Serendipity is probably the word that would best describe Ana Roš’s story to date. An unlikely chef who never got any formal training in the kitchen, she would probably have imagined herself as more of a diplomat or even a European Commission official. Truth be said, she was actually offered a job in Brussels which she turned down on the spur of the moment.
As fate had it her partner’s father was retiring from the restaurant he owned, the Hiša Franko and there was no one to take over his work expect Victor who would become her husband.
On the spot and against the will of her father she decided to stay in Slovenia and build her career in the restaurant. Having knowledge of 5 languages, she did not start in the kitchen but soon she realised that this would be necessary. Little did she know that this decision would make her one of the most recognisable figures in the world of gastronomy, sought after in food congresses and events worldwide.
Together with her partner and husband Victor (who is the sommelier of the restaurant) they have put Slovenia on the food map. It’s an incredible story and one that has even made it to the Chef’s Table series on Netflix. That has really changed her life. She is also female chef of the year 2017 for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list.
In the culinary world, she was known before that series, but the Chef’s Table episode opened the floodgates of people who were willing to travel and experience the magic happening at Hiša Franko.
She considers herself lucky to not have worked in the spotlight of guides like Michelin giving her time to build knowledge day by day which she says was a ‘blessing in disguise’.
“Today, there is a lot of pressure, I have always said that we were very lucky to live in a world where there was no Michelin, where we featured in no lists while we were developing our restaurant because that gave us the possibility to work and build what we wanted. Now, with the recognition comes the fear that you will not be able to repeat what you did. Losing what you have earned is the worst thing that can happen,” she said.
The recognition means that she feels huge responsibility. “When a client travels across the globe to come and eat at your restaurant it is not easy to relax. What if you are not in shape on that day or he simply does not like the way you cook. That makes you feel super guilty,” Ana told Food and Wine Gazette when we caught up with her during GELINAZ! Does Upper Austria earlier this year.
That mindset also comes from her past as a member of the former Yugoslavia national ski team. As many top athletes have discovered, having stage fright or a bad day on the day you need to perform at your best can make or break a career.
Today Ana has reached a point where she values the importance of physical exercise and also yoga to keep a mental freshness that is necessary. “I come from a sporting background. I was a member of the national ski team and was also a dancer. Moving for me comes natural. But in the first 10 years in the restaurant I let go having to cope with the restaurant and my family. I was learning and dedicating time in the kitchen. I started doing yoga but once the high season came, I did not find the time and did not take time to practice.”
There is a tendency for many to let go when the going gets tough because you think you need more time to work. Lose a habit and it becomes difficult to get it back.
But as she has grown a bit older she tells me she recognises the importance of exercising. “Since two years, irrespective of whether I am busy or not and even if I sleep late after a long service. I will wake up early and do something for an hour.
With a busy schedule that includes lots of travelling it is not always possible. “There are days when I might skip running but I try to be disciplined and not let go.”
Ana says that it is not only because she grew older that she wanted to remain fit but also because it gives you a beautiful mental freshness. “After a run, you take a shower and feel ten times better than you were before. I am fresh for the whole day so it is like fuel for me,” she says. “It is the best way to avoid psychiatrists,” she jokes.
Ana has also learnt to say no to certain things. “There was a big story in Slovenia and Italy because I said no to Masterchef which is the third biggest in the world for a judge. The reason I said no is that I cannot leave the restaurant and ‘sell’ my face.”
But she accepts to leave the restaurant for events like GELINAZ! because it is a way to meet old friends, to make new friends and to meet the community. “Every GELINAZ! is different but there is always one thing in common, there are good people who like to share. And where there is sharing, there is growth, improvement and the possibility to make the world better,” Ana said.
Events like these tend to bring chefs out of their comfort zone. “I think chefs don’t normally want to do it because the easiest thing is to cook with your team and to practically play it safe. When you leave your restaurant, you are alone, you risk to fail. It is actually probably that the dish you prepare will fail. But at the same time you have the adrenaline, it makes you think, reflect and also forces you to be creative.”
As a woman in a field that is known for being male oriented she was pleased that the GELINAZ! event matched 12 males with an equal number of female chefs. She is of the view that to address the problem one should not take a ‘feminist approach’ but rather get men and women together. “The important thing is to be open minded.”
She of course acknowledges that there are challenges but these are common in any industry. “I think that matching family with career is always difficult though a restaurant requires a lot of physical and psychological energy on top of difficult hours. What is most difficult is to bring up a healthy and nice family without feeling guilty particularly if things went wrong because you did not have enough time.”
So how does she find the balance I ask. “Every day is a struggle. It is not a struggle for us chefs but for everyone. But I see a lot of chefs working to maintain good relationships and balance between work and family. I look at the example of Rodolfo Guzman who eats together with his children and wife every day, I know Mauro Colagreco dedicates a lot of time to the family, René Redzepi travels together with his wife and children. The world of chefs is changing. It is no longer radical. People do sports, try to be healthy not just in terms of physical fitness but also in their family lives. I think even men are realising how important it is to dedicate time to the family.”
Ana is known for her creativity but how does she go about it? “We try to observe nature and what is going around us because it is giving you the base for your creativity. Sometimes you need to back off a bit when you are tired and keep things on the menu if necessary. Sometimes you push yourself over the limit. It can be difficult. As writers, so chefs and cooks are not always open minded and you can be tired or going through a difficult moment. It is illusionary to expect a chef to be creative all the time. It is just not possible,” she said.
Ana, however, believes that as the chef it is essential that the creative part is done by her. “It is like this that we can have an identity. We have a team so a chef does not necessarily need to cook on a daily basis and I must say that the people who work with me are much better than me but the creative part remains the most important element,” she said.
Ideas come from anywhere but it usually starts with a product and a time. “We are working on a dish that involves the plum. This is something staple in Europe but we don’t use it enough. We are working on using the plum as a cold starter, we are building a whole story around the plum, working to remove sweetness. Ultimately, it is like a picture, you check to see what is working and what is not working.
“Although I am very disciplined I like disorder when I am creative. I jot down notes in my notebook but only I can decipher what I have written,” she says showing me the work she did on a collaboration dinner with Gaggan Anand in Bangkok.
As a self-taught chef who cooked professionally in her restaurant for the first time, she does not have a mentor. “I don’t have anyone who is my hero. I believe we should be our own heroes and find a way to express ourselves.”
Ana enjoys cooking and I ask her where she sees herself in five years time. “This is what we are trying to define at the moment. We have achieved a lot over the past years. I want to be cooking well and to be happy in life. That is my dream project.” Who can fault her with that?