Ana Ros is an articulate, intelligent and fascinating woman with many facets to her life and persona. She is the perfect example of a person using their will and determination to shine as a culinary star in a comparatively unknown part of the world. I will stay tuned for what she does next and cooks up to serve in the crimson walled dining room of Hisa Franko in Kobrid, Slovenia. This thirteen room historic building is where Ernest Hemingway supposedly wrote part of his “Farewell to Arms” and where now chef can be found fishing for trout in the stream that runs in the back of the house. Her zero kilometer sensibility is really in practice!
Ana and her husband Valter have forgone driving “fancy cars”, instead choosing to travel with their children to unknown outposts of the world as they both truly believe that travel is imperative to learning and broadening your horizons. Ana when faced with taking on the role of the chef at their Hisa Franko called on her husbands friend in Italy, a culinary instructor who taught her the classic techniques of French and Italian kitchens. As she says she is always learning and open to new experiences.
A version of this conversation was published on the Daily Meal.
Chef Ana Ros: Slovenia the Next Gastronomic Destination
by Geeta Bansal
In the heart of Europe lies the small country of Slovenia, with lush Alpine valleys dotted with ski resorts, vast green meadows, and sparklingly clean rivers and lakes, which has recently emerged as a travel destination. Not widely known for its gastronomy, the former Communist country sharing borders with Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Croatia, with a piece of Adriatic coastline has a cuisine influenced by neighboring cultures. The northeast region of Slovenia has been nicknamed “Tuscany” by its ambitious wine growers who are titillating wine enthusiasts all over the world with its unique wines. Slovenia’s wine producing history goes back to the Celtic times, well before the Romans introduced and developed the wine practice in France so viniculture is definitely not new to the area. The biological diversity of this region which has been populated since prehistoric times is celebrated in its cuisine which has just begun to be recognized internationally especially since it joined the Eurozone in 2007.
Chef Ana Ros, the co-owner, with her husband Valter, of his familial guest house Hisa Franko in Kobarid in the alpine Soca Valley that borders Italy is in part responsible for bringing international attention to Slovenia. Her participation in culinary events such as Cook it Raw, Identita Golose, Squisito, and Gelinaz, first in New York in 2014 at Eleven Madison Park where she joined the brigade of chefs who “surprised” Chef Wylie Dufresne, has brought attention to the fledgling gastronomic scene of her country. In July of this year she traveled away from her kitchen all across the globe to Rodolfo Guzman’s Borago restaurant in Santiago, Chile during the famous chef swap orchestrated by Gelinaz founders Andrea Petrini and Fulvio Pierangelini. Ana joined other like-minded and well known chefs like Albert Adria and Massimo Bottura amongst others in this ambitious exercise. Her stoves in Slovenia were manned by Michelin-starred chef Mauro Colagreco of Mirazur, France while Chef Guzman landed in chef Bertrand Grebault’s Michelin starred Septime kitchen in Paris, France!
Chef Ros, former ski champion on the Slovenian ski team, fluent in five languages and schooled in diplomacy in Italy was all set to join the diplomatic corps till a twist of fate landed her first in the dining room of her husband’s family hostelry and then its kitchen. Learning literally on the job and relying on the fabulous produce from the Hisa Franko gardens and local producers she has now joined ranks of other creative, new generation chefs of the region. This 40 something juggles her work with rearing two young children and concentrating on creating her version of traditional and some not so traditional dishes with a “kilometer zero” sensibility. The picturesque Hisa Franko, with its crimson walled dining room in the thirteen room country house was where Ernest Hemingway purportedly penned part of his famous “Farewell to Arms”.
Growing up in an affluent household as a child of successful ski resort operators she traveled the world dining at well-known restaurants around the world and training her palate. Her love of raw foods, as well as her reputation as a risk taker when it comes to using contrasting textures and tastes, is visible in her menus and dishes along with some tongue in cheek humor. No stranger to celebrity she has a cooking show on TV as well as being a member of organizations such as Jeune Restaurateurs d’Europe. Ros has the distinction of having “rescued “artichokes which were being fed to pigs in her area until she introduced them into her haute cuisine at Hisa Franko.
Catching up with Ros just after she returned from a triumphant exercise in the Borago kitchens we spoke to her about her travels, her Gelinaz challenge and her successful career as a chef in the electric green countryside of the Soca Valley of Slovenia. Piquing our interest was also her penchant for vacationing in remote parts of the world like the Cabo Verde island off the coast of Brazil, Madagascar, Vietnam and Cambodia for the benefits of “unplugging” from routine.
We caught up with her as she was getting ready for her daughters 11th birthday party! Ros charmingly stated that with three kids, a dog, a house and a husband she was completely “normal” despite her celebrity chef status.
Why did you decide to take part in the Gelinaz! Shuffle?
I found the concept very interesting and I knew a lot of people participating, some from Cook it Raw, some from other cooking related events like the Gelinaz event in New York last year. This event provided an opportunity to learn about and experience another culture and its cuisine. Every Gelinaz event is so different and the recent one that moved chefs around the world and had them work in different kitchens was so interesting. Every chef involved was eager to participate in the adventure.
When the ballots were being drawn for the shuffle to assign chefs to different kitchens, were you apprehensive about where you would end up going?
Not really, but I was hoping that I got something that would be new to me because here in Europe we chefs mostly know each other and our cultures are very close for example between Slovenia and Italy where there is only a slight difference in our products whether in the markets or when you go foraging. Our Mediterranean fish is very similar too but in Chile where I went it was all different. It’s almost at the end of the world where people, lifestyle, products and people’s expectations were different.
You vacation on a remote island off the coast of Brazil. Are you familiar with the region?
Yes, we go every year to connect to nature and slow down. We fish and cook what we catch and run around barefoot for two weeks. We try to speak Creole and know everyone there and spend valuable family time. We have done the same in Madagascar, Japan, etc. On these trips we get to appreciate other cultures, and so my trip to Chile was also a discovery process like that, though I was there to cook.
In your opinion is it important for a cook to travel and experience other cultures and cuisines?
I believe you should never stay close to your roots except maybe with your products and traditions. If you want to learn you need to see and experience other cultures. Not to copy but learn about alternate or better ways of preparing food.
Cook it Raw and Gelinaz are extraordinary events. Are you a risk-taker, ready to tread an unknown path?
I love challenges and to get out of my own kitchen. When I am at work I am very focused and working hard so I need to travel and have these experiences. I think travel is very important; it brings you to another level and opens you.
I believe that you can fulfill yourself and jump onto another planet, take just what you have inside you, and still cook well.
You are self-taught, so does that make you more receptive to participating in such events?
I think when you are self-taught you become a little bit unique and are less prone to being influenced by someone. I think that is beautiful in a way as you develop your own techniques. I started cooking very late in life as compared to other chefs who start at a very early age. Since I was more mature my approach was very different since at that age you already have your vision and your philosophy. You also don’t have the time to slip up and have to be very quick while being independent and working with your own philosophy.
When you travel around the world are people curious about where you come from because Slovenia does not instantly connect with the world of haute cuisine for most people?
It’s almost like being an exotic animal as there is that similar curiosity. There is also surprise, questions, and even skepticism about Slovenia as a gastronomic destination and if the cuisine can be that good. Sometimes that means that I have to prove to cook that well not only because I am a woman but because of where I come from.
Do you think women in kitchens around the world need to take a stand or speak up for themselves?
While we have to fight to be better and prove ourselves we also have to be fair. In a world where there is male domination you have to work to stand out and be recognized. It is very much a men’s club but we can break in by proving how good we can be at our job. It’s all changing very rapidly; now head chefs in the most important kitchens in the world are women. It’s just a question of time now for that distinction to disappear.
You are multi-lingual, a former athlete, well-educated, a successful businesswoman, and an international celebrity, but are you representative of women in your country?
I am special and different in a way because I am a chef, I speak many languages and I have ventured into this business because I need to survive, and it’s as simple as that. I am not typical of other women as I have chosen to make this life in the countryside and when a woman chooses to do more in any field, like politics, fashion, etc. it sets her apart. In my case I am a Slovenian woman who has chosen to be chef attempting to build a better gastronomic environment in my country, something not yet existent.
What fires your creative engines? Do you have off days, and how do you deal with them?
There are days when I feel I need to step away and take time off. It is easier to work when you are more relaxed and there are always little signals that prompt you to take that time away. Sometimes just a half hour break to relax and oxygenate will do it for me and I come back to work with a new perspective.
Had you visited Chile prior to the Gelinaz event or tasted Rodolfo Guzman’s cuisine?
No I had never been there but we had done three events together before and I was somewhat familiar with his style. We had collaborated on a few dishes before and I knew he was very conceptual and also that his kitchen was very different.
Since he was at Mugaritz with Andoni Aduriz for a while, did he take those sensibilities to his Borago kitchen in Santiago?
Yes that is true.
How far ahead did you plan the menu or choose your products?
I actually did everything after arriving there. I was completely open to what I would be able to get there. I did try to find out what products would be available at that time but I didn’t hear back before leaving so I decided I will deal with it when I got there. There was only one dish that was an interpretation of something I do at home but everything else I did was unique to Chile.
Were you in touch with Guzman or Colagreco, who was in your kitchen during your time in Chile?
Not really, and I actually did not ask Rudolfo anything but did update him with good news about what was happening at the shuffle dinner in the kitchen. I didn’t want to become him I wanted to be me and only the product was different for me.
Did you carry any products or take any team members from your kitchen?
Nothing! Not even my knives and I went by myself and without a man (laughing). I did take my chef jacket with me.
Any Chilean product that you have become enamored with on your trip or that you would have liked to bring back with you?
The borders of Chile are very closed up to protect their unique products so I could not bring back anything other than gifts for my staff and family. What I would have loved to bring back were bags of the amazing sea urchins from Chile because they are so unique and they need to keep them in Chile and we should respect their desire to protect their bio diversity.
Other than sea urchin, was there any other exotic product you worked with there?
Yes we worked with Pyura Chilensis. It is a shell fish that looks like a rock and it is very bitter inside. Due to the rough seas we couldn’t actually get them on the day of the dinner.
Communication could not have been a problem for a multi-linguist like you?
It wasn’t (laughing) because I speak Spanish and we used a mixture of Spanish and English to communicate.
How many days were you in Santiago for, and did you visit the local produce markets?
I stayed five days before and one day after the dinner. I did go to the coast and the fish market and then worked in the test kitchen at Borago.
What was the guest’s reaction to your cuisine and style at the dinner, and what was the best compliment you received there?
They loved it and Rodolfo was surprised that I did pasta because he does not do pasta there. We did ravioli filled with liquid salicornia and the guests loved it. They also appreciated that I had not been influenced by his style.
The kitchen at Borago is an open kitchen, so were you comfortable cooking in view of the guests, and was the kitchen organization different?
When you are sure about what you are doing then it doesn’t make any difference. Of course the kitchen organization and the way the team works was very different from our own here at home so it took some getting used to. Since I like doing a lot of things myself I worked and prepped mostly in the test kitchen.
After returning home you went to Milan to cook with Davide Scabine of Combal Zero at the Identitia Golose at the Milan Expo. Had you cooked with him before?
We cooked together for the first time and strangely for some reason we have always missed each other earlier. We worked together very well this time and had a great menu that we put together for our four hands dinner.
How would you describe Slovenian cooking to our readers?
It is product based and varies depending on where you live and what is available. We are a very small country with two different cultures around us with Italian/ Slovenic and Balkanic/Hungarian cultures. It is interesting for a small country to have influences from all these countries around us.
Your own cooking is influenced by which culture?
Ours is based on heavy use of olive oils, polenta, and we cook pasta three times a day which is very typical of our culture. Ours has a mesh of German and Italian cuisines.
Why the zero kilometer sensibility in your seasonal cooking?
It is because I believe it is the only way we can preserve our culture and products for the next generations. It is really easy to be global and really difficult to be local.
Is there a market for organic produce in Slovenia?
It has always existed here and in that way Slovenia is different since our biodynamic is natural. We have never consciously tried to do this but have always been this way. Our main resources are our soil and our land.
What distinguishes your modern cooking from traditional Slovenian cooking?
It’s the technique which is in the middle of the two since the product still could be the same in both cases. The technique changes the whole perspective.
If you had to prioritize between technique, presentation, and taste, what would come first?
Absolutely the taste. Always!