Hisa Franko restaurant's head chef Melle Simon (R) preparing a Slovenian dish in Kobarid
Image: Jure Makovec / AFP
When Ana Ros started as a chef in Slovenia, all she had were some cookbooks and a bit of a "crazy" personality, as she herself puts it.
Now the self-taught cook—who was named the world's best woman chef in 2017—has her two Michelin stars tattooed on her fingers, and is helping make her small Alpine homeland one of Europe's prime gastronomic destinations.
Ros quickly found she had a talent for "matching crazy flavours", like coffee pasta with sea bass, lemon foam and basil, one of the early dishes that helped make her name.
"Like a painter sees colours, the chef sees flavours, and I was always very well known for using very strong flavour combinations," the 50-year-old told AFP at her restaurant in the Soca valley close to the border with Italy.
Hisa Franko—which Ros has been running for the last 20 years—currently ranks 32nd in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list.
But it is not the only restaurant of note in the country sandwiched between Italy, Austria and Croatia.
The Michelin guide recommends 58 there, saying Slovenia "is asserting itself as a gastronomic destination whose potential and quality are constantly improving."
Cooking from scratch
And a large part of that is down to innovative chefs like Ros, who has also featured in Netflix's "Chef's Table" series.
Hisa Franko was a family inn serving traditional fare when Ros's partner at the time, Valter Kramer, took it over from his parents in 2002.
Ros decided to join her husband in the restaurant, following her heart rather than pursuing her ambitions to pursue a diplomatic career in Brussels.
"At the beginning, it was just like cooking for survival... I started cooking from scratch," said the chef.
Right from the start, Ros developed a particular way of making "flavours hit your mind".
"Because my food is all about my character. A bit crazy... still childish" to some extent, she said.
Ros said her food is a combination of understanding the regional traditions and seasonality, but also her own personality.
After years of hard work, news about the remote restaurant with a talented woman chef started spreading, and Ros is now regarded as one of the world's best in a field still dominated by men.
"Sometimes you look like an exotic animal," she said. "But of course, the picture is changing with the new generation, who are super talented and super ambitious."Also read: What's cooking with Manu Chandra?
Hisa Franko now has a team of 40 people from around 20 countries working in her kitchen and she plans to open a bistro in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana.
The day she talked to AFP, her kitchen was turning out a starter of deer heart, oyster, kiwi and beetroot with mountain greens.
Like a big family
The country's cuisine "is one of a kind" and deserves a place on the culinary map, according to Lior Kochavy, a founder of a weekly street food festival in the capital that also brings together leading restaurants.
"You will never be bored. There is all the time something new to try," he said.
With Slovenia a melting pot of Latin, Slavic and Germanic influences, other chefs also say they attract diners by honouring traditions, seasonality and sourcing food locally.
"We've always tried to make sure the distance between the field and the plate is as short as possible," said Tomaz Kavcic, who runs the one-star Michelin Gostilna pri Lojzetu (Lojze's Inn).
"In the past that might not have been appreciated much, but now it is very valued," he told AFP. His menu "writes itself with just the products we see" from the restaurant's terrace on a vineyard-covered hill.
Ros, too, said Slovenians have "always been using nature as their market".
"Farmers and foragers—you grow with them, you learn from them, you teach them. It's kind of like a big family," she said.