Chef Ana Roš is speaking to us from the remote Slovenian mountains, or her “green jail” as she puts it, for the duration of the coronavirus emergency. But she’s not in self-isolation, rather group isolation. When the government abruptly closed the country’s borders on 12 March, Ana, her family and an international team of 32 found themselves in an unexpected group lockdown situation.
“I would kill now to be sitting on a rock overlooking another colour … even grey if you want, just to change the environment.” Ana is quarantined at Hiša Franko, #38 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in Kobarid, set amongst the green snow-capped mountains in one of Europe’s least populated communities. "We are not designed to be in jail, jail is a prison and prison is punishment so somehow, we’re being punished."
Photo Suzan Gabrijan
Already a month into this novel community existence, the self-taught Slovenian chef and her team have learned a lot about themselves, each other and food. From everyone in the team taking up running and yoga, to finding peace with the situation and making ice cream, “I think we are all learning how to live with ourselves, and in a closed place. We are especially learning how to be patient with each other.”
The group have adopted a new pace of life while maintaining unique safety measures, discipline, working and learning seven hours a day from 10 – 5, working on projects that there was never the time for when the restaurant was open. They fill their days foraging, learning about topics like fermentation, production techniques and delivering sourdough bread. By now they know more about wild plants, farming and dairy products than they probably thought possible.
A new ice cream project puts their newfound knowledge into practice as they help out local farmers with a surplus of fresh milk since people stopped buying it. They’re testing ice cream making, with incredible results, inventing new flavours like fresh high mountain milk with sage and honey, camomile and green pepper or sour milk with high mountain spruce cones.
They plan on going into bigger production and have already agreed on a partnership. “We are probably realising something we would never have done before. Products from the valley with unique nature and forest and can go in everyone’s home.”
“One day it will be an investment in the future, not just ours but of the whole valley, our technical help can realise products that are very interesting for the whole market." She's quick to note, "it’s not a money-making project at the moment.”
Even mealtime is an exercise in thinking outside the box. The day on which we speak, the team have already sat down together to a lunch of minestrone made with cheese rinds and buckwheat, bruschetta made with leftover bread they didn’t sell and homemade tomato sauce, anchovies that they put away a long time ago and a lot of fresh herbs on the top. “Everyone was like wow what an amazing lunch, chef.” A lunch that Ana admits probably cost about 10 euros.
Ana Roš foraging - Photo Suzan Gabrijan
“This period is pushing us to think about things you never thought of before. How many things you can reuse, redo, foraged things you can apply. You don’t need to buy a salad, why not go outside and grab some dandelion and dress it up with some beans and warm vinegar."
“We were always very good at it. The restaurant has always been very good at food cost. How to use up the rest, but now even more so. “
The team disband in the late afternoon for some downtime after a day of activity. “We stop at five because I want them to talk to their families and express their sadness. Because we’re all sad now.”
An international team of individuals a long way from home, coping with separation, grief and loss in their own ways. “When the restaurant is open all the team know what they need to do. Now they are vulnerable. It’s very difficult to be a mum to this big group of adult people. A mum who needs to say every single day “it’s going to be alright” when we don’t know.”
After World’s 50 Best Restaurants was postponed, there was a lot of sadness in the team, Ana reflects. “They were so counting on that, it was like a light at the end of the tunnel.” Michelin in Slovenia also stepped away, “They were about to announce the Michelin stars on March 12, then they said alright, next time.” It’s ok for me I understand.” Ana explains, “but how do you explain to people who really deserve all that. It’s hard to keep up motivation with a group of people who are stuck with you.”
“Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes crying loud and having panic attacks. Because I know that I’m going to have to wake up in the morning and give an inspirational speech to 30 people.”
“Group isolation is really difficult, more difficult than family isolation for me. It’s one thing when you see only your family, you can be weak whatever you want. When you are in a team where you are the boss, you need to be strong every day, In these days it’s not so easy. But I want to be there for them. It’s a kind of mothership role. They need me and I honestly see that it works.
“It’s important to keep the energy up and motivation up and the discipline up. Because it’s easy to get lost at this moment.”
Ana is optimistic about the future and hopes that Slovenia has been effective in containing the spread of the virus. “I dream that we are back to life somewhere around the 1st of May.”
“I’m not afraid of my future. I’m maybe afraid about the future of Hisa Franko. I believe when this ends people will just want to go out. They will just need company and an amazing glass of wine. And an amazing meal. I think we’ll go crazy because we’ll have such a need to socialise and to enjoy life.”
“The day the restaurant opens we need to be serene with ourselves. I think when we’re out of this, we’re going to be the best possible team you can imagine. Because we will know each other and start forgiving and also start listening to each other. No more selfish bullshit.”
As we end the call her sous chef, a Colombian ex ping-pong champion ramps up for a game while a splinter group form to make their own little corner of Ibiza: chill-out lounge music fills the mountain air as they gaze longingly into the distance, sinking into to new ideas for development and thoughts thousands of miles away.
And the sun sets on another day of group lockdown.