Accidental chef: an interview with Ana Ros
Author: Georges Desrues
Ensconced in her cosy countryside restaurant, Hiša Franko, just outside the village of Kobarid in Slovenia, Ana Roš laughs about her début on the international culinary stage at the Cook it Raw event in Poland in 2012. It was a total disaster.
"I was so excited the night before, I drank a glass of whisky to sleep better," says Roš. "But I slept so soundly I didn't hear the alarm clock."
She missed the plane and arrived hours late. Worse followed the next day when she fell into the river on a canoe trip, was bitten by a dog while slicing raw beef and got stung by a bee when she slipped into the woods to gather berries. No wonder her colleagues on the trip - the likes of René Redzepi, Magnus Nilsson and Pascal Barbot - mocked her mercilessly.
Five years on, and her footing is considerably surer. She was named the World's Best Female Chef 2017 on The World's 50 Best Restaurants list, had an episode of Netflix's influential Chef's Table all to herself, and Hiša Franko is attracting the attention of destination diners the world over.
Not that Roš, 44, set out to be a chef. A former member of the Yugoslav national skiing squad and fluent in five languages, her dream was to be a career diplomat. But while she was studying international and diplomatic sciences across the Italian border at the University of Trieste she fell in love with her partner, Valter Kramar, whose parents happened to own Hisa Franko.
"It was a country inn then, serving simple home cooking," she says. "The customers were mostly Italians who would come over to buy groceries and fuel, which were cheaper here in Slovenia."
Ravioli with kid brains, black beans and anchovies.
Sixteen years ago, Kramar's folks retired, and Roš and Kramer took over. "We decided to go into fine dining. I wanted dishes to look and taste like the wonderful stuff Valter and I enjoyed on our travels."
The problem was that Roš had no formal training. So, while Kramer set about renovating the premises and stocking up the cellar with the best wines Slovenia had to offer, she rolled up her sleeves and started to study. She learnt the ropes from the cooks in her kitchen and familiarised herself with the bounty of the surrounding Soca Valley in the Julian Alps overlooking the Adriatic Sea. She soon realised she had all the ingredients she needed within a radius of a few kilometres.
"Our valley is flavoured by the sea," she says. "You can taste it in everything, from the fruit and vegetables and herbs to the meat and milk of the livestock."
On my last visit I was treated to venison heart with sea urchin and garden sorrel, a challenging combination of gaminess, salty tang and earthy fragrance; pasta filled with sheep's cheese served with crisp, fresh langoustines and lush bone marrow; and squid stuffed with sweetbreads and mature mountain cheese. Another signature dish is a personal take on brodetto, the classic fish stew of the Adriatic.
Roš's cooking reflects not only the richness of local biodiversity, but also the complexity of local history. In Slovenia, the three main European language families - Latin, Germanic, Slavic - converge, and Kobarid is just 40 kilometres from the border of Austria and nine from Italy.
"Ours is a small country," says Roš, "and our culinary traditions betray strong Austrian and Italian elements, but they're also influenced by Hungary, Croatia and the Balkans. Don't forget, we used to be part of Yugoslavia."
Revival of Brodetto.
Today this accomplished autodidact runs her kitchen at Hisa Franko with the confidence of a veteran. To stay in shape she rows on the River Soca, which flows nearby. But nowadays there's no danger of her canoe capsizing, as it did on that fateful day in Poland. She's got nothing left to prove.
Ana Roš appears at Tasting Australia in Adelaide, 30 April to 7 May, tastingaustralia.com.au