Chef Janez Bratovž is at home in the kitchen. When he’s at home, he’s thinking about the kitchen, what he’ll cook next, which ingredients will be best at market, how to tweak one of his specialties to take it up to an even higher level. All that hard work has paid off.
His eponymous restaurant, JB in Ljubljana, is located on the ground floor of a building designed by Slovenian master architect Jože Plečnik. It cannot be called a hidden gem – Bratovž was the country’s first media chef and its first to appear on The World’s 100 Best Restaurants list – but the fact that it is in Ljubljana, Slovenia, means that it is somewhat off the tourist track, while still easily accessible.
Tasting Bratovž’s food, and considering the ascendance of his fellow Slovene, Ana Roš, recently named the Best Female Chef in the world in 2017, makes me think that we might shortly see a new movement in fine dining. Nordic has had its day and remains strong, but here’s to the rise of Alpine cuisine.
We spoke to Janez Bratovž about cooking, Chef’s Table, ravioli and much more.
“I studied in Ljubljana, then in Austria, France and Italy. I spent the longest time in Austria. In school, they taught us that, when you know 500 recipes by heart, then you’ll be a good cook. But that’s not true. I don’t need to know a single recipe. You have to do your own things. If you copy something, then you’ve not done it with your heart. It’s someone else’s product.”
“The most important is that you love cooking. If you cook from your heart, your guests will feel that in the food. I also say, if you work a lot, and if you’re always thinking about food, ideas will come.”
“If you bring me a cow, in an hour I’ll break it down the right way. If you haven’t learned that, then you won’t be able to do it. And if you don’t know the basics… I know how good the meat is by how it feels when I cut it, break it down. It’s best if you are trained in the basics. But if you don’t have this ahead of time, then in your mind you’re thinking in a different way, and that also has its advantages.”
“Chef’s Table is a film. It’s not the everyday life of the chefs. You can’t walk around all day foraging in the woods, you’ve got to be in the kitchen. It’s stylised, so it’s not a true portrait of our daily lives. Of all the episodes in the series, my favorite was the one about Ana. The story of her life in Kobarid is so special and unusual, you can’t compare it to some professionally-trained chef in the middle of Bangkok. I’ve been invited to appear on just about all the cooking shows you can think of, Masterchef and so on. It’s not for me. Chef’s Table is a different story, because they choose only the very best. That’s a different level.”
“Every one of my dishes I consider a 'signature dish.' If you find a dish similar to mine at another restaurant, then that means someone was copying me. If someone copies me, it’s a sort of a compliment, so it’s not my place to be mad. But I'm told my signature dish is one that took me three years to perfect. A raviolo. My longest tasting menu has eleven courses. And everyone I ask about which course they liked best, 95% say the raviolo. First I made one large raviolo, but I decided it had too little dough. Then I served three small ones as a portion. I kept playing with it for three years. Raviolo with farmer’s cheese and pistachio, with a veal stock and cream sauce. The cream is slow-cooked for two hours, developing a hazelnut taste. Then a slice of foie gras and pear, mixed with brown sugar, til it darkens. Then this become a pear sauce. Then the finishing touch is a milk powder, sautéed in butter. It’s a lot of ingredients, but when you take a bite, all the flavours meld perfectly. My food is not a series of dots on a plate. You eat every component together.”
“Lately I’ve tried to keep it as simple as possible. For philosophical reasons. The most important thing is the ingredients. If you’ve got two or three great ingredients on the plate, enough!”
“Slovenian food is great. The two restaurants I’d recommend in addition to my own are Hiša Franko in Kobarid, where Ana Roš cooks, and one run by a protégé of mine, Luka Košir. It’s 25 km south of Ljubljana, in Horjul, called Brunarica Grič. For me, he’s brilliant.”
“The best meal I can recall, and the one closest to my own philosophy about cooking, was Da Pescatore. I was also delighted by The Fat Duck. Another that I loved, but my wife was not a fan of, was Per Se. In Tokyo I was in a restaurant that isn’t open to the public, like a private club, Mibu. Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal have called it the best restaurant in the world, just two tables. The chef cooks very simply. When you eat it, you don’t think to yourself how simple it is. But when you think about it afterwards, you realise how amazing it is. I was thinking about that meal for a good year after eating it.”
“For 25 years, I’ve only focused on work. If I go on a week-long holiday, I’m all nervous. It’s a way of life. It happens rarely, but if I have to be at home all day, I’m just watching the clock, waiting to get back to my kitchen. When I’m at work, time flies.”
“At home, I only cook the occasional Sunday family lunch. I try to make it something really special, but traditional food. Nothing like caviar, instead a proper pork roast, something like that. I’ll put it in the oven first thing in the morning, so it’s perfectly done. Nothing last-minute.”
“When I get home late at night and I’m hungry, I’ll eat bread, salami, pork fat, yogurt, pickled peppers. All made by me. Of course each component has to be perfect. I don’t buy these things. I want everything to be made in-house. For the restaurant and for my home.”
“My menu is very short, just four main dishes. For instance now, I have beef cheeks, ribeye and venison. Specialist providers bring each key ingredient. You can’t have a hundred things and they’re all top and fresh.”