A month before it was announced that Ana Roš was awarded the distinction of 2017’s World’s Best Female Chef, she received a call from a representative of the academy. He wanted to know if she was planning on accepting the accolade, which has been steeped in controversy by those who deem its designation as “female” decidedly antiquated.
But for Roš, there was never any hesitation. It was a platform with which to speak about her work, put Slovenia on the gastronomic map and shed light on her experience as a female chef. She was going to accept it.
“I was flattered, actually,” she tells Journy cofounder Leiti Hsu. “Very flattered.”
Roš’ restaurant Hiša Franko (pronounced Hi-sha) sits in the Soca Valley of Kobarid, Slovenia—a bucolic region nestled between the Julian alps and Italian border that’s known as much for its natural beauty as its literary clout; Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms novelizes this former WW1 war zone.
The alpine peaks, sweeping meadows and verdant farmland also happen to be the driving force behind Roš’ cooking, which reflects the geographical and culinary diversity of her homeland—diners can invariably expect to see hyper-local butter, homemade Tolmin cheese, kid goat liver, tripe, cuttlefish and other regional specialties at some point during the six or eight-course tasting menu.
“Food-wise our country is very interesting because we’re surrounded by big identities,” explains Roš. “Italy on the west, Austria in the north, Hungary on the east and Balta in the south. All of these surrounding countries have very strong food cultures and traditions which immensely influence our culture.”
Hearing Roš speak about the nuances of Slovenian cuisine, one would assume that she’s classically trained in her craft. But that’s not the case. In fact, she wasn’t supposed to be a chef at all.
Having completed a degree in international diplomatic studies, Roš was primed to enter a career in diplomacy. But then she met now-husband Valter Kramar at, of all places, Hiša Franko—his family’s restaurant at the time. He was the waiter, she was accompanying her parents to dinner. The next day, they had their first date.
“I just went with the flow,” she says. “He suited me so well, even though my parents hated our relationship. They knew me well enough to know that if I fell in love I would never take over the diplomatic career.”
What Roš did do, though, was teach herself how to cook. She sought inspiration at some of the world’s best restaurants, made her way through cookbook after cookbook and tapped into a growing network of chefs to hone her technical skills.
And it worked. As critics began raving, diners from all around the world turned their attention to this tiny country just shy of 21,000 square kilometers. But however much attention she and the restaurant were receiving, it paled in comparison to what happened the afternoon of May 27, 2016 when her Chef’s Table episode aired.
“The system went from 200 to 10,000 pageviews,” she says, “and it completely crashed.”
In the months that followed, Roš slowly began adjusting to her new normal—one that included many, many more interviews and a renewed sense of confidence. No longer did she feel pressured to yield to the “safe” flavors and culinary techniques of her neighboring countries. The world wanted to taste what Slovenia had to offer, and Roš was prepared to deliver.
But then there was the less-talked about side of the infamous “Chef’s Table effect.” The part where too much change, too quickly causes some to be left behind. And for Roš, that meant saying goodbye to her sous chef of 20 years.
“In a country where there is no tradition of fine dining, where there is no tradition in a real organization of the kitchen, it’s super tough,” she explains. “Sometimes you crash to the world because some people cannot walk as fast, or they don’t want to change their mind, or they’re in a comfortable zone so it’s painful for them to have to change. There were a lot of victims on the road. But the expectations from clients were changing, and we had to change, too.”
But ever since that serendipitous evening when Roš first walked into Hiša Franko, one thing has remained the same: it is still, above all, a family affair.
In fact, if you visit No. 48 Hiša Franko today, you’ll find Roš in the kitchen and her husband Valter—one of the first Slovenian sommeliers—in the wine cellar. And because they live on the sprawling property that houses the restaurant and an inn, you’ll also find Svit and Eva Klara, their two children, not too far away.
“If I wanted to have children and keep them close to me, I needed to work in the same place as I lived,” Roš says. “And now they’re like part of the team.”
Roš and her family are also known to spend upwards of a month traveling together in remote destinations of Africa and Asia, temporarily shutting down the restaurant and inn to acquire new tastes and discover different techniques and ingredients—at one point even finding themselves in a remote island off the coast of Madagascar without electricity, running water or restaurants.
“In the evening, we would be washing in the sea. And then we’d lie down and count the stars over us," Roš says, recalling the trip that she still dreams about today. "We even hired a local woman to cook with us since there was no place to eat. That is a luxury I cannot afford anymore. I don’t have the time.”
Roš may have traveled far and wide throughout her formidable career, but she always finds her way back to Slovenia—to the abundant hiking trails that make it a haven for active travelers, and the impressive (albeit under-the-radar) wine region. And while Slovenia, she says, is “all about the countryside,” there is also a unique charm to the capital city of Ljubljana, which has a population of just 280,000 and “a beautiful fruit and veg market where everyone knows each other.”
“The more I know about the country, the more blown away I am,” Roš says. “There are such beautiful traditions.”
So if you do decide to hop over to Hiša Franko for a meal, well, Roš will be there to welcome you. After all, it’s not just a restaurant. It’s her home.