Ana Roš on top of the world
It's 9am and Ana Roš is already back from her morning run to the Nadiža river. It has become a routine over the past year, a year of major successes and major drama for Hiša Franko, the world's 48th restaurant and the only one run by a female chef. Jogging helps keep her head clear, it helps her weather the storms such as sudden staff departures, 515 interviews and 150 flights a year, and increasingly demanding customers. "Mistakes were excusable back in the day when we were just a countryside inn. But now we are an institution, we're in the 50 best, mistakes aren't excusable anymore. Guests expect perfection," explains Ana just a couple of days after the team got back from the ceremony in Bilbao where they entered the elite list for the first time.
The Hiša Franko team is comprised of young, international chefs who go to tiny Kobarid from all parts of the world - Peru, El Salvador, Switzerland, the USA, Canada, Italy ... there's only one Slovenian in the kitchen, the lone representative of a nation that likes to think of itself as a working one but apparently doesn't have what it takes for this kind of level. The one who has it is Leonardo Fonseca, Ana's Colombian sous-chef who is able to hold the fort when his boss is away.
Ana Roš is powering through the stress and the pressures with the mentality and stamina of the soldiers who fought in the area, on the Soča front back in World War I. She pushes through everything - she just jogs the fever and exhaustion away and even with the Lymes disease she contracted this summer she couldn't stay still for more than a day. She drives her two children to athletics practice and competitions almost every day and she still takes the time to sit down for dinner with them - then drives in the middle of the night to Venice to catch a plane to Spain, Peru or China.
The world of Ana Roš these days isn't easy to understand for some Slovenians - or even some chefs, her peers. She works internationally, is invited to speak at top culinary congresses around the world and to four-hands dinners with the world's best chefs from Gaggan Anand to Alex Atala. They all want Ana.
And not only because this wild-haired, energetic Slovenian stands out in the crowd, a rare female in a male dominated profession. She's charismatic, opinionated, eloquent and her story is so unique. Ana is self-taught chef who quit her budding career in diplomacy to work in the kitchen of the old Hiša Franko back when Ana's father-in-law, Franko Kramar, was running it.
Back then, Hiša Franko was famous for its legendary English roast beef and had a steady clientele comprised mostly of regular Italian guests. Times have changed, the restaurant is fully booked a year in advance, there's no room left for walk-ins and instead of roast-beef there's roebuck with anchovy butter and green beans scolliera with sea snails and black garlic on the menu. The Italians have been largely replaced by the international clientele led by Americans who fell in love with Ana and the picturesque Soča valley watching her Chef's Table episode.
Following her Netflix debut in 2016, 2017 saw her crowned as the World's Best Female Chef and then everything changed for Hiša Franko. Gone was the anonymity and laid-back casualness, the restaurant is now filled with the foreigners who have flown across the world just to dine there, dying to take a selfie with the celebrity chef. Ana, not being the biggest fan of putting on shows, accepts it reluctantly. She would rather have people coming in for food, not for her. Also, because sometimes people aren't necessarily prepared for her distinct style - her dishes are almost all intense in flavour, be it the dehydrated plum cones she fills with fermented ricotta, the oysters she pairs with beef tongue, the rich gamey and mushroom stock she serves with her glazed porcini or the melted, spicy pit cheese she serves with tripe.
She's never been one to play it safe but in recent years she's become bolder with the flavours, the intensity of the dishes, the unorthodox pairings of different ingredients. A lot like Valter, her partner and the head sommelier who has taken a radical approach with wine pairings and insists on serving all natural, all Slovenian wines. The crazier, the better! "Wines like these give me energy. Conventional, "made" wines make me sleepy and bored. Life's too short for that," says Valter who is also in charge of the cheese - his babies, brought down from the mountain pastures by the local shepherds, then aged for two, three, even five years in his underground sanctuary dug under the garden of Hiša Franko.
For people used to dining in fine restaurants around the world, in the dining rooms of Paris, New York, Copenhagen, London and Bangkok, all featured prominently on the 50 Best list, it is sometimes hard to understand how nature and seasons feature in Ana's cuisine. Wild game, trout, raw cow cheese, porcinis brought in by her forager, wild mountain berries brought in by her father, acacia flowers, sweet woodruff from the meadows around Kobarid, lovage, purslane, mint and nettles from the garden ...
Gluten free, lactose free, vegetarian and vegan menus that more and more guests seek do not represent the area or Ana. "Cooking is like painting - if you take away my colours, I have nothing left to paint with," explains the 45 year old chef. Her biggest grief at the moment, the allergies, and "allergies" - food intolerances, food preferences. Some miraculously pop up when the guests take a peek at a menu, where offal is always prominently featured.
Recently, Ana spent an entire week preparing special menus only to receive even more requests at the table. Someone eats only seafood but not the shellfish, someone doesn't eat eggs, someone is allergic to nuts, someone won't eat ravioli but snatches away the bread, and someone has religious objections to certain ingredients.
Ana never has trouble creating dishes - this summer she created so many amazing new plates I couldn't keep up. She is hyper-productive and is able to whip up a new menu any place in the world. But these new-found food intolerances are killing her, killing her creativity.
"When you come to my restaurant, I have only one request - please, try to relax and enjoy the food. You can go back to your regimen the next day, but for this one evening, trust us, put yourself in our hands," asks Ana. It's not always the most popular request but Ana never tries to sugarcoat, even when talking about the Slovenian work attitude (not so great) or the food scene in Slovenia (not all that). "Hiša Franko is creating a culinary destination but we're not a culinary destination," claims the chef who was so frustrated trying to find a decent place to eat good, honest, traditional food, she and Valter just decided to open one - the unpretentious Hiša Polonka in the centre of Kobarid is the kind of village inn you'd like to see in every Slovenian small town. And instead of ubiquitous pizza and fried calamari, you get Franko's iconic roast beef. And that is what creating a culinary destination is all about. Sometimes it takes just a pair of really dedicated people.