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Interview with Ana Ros

Ana Roš on tradition, innovation and Chef's Table

by Ella Timney 07 February 2017

Ella Timney chats to Ana Roš at Obsession 2017 to talk about experimentation, Chef's Table, tradition and how her mother-in-law's witchy practices help her in the kitchen. All photographs by Allen Markey, courtesy of Northcote Manor.

Ana Roš has, in the past year or so, become one of the most talked-about chefs in the culinary world. Being featured on Netflix’s spectacular Chef’s Table certainly helped, rocketing her and her restaurant Hiša Franko from a level of relatively local European fame to a truly global platform.

Shortly before meeting her at Nigel Haworth and Lisa Allen’s stunning Obsession 2017 – a seventeen day bacchanalian celebration of global cuisine tucked away in the lavish Northcote in Langho, Lancashire – she was given the oft-controversial title of the World’s Best Female Chef by The World's 50 Best.

This will, no doubt, propel the chef even further into the global limelight beyond those with a Netflix account. She was, undoubtedly, one of the most fascinating chefs of the series, due to the fact that she has not had a conventional cheffy path. She had to learn her craft on the job in the kitchens of Hiša Franko, relying on trial and error and gradually improving her skills, her test subjects the customers to her kitchen experiments.

Aside from her unconventional past, the main thing that makes Ana Roš a truly exciting foodie figure is her approach to her environment. The Soca Valley in Slovenia, aside from being incredibly beautiful, is packed with tantalising ingredients and food traditions that are thoroughly plundered by Roš’s enquiring mind. From aging a local cheese that had never previously been aged, to reviving age-old practices of burying a stunning type of chicory that resemble deep-red roses under cow dung, there are few chefs in the world who draw so much from their surroundings, and prove so educational in teaching the world about her terroir.

I sat down with the chef to quiz her on experimentation, tradition and her mother-in-law's witchy practices.

What can we expect from the menu? Have you brought any Slovenian ingredients?

Yes, you can expect a very… my menu, so my expression of the Mediterranean and alpine world and the way that I live it. I didn’t bring many ingredients because I think it’s only right and correct that you know how to interpret and work with local ones. It’s also a challenge. I brought some things like the rosa di gorizia, a very particular chicory, because it has such a unique story. It grows for six months and needs a lot of work, fermenting twice underground and once in these sort of coffins covered in cow shit… so it’s a really good thing. These are little attentions I give to my territory to make sure that people speak about it.

Is this something you’ve created?

No, I mean this chicory has existed here for more than 150 years. Just last week, my mother told me that three generations ago a part of her family was farming that chicory, and they actually made so much money with it that all the children in the house were able to go studying and became really important lawyers and stuff like that, so it’s really something we must never forget to mention.

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One of the things apparent in Chef’s Table was that you had to be constantly experimenting and discovering new things when you became a chef… Is this still the case? It sounds like it is!

I believe that if you realise that research brings you new knowledge every single day, you come to understand that you never come to a final destination – your destination will always be somewhere in the future with new types of knowledge and new discoveries.

I think there are so many things around us to be found out, not only from foraging, which is such a big trend now, but also in traditions – we sometimes forget to look there. This is how we found a fermented cottage cheese. When I was a kid I remember we stored it in our cellar, but I didn’t see it anywhere for another thirty years. I recently found it made by an old lady and we try to remind people that they should not forget such a great, great product, or such a great way to store things.

So globalisation is not always on the side of tradition. Sometimes it’s easier to go shopping in a huge supermarket than storing things at home, or having a garden – I’m talking about for those that can afford it – or maybe eating so seasonally that you don’t even have to store it. So out of trends I still think there are so many things we can do about our future.

One of my favourite part of Chef’s Table was about aging the local cheese, I think it’s quite radical to have this nice local ingredient and do something to it that’s never been done before.

There must always be a generation of people who are pushing the boundaries, the borders, so the cheese story was actually very automatic. Since I was a kid our area was great for cheese-making, but the problem was how life was organised – they never were able to season the cheese because communities of people owned the meadows, meaning the cheeses were distributed between more people. So imagine, all these people shared the cheeses in the families, meaning there really was not enough of cheese to season. So they had it fresh, because this is not a rich area where you have the luxury to start experimenting. You start experimenting when you have enough.

We did a deal with one of the meadows to buy practically all of their product, and we did this because we wanted to have a cheese that was a celebration. We built a cheese cellar and said ‘What now?’. This is mostly the work of my husband and it’s a really brilliant work. As a result, we have seven or eight year old cheeses now – not all of them are excellent of course because it’s an experiment – but the cheeses around four or five years old are something really special. The same thing is happening with cottage cheese and other dairy products. We do our own kefir which is really interesting, a lot of stuff like that.

I was going to say, because you experiment so much, what’s your favourite thing you’ve created?

My bread. This is what I really have to say because it’s exactly what you were talking about before – developing something out of a tradition. Maybe somewhere else you can have a better bread than mine, but it’s the only thing I ever defend. People might say it’s not enough in this or that, but it’s our bread and we love it, it deserves respect. When I was thinking how to make the sourdough, I understood that I needed a fruit to start with, and I was thinking it’s probably best to use apples – we are a land of plums and apples – and it was winter and there were no plums around. So I started fermenting apples with sunflower and water (we have fantastic water without chlorine, untreated) and this is how I made my sourdough.

Then I started making the bread, failing a lot of times and still researching. The bread was still changing. Then I gave some bread to my mother-in-law and said to her ‘you know this has no yeast inside, no fat inside’ and she said ‘how did you do that?’ and I explained to her. She looked and me and said ‘I mean when I was a kid we always did the bread this way’ – I was like ‘what?!’ and she said ‘it was heavier...’. And I understood this is a great story, because I actually started from ground zero without knowing that if I had just asked my mother-in-law she would probably have helped me find the solution first. But now, whoever eats the bread in our house is like ‘the food is amazing but the bread…’ the bread is so unique, so different than in other restaurants. And at its base is a traditional story. So I must say if there’s something I’ve given my heart to, it’s got to be the bread.

You had a history and a life before cooking, has it changed your relationship to where you live, becoming a chef, and culturally? Especially finding out these stories from your mother and mother-in-law…

Well it makes a difference because the countryside always preserves more traditions than the city does. My mother was a journalist and she’s now retired. I don’t believe she really paid a lot of attention to tradition in cooking, though she was an excellent cook, while my mother-in-law is all about tradition in cooking. She’s the first one who is always foraging at the right time, the right things, drying, preserving, pickling, making syrups, and she’s still doing it! Whenever you are sick, she would be the first to say ‘well before going to classical medicine, why don’t you try…’ when your stomach is not okay, you have a fever or whatever, she has all the solutions in nature. I call her a witch, and she sometimes really is a witch! But she’s a great positive personality and holds all of these traditions.

It must be amazing too, the flavours from all those traditional medicines…

She always knows the right thing for the right occasion. Even in cooking she uses so many wild things, but the funny thing is when I do it to my children they’re like ‘oh no not greens again!’ but when she does it, they finish it all. But she’s really attentive to the ‘right moment’. We say that ninety percent of the field is edible, but we forget that there is just the right time for it. So if you pick sorrel in the winter, it has no taste because all of the flavour in the plant goes into the roots. Or, another story about sorrel, people like to take bunches of it and make ice cream, but sorrel really is toxic at certain levels so you have to have a limited use of it. All of these stories are useful in the kitchen.

If you could take your restaurant anywhere in the world and get to grips with a set of ingredients, where would it be?

There is one place I always dream about… and the funny thing is I never really dreamed about it. If anyone interprets my words that way it’s wrong. But we have this little house in Istria, which is around an hour and a half drive from Hiša Franko to the south on the Adriatic Sea. It’s a peninsula with a very interesting microclimate, it’s very Mediterranean, more Mediterranean than most of the places more to the south. A very dry climate – it hardly ever rains, now maybe from climate change, and it’s very hot – then in winter it never goes below zero. They have whatever you can dream of. Fantastic truffles – many of the truffles from Alba are actually Istrian truffles – they have wild asparagus, fish and seafood, shellfish, anything you can dream about. Oysters, game, they have the best olive oil in the world – and it’s been proved they have the best prices for olive oil in the whole world – great wine.

We need to struggle in Kobarid, we need to dig out things, but there it is just so obvious, and the fantastic thing is restaurants just don’t care. So we make 800 litres of tomato sauce in Istria, because it’s so dry, this hot red soil, the tomatoes are sweet as apples. I buy boxes of tomatoes and bring them home, they are ripe but they keep. There is so little water inside you can keep them in the cellar like an apple. But in Istria you go to a restaurant and ask for a tomato salad, and of course it’s a terrible tomato from Holland, and it’s such a pity because in our world you have to fight to get products like this, whereas in that land, which is probably one of the richest in the world, they have the products but they would not use them. I think if you made a restaurant there you could really, really change things.

Would you ever do it?

Um, I mean I have time, I’m not hurrying. We need first to really settle down with Hiša Franko. It’s a life project, a huge house from the 18th century, a big one at least for no investors and no partners, just two people working for it. So when this is done and I want another challenge, it’s the only thing I think of.

Because of Netflix and all of the accolades that are happening now, are you used to all the new exposure yet?

The difference is that before Netflix, the attention was more European. So classic European markets of Germany, Austria, Italy and France. Some Americans later on, but if you talk about a basic market for us it’d be that one. After Netflix it became a world market – people are travelling, they want to discover and see, and it makes a huge difference. It was massive, especially because we were not ready to change, and we were happy in the situation we had. We of course now have to… I mean we can of course kill this dragon and say we’re not interested. We didn’t really grow in business, I mean we grew by number of guests, by income, but instead of growing larger we closed lunch service because we just couldn’t handle it and we didn’t want a bigger team, so we took some strange decisions which I think made us completely normal and sane.

It’s great because so often you hear about people burning out after sudden success…

It is exactly that because I’m only 44 years old, and I intend to live a long life. Burning out doesn’t mean becoming rich, and becoming rich, what does that mean? If you need to burn out for that?

What’s planned for this year?

There’s really no plan. Tonight after dinner I’m going on a little holiday, the first holiday in seventeen months. I need to think about things, think over my motives, my goals. What I really don’t want to do is to change. Don’t get me wrong, but I’m not interested in becoming someone who I don’t recognise in a few years. I have two children and they’re great children, they live in the countryside, and they are ashamed now, they say ‘oh mama everyone knows you now!’ and I’m like ‘yeah, better hide’! And I’m not the kind of person who likes exposing herself, so I’m going to try and be very intelligent and use all this attention for good things, that means the house has a future, cooking in the countryside has a future, my children have a future and that we can have a normal life. It means if I need a holiday I can have a holiday, if I need to close for two weeks I can close for two weeks. When you are in that position you have more freedom about deciding these things. For the rest, fame comes and goes, it depends what you do afterwards.

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