Swapping Skis for Haute Cuisine: Ana Ros on the Culinary Philosophy of Hiša Franko & Influence of Soca Valley
Ana Ros, is a Slovenian chef who with her husband Valter owns guest house Hiša Franko. The property is located in Kobarid, in Slovenia's Soca Valley where they both grew up. The Soca Valley is in Slovenia's Goriška region along the Italian border and its alpine peaks and electric emerald green river attract adventurers. Ana herself was a member of the Slovenian national ski team and studied diplomacy in Italy (she speaks five languages).
Shortly after graduating from college, she re-connected with Valter and began her gastronomic journey when the two took ownership of Hisa Franko from Valter's father. Ana's approach to the kitchen today is technical, almost scientific, with an emphasis on fresh ingredients with strong taste. Raw food is her favorite and she has a strong preference for the element of surprise: different textures (cold/warm, soft/hard); taste contrasts (bitter/sour; sweet/salty) and significant use of herbs and spices.
Hiša Franko today is a member of Jeunes restaurateurs d'Europe (JRE), Chaine des Rotisseurs. Ana is often invited to work/cook/demonstrate abroad, especially France (Les Rencontres Internationales de la Gastronomie, Les Etoiles de Mougins, Paris des chefs), Italy (Identita golose, Squisito!), Il gusto in Scena, Slovenia con Amore; Switzerland and the U.S.
Ana has a cooking show on Slovenian TV, and is involved in educational program for Slovenian future cooks, as well as a program in San Patrignano, Italy where she works in the kitchen with recovering drug addicts. In 2010 she was selected as a manager of the year in Slovenian tourism. In 2012, Ana was the first woman invited to join a very tiny group of chefs in "Cook it Raw," an environmental project which involves some of the best chefs of the world, including Rdezepi, Barbot, Inaki Aizapitare, Alex Atala, Daniel Petterson.
Ana considers herself an ambassador, with her cuisine a way for visitors to understand the territory, people, and the culture of the Soca Valley. Let Ana introduce you to her love of working with local ingredients such as lambs from the neighboring mountains, beef from the nearby meadow, wild herbs and flowers, as well as to share her views on topics such as risk-taking, creativity and the role of doubt, the influences of travel and benefits of "unplugging."
Meg: Did you grow up in the Soca Valley?
Ana: Yes, I actually was born in the valley, but my mother is from the seaside. She is a journalist, just retired; my father is a doctor. When I was around two years old, we moved to the southern part of the Soca Valley and this is where I grew up. I did a lot of sports; I was on the Yugoslav national ski team and I also did classical ballet. My childhood was very disciplined and very active. Then I quit skiing and moved to Italy, where I studied international science and diplomacy. Just before getting my diploma I met my future husband, Valter. He is the son of the original owner of Hisa Franko, which actually opened 40 years ago exactly. Valter and I knew each other since we were children so it was just meeting again after so many years.
Meg: When did you and Valter take over managing Hisa Franko?
Ana: I was actually looking for a job in Brussels in one of the European commissions. I had already been hired when Valter’s father decided to retire. The house is an old building, from 1860, and this is a very strong seismic area so the house needed a lot of not only housekeeping but it was time to do some expanding. It was too much for Valter’s father, and out of the three children, Valter was the one who was interested in continuing the business.
Valter could not do it alone so it was really depended on me. We had been together for two years at that time. And I said ‘Okay, I’ll take the challenge. Let’s try.’ So we first both worked in service positions. I speak five languages so that was a very good thing, because the area is an international tourist destination.
Then we traveled all around the world to have good food, to understand what you have to do to provide good food. But the team that was working with us at Hisa Franko at that time started to slowly leave, so there was a key moment: we needed to change, to grow. It was at that time I realized had to go into the kitchen.
Valter is a very well-known sommelier. He was one of the first Slovenian sommeliers, trying to seek out interesting and special wine producers. A lot of young wine producers who are now world renowned started their career when Valter discovered them, people such as Edi Simcic, Borut Blazic, Matjaz Cetrtic.
He studied in Italy and was the first sommelier in Slovenia who completed school. So it was a pity to leave this wine business, especially because the restaurant needs a good wine cellar. So it was an automatic decision that even if Valter is a cook by profession that I must go in the kitchen. So the hard part started.
I had a bit of luck because my mother and my grandmother were great cooks. My mother’s career meant she never had time but when she was cooking it was really always very intelligent, very tasty but also very healthy food, and she was cooking using local ingredients. This little gift from my childhood was very important.
The beginning was very difficult. Up until ten years ago when we began having children, we really traveled a lot to learn about food. We would fly somewhere for two days just to have the food and come back. We went to all the most famous restaurants throughout the world such as El Bulli, El celler de Ca Roca (at the time they only had 2 Michelin stars), Le Calandre, Carme Ruscalleda, Arzak, Martin Berasategui, Mugaritz, Akkalare…
I knew what the right direction for us was--going to a deep focus on our environment, the seasons, being creative--but the problem is when your hands are not following your head, this is always a problem, technically it’s a problem.
So I really needed to start from the beginning, which was difficult. I was helped very much by my husband’s mother. She’s a great basic cook. She taught me how to clean the meat, how to select a good meat, the bread story, the pasta story. So these were little beginnings and then there was a good friend of my husband who is a professor in a gastronomic school in Italy and also a chef. At the time he didn't have a restaurant so he was coming on weekends to work with me. What he gave me was very important, and that is to pay attention to detail. Because let’s say he showed me how to make a dish and then he came back and he saw me doing it in a wrong way. He said, “I just didn't grill it as much as you did, just a little bit less. He wanted to make me understand that when you want a great dish to be great, you need to pay attention even on a little detail. But that was really important.
Locally we don't eat a lot out. We prefer cooking at home. When we eat a lot out, we tend to copy or repeat things. But when we go out we really select places that are good for us, and this was crucial because I needed my personal growth, to develop my own character in selecting ingredients and dishes from the area, or even if they are not from the area, making choices that matched my philosophy, my identity. I decided to build this identity, so that meant working with local ingredients, meeting local farmers, to do this economic circle, which is so important. This individual approach to things is characteristic of every chef, and this is where the personal experience is important.
Kilometer Zero Ingredients: Fresh flavors & beneficial for local farmers
The approach of using “kilometer zero” ingredients is good for all sides. If I get cottage cheese from the mountain just up from the road from our house, I get it warm, it’s still really losing water. Cottage cheese contains a lot of water and when it is still hot it is always wrapped in a piece of textile so it can lose the water.
So I give people the freshest possible ingredients with of course local flavor, but also the farmer who I bought it from gets some money for it. There are some products and ingredients that it is very difficult to store, like let’s say ricotta. From the moment the cows go to the mountain, so the beginning of May to mid-September, there’s too much of it, 10 kilos per day for each farmer. So it’s very difficult if you don't have people to whom to sell, you just start throwing it away. You can put it in storage for some time. So this is why it’s very important that local chefs start using local things. Another example is lambs or goat kids in their season. If we don't take them anymore, the farmer loses the incentive to have them, and then we start to lose the whole tradition.
But we also discover some things. Let’s say the story of Jerusalem artichokes. For some time they called me the Jerusalem artichoke princess. I discovered the Jerusalem artichoke in one shop in Italy, I found it interesting, and when people locally saw me using it and they said “What are you doing?” And I said, “It’s a Jerusalem artichoke.” They said, “We know, we have plenty of it but we are giving it to the pigs.” So that was the funny thing. I found it somewhere else, I brought it here, then I saw that we have it but people never knew they can use it. So now you are opening people’s minds. They added a very healthy, new ingredient to their kitchen.
In some cases, people are re-learning traditions. This area is very poor so people were always very much connected to the land. Picking wild herbs either for food, or teas or whatever, was always very traditional. It always went from generation to generation but it was never written. The new generation, now of course it’s very easy. You go to the shop. You buy whatever you want. But you can never have a wild garlic, freshly picked, or the teas that let’s say my local ladies are making, which is an enormous heritage. This is what we are trying and I'm still learning. If I just check with Valter’s mother, she always knows which herb to pick at which time, she is always cooking ransoms, nettles, wild garlic, or little sprouts from wild plants. This is what I'm really discovering now very strongly. I see that the generation in front of me still knows these things. So it’s very important there is someone who keeps the traditions.
We are also bringing things back to the restaurant, like trout. We have one of the best conditions for very good sweet water fish. You know sweet water fish can sometimes really not be good because when it’s in muddy or still waters they can have this muddy taste and it’s really not pleasant to eat. So people are scared of ordering the sweet water trout, and because they're scared of ordering them, the restaurant chef will say, let’s stick with the sea fish because it’s easy to sell, and especially because Italians are crazy for it. So it’s a pity if you go to the local restaurant and you have so much sea fish and so little local fish, or things that are easy to sell but not giving anything back locally.
We will survive because of our local philosophy. When we took over the restaurant, this place was empty. All the places around were doing very well but this place was empty. But then we really strongly built this philosophy: local, strong flavors, not boring, let’s play with it. Then the situation changed completely. We are starting this season up and the restaurant is really working seven months per year strongly. There is normally a waiting list; now the wait is four months for dinner. What I mean is out of something that looked incredibly difficult, we built something that is working.
To go back to the trout, we worked on trout. We have a little pool of trouts in the back of the restaurant. We have our own source of water, which is 68 degrees throughout the year and there is a current that goes through this pool so the fish have cold water all the time, which is important in fresh water. We don't feed them practically so they get everything that they need from the water and from the air. So just outside the kitchen, a trout is caught and then served. You have to leave it resting for a few hours, otherwise it’s difficult to work with it, but it has a great, great taste.
On the last year’s menu we only had two fish. One was the trout and the other one was a black cod, which I love, and it was working. People that so many years ago would never eat it, they were forced to try it here because it was on one of the tasting menus, and very often they said, but my favorite was the trout. So I think it’s a very good, bringing some things back. Some people of course are not sharing our enthusiasm, but this is our whole lifestyle so it can't be different.
We have another restaurant in Ljubljana--we call it our money maker. It’s in the Castle of Ljubljana. It’s also a very interesting project. We run it in a partnership with another restaurant. It’s a kind of bistro of traditional Slovenian food. It may be the only place in Slovenia which really tries in a much simpler way than here to use and bring back traditions of the local food, like local sausages or a way to cook potatoes, pork meat, the use of pumpkin oil, or home made pastries…. traditional dish from this area. So in one place you can get a dish from an old recipe from every part of Slovenia. Of course, some dishes are refreshed a little bit. Some Slovenians were strictly farmers and a farmer needs calories. We don't need so many calories now.
Meg: What is it like working with your husband and having that 24-hour partnership? There has to be good and bad at times. How has it been for you and Valter?
Ana: It is bad in a way. It is bad because everything is discussed throughout the day. When the evening comes there is nothing to speak about anymore. I mean because the only thing we go through is business all the time--when we wake up in the morning, when we go to sleep. And it is hard sometimes because of course you fight a lot, especially because we are so different. I'm creative. I'm very disciplined in work, but not in the financial part. And so he must be on the financial part. I'm stubborn also so I think we absolutely need something and he may say I am not interested in whether we can afford it. So it’s in a way always a balance. This is one part.
This is why we do these long trips. When we go, we normally do one month of holiday in November and then we are closed in January and March but we work on projects. But the most important is that month that we leave, we switch off our phones. Because of work let’s say two times per week I find some Internet connection to do some work, but we normally try not to speak about work. We take care of our children, of ourselves and that’s quite healthy. That’s why we also pick destinations which are not similar to our situation. When we leave for holidays--this year we’ve been in Madagascar--we’ve been in parts with no electricity, no water, and no restaurants. So we had to ask a local lady to come to us with food to cook for us. So we pick different situations to survive from the family side or partnership.
Meg: I’m intrigued that your “identity” seems to be a blend of your local heritage, as well as being a citizen of the world. How have your travels played a role in shaping your identity?
Ana: We travel a lot, two times per year and this changes you. We normally travel with our children to Africa and Asia for long periods. During time the guest house and restaurant are closed. Wherever you go you meet a new approach to the kitchen. Let’s say Vietnam--things are not cooked at all, they are left almost raw and that is a great thing about them. You can really feel the ingredient. Even in the street food the respect of the ingredient is very strong.
So when you come back you always cook a little bit differently. I don't say no to an ingredient but it must be part of the local story. It can be an Asian sauce, based on, I don't know, a Thai or Chinese or Japanese ingredient, sauce, or spice, but it will be served with the local beef tongue. The food must be happy. If I insist I want to be only local and traditional, sooner or later it becomes boring. This is maybe why people like it so much, because there is always some interesting surprise in the food.
Asian culture inspires dishes: ‘No border between Modern and Tradition’
Meg: What are a couple of the places you’ve visited that have had the most profound effect on you personally and professionally?
Ana: In Asia, absolutely Japan and Vietnam. We’ve been in Burma also, in Myanmar, which was great but professionally, nothing compares to Japan and Vietnam. And maybe Madagascar this year. It’s incredible what good ingredients they have and how they are aware of them so they know how to cook them. And there are spots of really top-end high cuisine in Madagascar. We tried a few and I must really say it was an experience. So I would call out those three.
There is a destination where we go once per year. It’s the Cabo Verde Islands. Do you know where they are? It’s the little country between Brazil and West Africa. It’s composed of 12 islands, and we have a friend who has lived there for many years. And he has a little wooden house on the beach, and this is where we escape normally in February and March for three weeks. We’ve been there 10 times already.
Our house has no water, no electricity. There is a little generator during the day but there is fishing, so we cook what he catches. And there is absolutely nothing. We don't put shoes on for three weeks. And there is a lot of meditation happening there. Of course mingling with local people because there are only a few on the island; we all know each other. And there is where we normally understand how really to do a simple, simple life. So not only cooking alone but cooking also without electricity and water. Sometimes we have to wash dishes directly in the sea because for days we can't have water. Using what really local environment is giving. But that’s still a holiday. Nothing to do with real life for us. For them it’s their real life.
Meg: As far as Vietnam and Japan, can you explain what in particular impressed you about the culture there or what you took away?
Ana: The Japanese story that strikes every European who travels there is that there is no border between modern and tradition. So you can see the Ginza district in Tokyo and you walk in these skyscrapers full of Gucci, Prada, and it’s really the most brilliant city, nothing to compare with New York or Hong Kong, whatever. And you just have this image of traditionally-dressed women just moving slowly.
It’s also like that in food. They all are so impressed about European food, especially Italian food. But when you eat their food, it’s always this flying between being modern and traditional. I think they have such strong roots, it’s the strongest tradition I've ever seen. And it’s still applied so much now.
They are so modern and so traditional in the same way, and I've been in Mibu in Tokyo--it’s their most deeply traditional place. It’s impossible to get in, it’s a club and so it’s actually only members who are able to get reservations. A friend of mine who is a part of the royal family, she had reservations, let’s say for the 21st of March and the 19th of October, you have a table for four. That’s it. So this is how I could get in because she invited me, and I still can't believe I experienced it. It’s a deep, deep tradition.
On the other side, in Vietnam even the street fruit is so good that the most simple thing, eating on the street on the little tables is ‘wow!’ There is nothing that is not wow in the Vietnamese cuisine. And I think this is what I loved most.
We travelled with some Americans and I said to them “I guess it must be very difficult for an American to travel to Vietnam – a place full of sadness for you. Also Vietnamese people probably have their point of view so they could have trouble understanding Americans as tourists.”
The people we were travelling with said no, they found the Vietnamese to be very open. So it means it’s a nation which can forgive, and this says a lot about Asian culture anyway.
Wherever we’ve been, when we came back, each of us weighed less kilos than before we left. This is where I understood how important it is to not overcook things, to leave them preferably raw than overcooked. So in whichever process, be short. Preserve the taste. And the wide use of herbs, and of course the wide taste of fermented fish, which whenever you are in Vietnam it follows you.
Madagascar is so memorable maybe because they're so poor and they have so much French influence still in whatever they do in their life.
In Madagascar a trip from Fianarantsoa to Manakara on an old train, which is actually the only connection between the center and the east coast. It’s a trip of 150 kilometers and the train is, I don't know, 19 hours. It’s an economic bridge between the coast and center, because in the middle it’s the richest fruit growing area. But the only way they can transport things is via train. It’s an old train from the end of the 19th century, beginning of 20th century. It’s a Swiss train. We had first class, which is a piece of wood on which you sit and it’s crazy. This train stops in 18 little stations and you wait in some stations three hours because bananas up, mango down. So each time we go to see how many things they have to put on the train and off the train, because I repeat it’s the only connection between the two areas of the country—there is no road. So if one village needs water it comes only with the train.
You can only feed yourself through the window of the train. So on each little station that the train comes to, there are thousands of women and kids coming to sell you food. So first I said we should not eat that, we would be sick. But then there was a French couple sitting on this chair behind us. And I saw him buying food all the time. In each station he picked something. Like two, two three different things. He kept on eating. And so after two stations I turned around, I said, “It’s safe?” He said, “Even if I'm sick afterwards I would never lose this occasion to try all this food.”
And so we had the most incredible possible food-- from almost burned mice to live sweet water prawns. In the end we couldn’t do it anymore. Each snack cost 100 ariary, which is 0.001 cent in Europe. Even in these remote villages where only the train comes, they still have this strong French tradition of cooking. So everything is done perfectly. There was not one thing that we tried that we didn’t like it. And of course thousands of fruits. Madagascar is a land of lychee and they teach you how to each lychee with no knife or anything, so there are ladies with hats of lychee walking like this.
But there is a crisis when you come back to Europe from these strong tropical tastes. Which I repeat, Madagascar has even more than Japan and more than Vietnam this large specter of food, from the best possible cow meat to all kinds of seafood. I've never eaten so much ducks and gooses done in all possible ways. So really wow. It was really impressive eating from the train.
Meg: Can you tell me how you come up with your menus and how often they change over the course of the seven months that you're open?
Ana: There are some dishes which I call classics--dishes which I don't want to change but there are not many of these. Others change as nature changes. So some come and disappear. Some stay for two, three months. Hopefully the spring is coming and there will be wild plants coming now. So I can't say on a precise day we change the menu.
Some dishes are really the expression of the moment. Let’s say the first dish which you had yesterday for lunch, the little burnt veggie, that dish is really an expression of this moment. The green sauce you had was a raw juice of the green pea shell, not of the fruit but of the outside shell. So the idea is using everything--but you can do it only at the best moment of the green pea. Then when the green pea is off you have to turn off the dish.
Some things are more eternal. Using game for us is so important. The pasta dish you had for lunch is our classic, the one filled with the kid goat, like crushed burger and the oil of black truffle. This is a classic. I try to keep it throughout the year.
There is another thing. Most of the dishes for me are not repetitive. I cannot repeat them the year after, because we change, and sometimes I find I'm not able to repeat it because I changed. I'm matured in a way so I see things in another way. So let’s say the vegetable dish, the burnt vegetables from yesterday, I could never do them last year. I was not thinking in that way. It’s a completely new switch. But this is why some classics must stay. So you have like a statue of what you were doing years ago.
Meg: What would be a dish that you would describe as being one of your biggest risks?
Ana: Oh, there are many. I remember people were shocked when I was using a scallop with morta della and pumpkin oil and rye bread. But when you think about that, it works because the morta della has this garlic filling. It reminds us of our childhood. And the scallop is sweet, and the pumpkin oil has this dulcet feeling and the rye bread is sour. So you have all tastes covered.
There is a new dish coming out. It’s a dessert. There is one very interesting thing about desserts I make--they always have a very salty element in them. This is why my desserts are not for classical sweet dessert lovers. They are more serious. There is a dessert coming out now which will be based on green and white asparagus, strawberries and almonds. I have to finish it today. There is a dessert which was done two days ago, the one you had, with local butter and with toasted bananas and pumpkin oil and toasted pumpkin seeds. If you look the spectrum of what you have, you understand that there is a large scale where you can really play. I even did desserts with black olives I served in New York once. It was really a good story. And with goat milk, fermented goat milk. It was a very good dessert.
Meg: Is there anything new you are focusing on now?
Ana: I started a project this January which is called the art of poor cuisine. It is a project which is an answer to the economic crisis in Europe-we try working with poor, sometimes forgotten products and transform them to haute cuisine, which is not too expensive, but at the same time very tasty.
We do it in our restaurant in Ljubljana once or twice a month. It depends on my time. I normally invite an international chef and we make an interpretation of poor ingredients. We use only strictly a local ingredient, an ingredient which is normally a very forgotten ingredient. So what makes an ingredient big is our interpretation of it, the technique that we use. There is a series of great dishes which were born during those dinners.
For a main course I did a sandwich of veal brain, which was fried, so it was like a sandwich, completely crispy from the outside and liquid inside because the brain melts in a way. It was served with fermented fish. Or there was a dessert based on a pig’s blood with oven-baked apples with cinnamon that was also very high on the risk spectrum. Another dish I did was veal heart, which was served with wild fruits and like a cake of old bread, very interesting also. I normally try to use the difficult part, the part of the body that we forgot to use. On the fish side we tried to find fish that were again local but with very strong taste. So you can play with a lot of things.
Cooking is an art: ‘If you miss the detail, you miss the harmony’
Meg: What about the role of creativity and imagination in your menu and your philosophy?
Ana: It’s very important. It’s like an art. You have strong creative moments and you really have to use them up until you're completely tired. And of course you have non-creative moments, moments where you are sometimes emotionally dead. We all have those moments. At that point it’s better just not to try to change things, because you will never do it in the right way.
People don't come here more than two times per year. So they never know if I changed a dish or I didn't. When you feel that it’s necessary then you do it. But when you can't, it’s just important that you leave it, because you can make mistakes. In these creations, the details which I spoke about are so important. Because if you miss the detail, you miss the harmony, and when you miss the harmony, you did nothing. Because the dishes can be either complex harmony--let’s say the pumpkin, oil and banana dessert. Or they can be the extravaganza of many tastes and it should be as an explosion of different tastes in your mouth. But they still must make sense. It can't be like different fireworks. All these different fireworks must be connected by the harmony, which someone visiting must feel. And I find this very difficult.
When you're not in the moment, then it’s also important that I'm not cooking. I have good people who work for me. The girl who has worked with me for 11 years, she knows exactly what I mean. I can start complicating things. After about two months I say maybe it’s wrong, maybe I should still change something. So better to have someone who just keeps on going without seeing you with so many doubts. So it’s difficult when you have to be very creative all the time, because when you have a no moment, you still have to live and do. That’s why we sometimes have some classic things which keep us alive but creativity is important.
Meg: You just touched on something that’s interesting to me. You mentioned the word doubt. What role does that play in your process? I think in the creative process there’s always self-questioning.
Ana: There is. Doubt is the engine of the process. It’s the doubt which keeps us going. I always doubt. I never say I did it. I always say it can be better. When I'm in front of every dinner, every lunch or every event I do out of the house I'm never sure of myself. I always doubt. So I think this is what keeps us alive. We always search for better solutions.
Meg: And at the same time, having built up the business and a following, going from having had no business to where you are today where you have a four-month waiting list…do you allow yourself to feel content or grateful that you’ve accomplished something significant?
Ana: No, not really. It’s funny because we still speak about projects. We don't say ‘we did it.’ Young students come to the restaurant sometimes and they look at you with all respect. But I always say, I can still learn something from them. We still have so many projects that maybe when our children take over, if they will, maybe we will say we did something. I see so many things to do that we are just mid-way.
It’s actually not so long that we have been running the business. It’s been 14 years since we became involved with Hisa Franko and ten years ago when I started in the kitchen. It’s a short period because if you think of young students who go into the kitchen when they are 18, it means my years in the kitchen are the equivalent of the stage they're at when they are 28 years old. The question is the maturity.
Yesterday we had some students here. I was really happy they came, and the only thing I said to them, ‘just have experiences. Change kitchens. Change chefs. Be modest. Observe. Learn and never trust your taste.’ Because that’s another thing. I am so doubtful that I always need confirmation. I start with my husband and a spoon and say ‘what do you think?’ When he says no, I say ‘okay, so we need to still work on it.’ I also have some regular guests who are my very strong judges. One is an Italian guest and another is a Croatian guest. They are here very often, so if they are negative about some things I work on it. I don't let it go.
Meg: So you feel that being humble and open-minded are important characteristics that have served you well?
Ana: You have to follow your way, of course, but when I ask a question I want a truthful answer, not a fake answer. I don't like if people say to me, ‘of course it was great,’ but then he goes out and says the dish was blah. So when I'm sure about something I would not change it. But when I'm doubtful, I listen.