The pioneer: Ana Roš, the Slovenian chef championing the flavours of the Soča Valley

Self-taught chef Ana Roš’s Hiša Franko has earned two Michelin stars — her cooking combines the ingredients of Slovenia’s Soča Valley in fascinating new ways.

By Ali May
photographs by Suzan Gabrijan
Published 25 Oct 2021, 15:00 BST, Updated 26 Oct 2021, 15:20 BST
Chef Ana Roš finds inspiration in the surrounding Soča Valley in Slovenia.

Chef Ana Roš finds inspiration in the surrounding Soča Valley in Slovenia.

Photograph by Suzan Gabrijan

It’s ironic that Ana Roš is lauded as an ambassador for her country. Once destined for a diplomatic career, Roš rebelled. In 2000, she and her then-partner, Valter, decided to take over his family business: Gostilna Franko, an osteria-style restaurant in a 19th-century building in Slovenia’s Soča Valley. 

Having initially helped to manage the restaurant, in 2002 short staffing led Roš to step into the kitchen, where she soon discovered a passion for cooking and experimenting with flavours. She received some local recognition, but it took international journalists three years to take notice; when they did, it was all thanks to a trout broth served with steamed trout and liquid potato ravioli. “It was something that nobody had seen before,” she says.

Fast forward to 2021, and the restaurant now known as Hiša Franko occupies 38th place on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. An appearance on Netflix’s Chef’s Table in 2016 cemented Hiša Franko’s popularity — and Roš’s reputation — and in summer 2020 it became the first Slovenian establishment to be recognised by Michelin, receiving two stars. But these aren’t necessarily the achievements the chef is proudest of. 

Read more: A chef's guide to Slovenia, the culinary destination for 2021

“The culture of gastronomy didn’t exist in the country,” Roš says of the time she started her culinary journey. “Together with my team, we’ve managed to raise the consciousness of the Slovenian people to think about what they eat and how they eat. We’ve raised the consciousness of the chefs to respect nature and the seasons. We’ve also raised the awareness of the government about the importance of gastronomy and the role it plays in our everyday social life, and it’s now considered as an important touristic product.”

Slovenia is one of Europe’s more compact countries, but it’s also one of the most diverse in terms of geography. You’ll find karsts on the Adriatic Sea in the south west, mountains in the north bordering Italy and Austria, a chain of peaks and rivers in the east — and it only takes 45 minutes to travel from the highest point to the sea. Traditional Slovenian cuisine, like the country’s topography, is varied; hearty and alpine in the hills, Mediterranean-style on the coast.

“My cooking is a patchwork of respect for the territory, tradition and seasonality. And then with a big creative twist,” says Roš. “[But] we’re far away from traditional flavours. Some people say ‘she respects the territory and the season, so she’s traditional’, but Hiša Franko is anything but traditional; it has very weird flavour combinations and amazing techniques behind the food.”

The two-Michelin-starred Hiša Franko restaurant sits within a 19th-century building. 

Photograph by Suzan Gabrijan

The menu at Roš’s restaurant is like a living thing: each dish might be updated several times in a season, depending on what the surrounding environment provides, but the flavour combinations always surprise. Recent dishes have included beef tongue pastrami with oyster, seaweed crystal, jalapeño and wild watercress; trout cured with fig leaves, barley and elder blossom water, served with trout belly and fig leave praline; and roasted koji bean and reduced whey dip with bee pollen ice cream, apricots, hydro honey and crispy bean skin.
Roš is dedicated to local ingredients, and it’s her ability to turn the simple into the sublime that sets Hiša Franko apart: diners are tasting the Soča Valley, but it’s very much through the prism of Ana Roš.

The strength of Roš and her team is, she says, “cooking things in the right season and working very closely with nature — with the territory, with foragers, with gardens. We have to be very creative. At the same time, very elastic and ready to change the dishes very quickly, because nature isn’t a supermarket where you can get everything every day.

“When you eat my food, you always have explosions of flavours,” she adds. “You have all senses working all the time. This is a kitchen with guts. You might hear some people say they didn’t like it, but you’ll never hear anyone say it was forgettable.”

When Roš was growing up, her parents were very ambitious when it came to her and her sister’s future; the girls were signed up to do sports and dance and were expected to do well in school. “I never really had the chance when I was a kid to express myself,” Roš says. “I was expected to do some things, but I don’t really remember if anyone ever asked me, ‘Do you really want to do that?’”

Roš’s first big rebellion came at the age of 18 when she dropped out of Slovenia’s national ski team. She expected a big reaction from her father, but he managed to accept it. However, when she abandoned the prospect of a diplomatic career, turning down a Slovenian government job offer in Brussels, he didn’t speak to her for six months. It’s all water under the bridge now.

Roš’s passion for her chosen path suggests she made the right decision. During our interview, her head chef brings over a new dish for her to try (she creates the dishes, while her head chef makes her vision a reality). It’s a potato, fermented in the same way that black garlic is fermented — heated slowly over the course of a few weeks — and served with smoked bone marrow emulsion, anchovies and pine nuts (black, also slightly fermented).

“The bite I had just now, I swear, it’s the best I’ve ever tasted,” she says “And no doubt next year, when we’re working on creating a new menu, I’m sure I’ll say that’s the best bite I’ve ever had, too.”

It’s this philosophy that informs Roš’s plans for the future. Ambitiously, she wants “to make the most amazing menu on the planet, to enjoy our work and to be happy: happy when we’re cooking, and happy when we’re serving, and then people will understand our food a lot better. I don’t want to compromise. I want to be who I am and cook from my heart and from my soul.”  

In traditional Slovenian Sunday lunches, offcuts of meat are combined with aromatic herbs to create a sauce. Onions are then cooked in that sauce and the dish is served on a roasted barley flour injera, along with dark malted barley oil, cherry and linden leaf.

Photograph by Suzan Gabrijan

Three of Ana's signature dishes

1. Where’s the meat 
The dish [pictured above] is a nod to traditional Slovenian Sunday lunches, in which a piece of meat is roasted with carrots, onions and white wine, and simply left alone to slow cook. Normally, while some of the meat would be served at the table, many parts of the animal would go to waste. Here, however, offcuts from producing the rest of the menu (lamb, chicken and pork) are combined with aromatic herbs to create the sauce. Onion is cooked in that sauce and the dish is served on a roasted barley flour injera (a fermented Ethiopian flatbread), along with dark malted barley oil, cherry and linden leaf.

2. Impression of charcuterie
In this delicate starter, Roš showcases her unusual flavour combinations. One bite comprises pork liver pate served on a rye bread crisp, topped with squid and dried cabbage. The other is a hollowed-out radish, grown in the mountains, filled with pig’s heart and dressed with a roasted cabbage oil.

3. Japanese knotweed sorbet and declinations of peach
An invasive plant that’s considered a pest throughout Europe, Japanese knotweed is rarely used in cooking. In this sorbet, however, it provides a flavour somewhere between rhubarb, kiwi and green apple. Various iterations of locally grown peach (smoked, fresh, crisped) add texture. 

Published in Issue 13 (autumn 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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