In June, 2020, when the Covid-stricken restaurant industry desperately needed a push, Slovenia got its first Michelin Guide. But while stars always mean a lot to chefs, in this very particular case they were lifesavers.
For some Slovenian chefs the arrival of Michelin had been long overdue, while outside observers questioned if this tiny country merited its very own red book - aside from Hiša Franko, that is. Number 38 on the World’s 50 Best list, and headed by the prodigal Ana Roš, it seemed to be a safe bet for a star. It won two – now displayed proudly, not just on Hiša Franko’s front door, but also as tiny red tattoos on the forearms of the chef and her staff. For Roš, it was a validation that her fame, accumulated through Netflix and the World’s Best Female Chef title, was more than just savvy PR. For five other restaurants that got a star, it was like Christmas.
Young guns - Slovenia's up-and-coming star chefs
Slovenia has a handful of consistently good restaurants with skilled chefs, which ‘fit’ Michelin standards. But it’s the young guns that are spearheading the most exciting and trendy cuisine at the moment. Some of them have done stints at Hiša Franko, others learned the ropes abroad with some household names. Like Roš, they mostly all build on traditions, refining the hearty, starchy, robust Slovene cuisine into lighter, more up-to date dishes that pay respect to the local environment and producers.
If the success of Hiša Franko and its philosophy taught them anything, it is that the international foodie crowd responds more to local trout roe than caviar. More to pungent fermented ricotta cheese than imported Camembert. There’s no shame anymore in using humble farmstead ingredients, breaking down the whole animal and creating dishes that reflect the rich Slovenian landscape, often uplifting them with natural wine pairings.
But if young Slovenian chefs still have a way to go when it comes to international recognition, Slovenian winemakers don’t have such issues. Organic and biodynamic wines have seen a huge surge in recent years, featured prominently in natural wine bars of Paris and Copenhagen, and in top restaurants like Noma, Relae, Gaggan and Septime.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the venues headed by young chefs who are creating the most buzz in a picturesque, lush green country that’s heralded as the next gastronomic hotspot.
Grič, Šentjošt pri Horjulu, chef Luka Košir ( born 1985)
With its cosy, rustic log-cabin in the wooded hills outside Ljubljana, its ferments and misos from locally sourced ingredients, and experimentation with ageing – this could be the Slovenian Fäviken. Even the ducks here were raised by Magnus Nilsson’s former duck breeder. And chef Luka Košir doesn’t hide the fact he’s a huge fan of the New Nordic approach, Noma’s (ex) king of ferments David Zilber and even Mugaritz’ exploration of edible mould. Almost everything that’s plated in Grič is ‘mile zero’. The chef serves eggs with radicchio, buckwheat 'žganci' and soy made of pumpkin seeds, which come from his father-in-law. The trout, served raw, with its own glistening roe, is from a stream that runs below the property. Then there’s the amazing cabbage, fermented in aged beef fat, with trout fish sauce and served with red mould cheese by Slovenian cheesemaker, Orešnik, just across from Grič. The wine list is based on natural Slovenian wines.
Tabar, Ljubljana, chef Jakob Pintar (born 1989)
Jakob Pintar, Luka Košir’s brother-in-law, was the 2019 Slovenian candidate for S.Pellegrino Young Chef, and is creating some of the most exciting dishes in Slovenia right now. Having worked under Heinz Reitbauer at Steirereck and Joel Robuchon at Atelier Robuchon, his cuisine is more eclectic than Košir’s, not shy of using exotic ingredients like eucalyptus or ostrich, but he also does a great take on traditional dishes, like sour cabbage with beans and lardo. Pintar isn’t afraid to push the envelope, and offals are always featured prominently on Tabar’s menu, often in unexpected combinations, whether it’s the traditional blood sausage with hen’s egg and oysters, or the calf brain with carrots, garum and whey. Tabar is also your go-to place if you’re into natural wines. Their impressive wine list features some of the most lauded Slovenian labels of biodynamic wines, including Aci Urbajs, Marko Fon and Klinec.
Monstera, Ljubljana, chef Bine Volčič (born 1980)
Bine Volčič, a Cordon Bleu graduate once heralded as the most promising young Slovenian chef, is now at 39 a veteran among the young guys. With his heavily tattooed arms, hipster beard and rock’n’roll attitude, he was the obvious choice for a TV celebrity chef, a role that brought him fame, but at the same time, ironically, pulled him away from the kitchen. That changed in 2016, when he opened Monstera, a small Paris-style bistro where he is able to express himself fully. There are traces of his days at L’Arpege and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, hints of New Nordic from his stint with Sasu Laukkonen and an unmistakable zest for Asian fusion. But at the same time, his zero-waste approach and penchant for innovation leads him to produce iconic dishes, like the in-your-face pig snout, served with pig’s brain foam; or dormouse, baked whole, glazed and stretched out naturalistically on the plate.
Atelje, Ljubljana, chef Jorg Zupan (born 1987)
Jorg Zupan started at Volčič’s former restaurant, before venturing out of Slovenia and working at a diverse range of restaurants, from Australia’s Quay, to The Fat Duck, to Maaemo in Oslo. In the four years Atelje has been open, Zupan has managed to find his very own voice, with elegant, yet unpredictable cuisine that plays with fermentation, Asian flavours, and sauces. The result is dishes like glazed pork brain with lacto-fermented carrots in sour pork soup, or lamb sweetbreads with black garlic, grilled iceberg lettuce and vadouvan sauce. The Michelin star came by surprise to some who favoured more classical venues, but for Atelje it has been a lifesaver. Frequented mostly by international guests, the restaurant was hit hard by the pandemic, and there was even talk of closure. Since the Michelin star, they are now fully booked.
Pri meni, Manžan/Ljubljana, chef Črt Butul (born 1989)
Črt Butul is definitely the most restless Slovenian young chef, not one to settle in one place or one concept for too long. The most recent project is a brunch pop-up in his own living room. “Pri meni” (“At my place”) is a very casual affair, but with prime ingredients and flawless execution. Everything on the table is home-made, home-grown, home-pickled and home-bottled. Marinated sardines, pickled wild asparagus with cloves, home-made sausage with juniper, jams by Črt’s mother. The charcuterie served with freshly-baked sourdough is impeccable, as is the young goat cheese with Istrian truffles. The family is also producing skin-contact biodynamic wines with a twist – they add roasted grape pits to the must - an idea so crazy it actually works. With produce like this no wonder Butul ran one of the most successful take-aways in Ljubljana during the pandemic.
Restaurants in Slovenia with Michelin stars
- Hiša Franko; chef Ana Roš**; Kobarid
- Atelje*; chef Jorg Zupan; Ljubljana
- Pri Lojzetu (Zemono)*; chef Tomaž Kavčič; Vipava
- Dam*; chef Uroš Fakuč; Nova Gorica
- Vila Podvin*; chef Uroš Štefelin; Mošnje
- Hiša Denk*; chef David Vračko; Zgornja Kungota