Chef Ana Roš of Hiša Franko restaurant shatters the glass ceiling in the predominantly male industry of fine dining. Named the World’s Best Female Chef of 2017 by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, it’s hard not to be in awe of Ana’s journey to success. Hailing from Kobarid, a small town in Slovenia, very close to the Italian border, Ana has catapulted Hiša Franko as a spectacular dining destination into the limelight.
The restless chef and her team present the picturesque countryside to the world in the form of flavors and textures. By championing the great local products and a view of the Adriatic sea, they have flourished in introducing the unique qualities of Slovenian cuisine. During her recent trip to Asia for the S.Pellegrino’s Inspirational Women of the Era Summit, we had the opportunity to speak to this great female figure of gastronomy. She told us how the openness and understanding of different flavors are very prominent on this side of the globe. Recalling how she began and where she’s heading, we sat with her for an unforgettable day of learning and reminiscing.
What is the best thing about being a self-taught cook?
It’s the freedom of expressing yourself. It’s about not feeling guilty about failing and finding solutions. That’s the best part about being self-taught.
Of course, there are also negative things and I feel like I get burned every day. But it’s the freedom of not belonging to any cooking school and not having to respond about any solutions we might come to in a particular recipe. My team really enjoys it and we discover new flavors and textures with our sense of adventure in food.
You’ve put Slovenia on the global fine-dining scene with Hiša Franko restaurant in Kobarid. How do you introduce Hiša Franko and Slovenian cuisine to those who have never been or experienced it?
When I speak of Slovenia I think of it as being green. Slovenia is the fifth greenest country in the world and I am not talking only about the amount of forest land. The way we live and treat nature and even the way we eat are embedded in our environment. A typical Slovenian family is connected to foraging and gardening even in the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, where people have access to their own garden areas–so everyone has their own lettuce and cucumbers.
With Hiša Franko located in the countryside, we are connected to the forest, meadows, mountains, and gardens. We listen closely to nature and the change of seasons and even the moon cycle. With this approach, we have to be very flexible, creative and quick in cooking. Our cuisine is unique and beautiful!
What are the biggest challenges you face being in a remote location?
One of the biggest challenges for us is to bring or convince people to come to Slovenia and encourage people to visit our valley. And to travel just for one chef? Maybe only if you’ve watched Netflix (editor’s note: Hiša Franko restaurant was featured on Netflix’s series Chef’s Table). For a restaurant in the countryside to survive, that is still the main goal–to be able to sustain it. Even though currently the house is full and so is the waiting list. But Slovenia as a destination needs to build up along with us!
Therefore there is a big need for Slovenia to get its own Michelin Guide, which is coming in March 2020 and all the chefs need to push for the standard.
But ultimately, it’s how to survive when you work locally and seasonally and continuously need to think where to get the products. Especially with the weather changes around us. There are lots of challenges connected to our philosophy of cooking and there are always problems that arise but we continue to thrive and tackle one step at a time.
Do you experience climate change in Slovenia and your valley? Has it been affecting agriculture and your business?
First of all, climate change affects all aspects of our life. The average temperature in our valley has gone up. This year, we even installed air-conditioning in our very old house because we cannot persist anymore. Until now the thick walls of the 19th-century structure could protect us from the heat, staying fresh all summer. It’s not the case any longer as it’s been really hot. There is no more snow in the winter and we see the rivers disappearing which means not only are the fish species disappearing but it affects the whole surrounding environment. We need to make individual efforts to combat all these changes.
I don’t necessarily believe in vegan or vegetarian theories to save the world. I advocate for finding solutions in focusing on micro-regions and finding suitable solutions to that particular place. Climate change is a big problem for agriculture and things are brutally changing around us. I think we set a good example at Hiša Franko, eschewing globalization and working strictly regionally. In Slovenia, 100 and even 50 years ago, the way we lived was that we took from nature only what we needed, not forcing it. Those are a few steps that all of us need to take when it comes to culture and food on the table.
How has your professional life evolved after being named 2017’s Best Female Chef at the Asia 50 Best Restaurants Awards?
For me personally, it didn’t change a lot. I guess it started changing the year before I was given that recognition, about the same time as when Netflix’s The Chef’s Table started to gain interest from all over the world. The Best Female Chef title gave me a platform to talk about work and my country. It also allowed me to be a voice and I talked about what it’s like to be a mother and a woman in this business. Additionally, this also gave me a lot of media attention around the world. It was probably when Hiša Franko made it to the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list that we really got recognition from food journalists and the industry started paying attention to what’s going on in that remote corner of Europe.
You say it’s important to look not only on gender equality in the industry but also age, tell us more about it.
Frequently talking about being a woman in the industry has become a cliche. And talking not only about gender but also age in our industry is very important. Let’s take my kitchen as an example. We have more and more women working with us, but most of them are under 30 and after 30 they are already considering themselves “old”. So we should always ask the question, what happens to the workforce after 30–35 years old? What happens if you’re considered too old for the kitchen? Do you change your profession? And a lot of them do change. Wouldn’t it be amazing to find a way to keep people at age 50 or even 60 in our kitchen so they can transfer their knowledge to the younger generation?
I am now 47 and work very hard as well to stay fit and I am fully committed to my work. We want to think of those who are also over 45 and make their career last, just like doctors or lawyers. It’s about understanding what we can do for our team and people working in our industry and take this job seriously. We need to start addressing depression and explore issues that chefs and people in the kitchen go through. We need to talk about the mentality surrounding that. Most importantly, we don’t want to lose people.
As we are today at S.Pellegrino’s Inspirational Women of the Era event, who has been inspiring you on your journey?
I am my own hero. My story is so different that I haven’t had a chance to have a hero. Dreaming in the part of the world where I came from was almost prohibited. My dream until very recently was not to become the world’s best chef but just to survive. And it’s not a romantic but a true story that still resonates with many today. To have clients, to be able to cook, to thrive, I aspire to be an inspiration to others. I feel strongly about that.
But meeting Anne-Sophie Pic recently in Singapore was very special to me as she always seemed to me on a mission-impossible level. And then when she saw me, she hugged me and said, “I am so proud to finally meet you!” I never thought I could talk to her face-to-face as equals.
You are a public persona with the power to influence young women and men. What are the core values and principles you wish to share through your work?
That’s a very interesting question. I think the best value anyone can ever have is respect. And, that always goes both ways. It’s my respect towards the team and their respect towards me as well as respect between the team members. I also believe in maintaining authority in a natural way and reducing the level of competitiveness in the team. High competitiveness in the kitchen can result in psychological and physical violence and this is absolutely unacceptable.
I’ve been told oftentimes that I think too much about the wellbeing of my team but I think it’s very important. You can’t just only expect, but also need to give back and nurture them. For me, money is not always the answer. It’s all about creating a harmonious environment where everyone can feel safe and excel at what they do, with long hours of work. It’s a difficult mission but it’s possible. We’re not perfect and life in the countryside can be really tough. However, we’ve had big results and I believe that our philosophy works!
Hiša Franko Staro selo 1, 5222 Kobarid, Slovenia, +386 5 389 4120, www.hisafranko.com/en