed her talent through trial and error: “I had plenty of good ideas but I was lacking in technical skills. I improvised and overcooked things. I asked customers for their opinions, but they only answered me by saying, 'It’s an interesting dish' – the worst thing you can ever hear! But if you are intelligent, you listen to advice and you try to do things differently. Cooking is not for stupid people.”
We got the chance to meet her during Sauce 2016, where she prepared a dinner using Estonian products.
Your dishes are strongly characterised by a relationship with the Slovenian territory. How would you define your cooking if we take away the element of locally sourced products?
The basic idea is that of contrast. There are two concepts of harmony: dishes that have been conceived all along the same line, a “harmony of harmonies” as expressed by the French or German schools, and dishes whose harmony springs from a contrast, a union of discordant elements. These are the ones I like most: if I eat out, I want to have fun and this is what I offer my guests.
You have never experienced working under a master chef. Have you drawn inspiration from anyone in particular?
Possibly Ferran Adrià. My husband and I have been to El Bulli twice. The flavours were distinct, excellent and easy to absorb even if – like me – you had no idea how they had been achieved. That was the heyday of molecular cuisine: everyone used to ask you, 'How many additives do you use?' and it was difficult to go on being yourself, to find your own centre of gravity. On the outside there were experiments with foam and textures and inside a conscience that was making itself felt!”
In view of your own experience, do you think it is necessary for a young chef to have traditional training?
No. What counts most is expressing yourself, without trying to please at all costs: this solitary process of exploration is arduous, but it leads you to discover some phenomenal solutions. Be open minded, listen to everyone and never stop learning. I still learn new things from my interns.
Yours was not an easy debut.
Before we took over the restaurant, Valter’s father used to offer a sort of menu for the “petrol tourists,” as we used to call the Italians who came to fill up their tanks cheaply in Slovenia and then spent whatever they had saved in a restaurant. They wanted to eat dishes such as spaghetti with seafood, pasta with clams … I wanted to do something different. No one can honestly come to me and order a plate of mixed grilled fish: we have bear, lamb and roe deer.
When did you start to think “I have arrived”?
Never! There are still days when I look at myself in the mirror and wonder if it was really worth the effort. Let’s say that for the past five years we have been able to earn a living and reinvest to improve the business. Now we have the right guests, the people who come are mindful, motivated and interested. This is what I wanted: I never started cooking to become a star or occupy centre stage.
How much has Chef’s Table changed things for you?
The day before the programme was broadcast on 27 May, on a blackboard in the kitchen we wrote: “Today, we are allowed to daydream. Tomorrow, there’s Netflix!” We knew it would have changed things, but never imagined to what extent. In the first few days, we did not notice a great difference, but then came the avalanche: just to give you an idea, the number of visits to our website rose from 200 to 10,000 a day. I had to find a way of dealing with all the reservations – we only have a capacity for 40 table settings – without leaning too heavily on the team.
How did you manage?
I stay closed at lunchtime but open eight tables early in the evening. In this way, we welcome the same number of guests but give our staff more time to rest and we have reduced our working week to five days instead of six. Besides this, we allow almost two months’ holiday time a year and try to create pleasant working conditions – music, shared meals, wine. I don’t know if this is the right way but it is the solution we have devised.
Is there any such thing as “border cuisine”?
What people mainly respect are the political borders rather than geographical ones. My local environment is a melting pot of Slavic, Austrian, Italian and Germanic cultures. Consequently, it is difficult to define traditional Slovenian cuisine but it is certainly one of the most variegated in the world.
Have you ever thought of relocating?
I belong to the countryside. At the moment, locally grown produce is trendy, but the country has to be self-reliant even when this fad fizzles out. Cities have always had shops, markets, global inspiration; I have my local products, a reality that is as romantic as it is restrictive. They have warned me that there are no mushrooms this year when I had already based my autumn menu on mushrooms. Conversely, the city guarantees an ample choice and flexibility.
Should the rhetoric surrounding local produce be downscaled?
Definitely. It all started with the Scandinavian current: now all menus carry grilled, fermented or burnt dishes. Everyone should do their own cuisine, without sheepishly following the latest fad. In my opinion, the world’s most interesting chef is Massimo Bottura exactly because he does his own thing, and nothing else.
An almost mandatory question. What do you think of the inevitable woman/chef juxtaposition?
I am against it. We are not furthering emancipation with all of these awards that differentiate between male and female. One thing is to distinguish the prizes awarded to cinema actors and actresses, where they interpret different roles, but have you ever seen the equivalent in any other art form? Do we have separate museums for male or female painters? This year in my kitchen I have had boys who have given up because the going was too tough, while the girls have managed to keep up the pace. In the customers’ eyes, we are all the same. There can be no excuses.
Staff shortages are hitting the hospitality sector hard, prompting some restaurants to look outside the industry to train those without restaurant experience for life in the kitchen. Andrew Friedman finds out more.