Ana Roš is an exotic animal in a country not known for producing these creatures. She is one of the most famous chefs in the world, transforming her remote restaurant, Hiša Franko, in the idyllic foothills of the lush Soca Valley in Slovenia, into one of the most sought-after destination reservations on earth. Yet despite her status in the culinary world, Roš isn’t the national treasure she would be in many other countries around the world. And I want to know why.
Think about this for a second. Rene Redzepi is an icon in Denmark. Massimo Bottura is revered in Italy. Enrique Olvera is a god in Mexico. And Grant Achatz is a rock star in America. They are held in the same esteem as actors, athletes, musicians and artists. But in Slovenia, a nation of just over two million people, society screws its face up at chefs, looking down on the craft as something stay-at-home mothers should do with minimal fuss or fanfare.
How many Slovenians can you name? Can you even locate Slovenia on a world map? Let me help you. It is sandwiched between Croatia and Austria, next to Italy and Hungary. Melania Trump, Luka Donkic and Jan Oblak are three of the best-known exports from Slovenia roaming the planet. But the former First Lady of the United States, the Dallas Mavericks superstar and the Atletico Madrid goalkeeper haven’t done anywhere near as much for their homeland as the woman behind one of the finest restaurants in Europe.
Roš has not just put Slovenia on the gastronomy map but on the tourism radar in the past handful of years, attracting diners from all over the globe, including a couple from Singapore who flew in and out of the country on the same day after eating lunch at Hiša Franko. Not many chefs in the world have that kind of pulling power, but Roš does.
The 48-year-old was a star on the rise before Netflix landed and set up camp for a month at Hiša Franko in September 2016. By the time season two of Chef’s Table aired nine months later, Roš had been launched into superstardom and Slovenia had become a major tourism destination courtesy of one restaurant in the countryside. You would have thought the country would have capitalised on the overnight avalanche of interest in Slovenia, but they underestimated the impact of Roš. And they still do.
It is a topic Roš is dedicating her second cookbook to; a topic central to the story of an over-achieving child who excelled as an alpine skier and a dancer as a teenager, before turning her back on a career as an international diplomat to work in a restaurant, despite having no prior experience or formal training in the culinary world. But more on that later.
“Two years ago, they did a list of 100 hundred most influential Slovenians of the decade. I think I was number nine. The first six were sportspeople, number seven was Melania Trump and I was number nine. But you could see our society and how they felt about my work. There is a whole population in Slovenia that don’t understand gastronomy and don’t understand my work, they don’t understand it being an important tourist or economic product,” Roš explained to Man of Style last month via zoom from inside Hiša Franko.
“It is very difficult because Slovenia is not really a country that ever had aristocracy; we have hardworking countryside people; you can’t imagine someone who works the fields all day having a beef steak with truffles. It’s not only my family, but if I read my interviews that are published in Slovenia, I am scared to read the comments under there because it is really tricky because people think whoever is cooking fine dining is automatically rich and is automatically a part of the aristocracy and the 18-hour workdays don’t count or the hard work doesn’t come into the discussion at all.”
If her homeland is still ignorant of her brilliance, then the same sentiment extends somewhat to her parents. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a journalist who expected their daughter to pursue a distinguished profession or an elite field like skiing, where she was once a member of the Yugoslavian youth team. They didn’t view cooking as anything to aspire to and made that feeling known when Ana told them she was going to work at Hiša Franko instead of accepting a role at the European Commission in Brussels.
“The pressure was really difficult from my father. Every day he would call me, ‘Did you call the union that offered you the job?’ I would say I was waiting for the answer but I was lying; I didn’t want the job,” Roš said. “I had to approach my parents to tell them that their daughter wasn’t going to be a diplomat, she was just going to work in a restaurant at a time when gastronomy had no sense in socialism and communism. At school they would send kids to gastronomic schools that had no talent for anything else. It was rare for an intelligent kid to go to a school like this.
“For my parents, this was a disaster. It was as if they lost their daughter. My family didn’t speak to me for six months. My grandmother had to come in between, she drove from three hours away and she told my father to accept my decision. I think my mum is still angry with me. She is from an aristocratic family, so cooking is for playboys not for real people. It wasn’t easy. When I started getting some success they would not accept it. My father has always supported me but hasn’t really understood my work well. My mother didn’t really in her heart ever accept it, so you have these little tragedies.”
That might be hard to imagine, but that’s Roš’ life. Only months after being named the best female chef in the world by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, she was recognised by a fan in Sri Lanka while attending a yoga retreat with her mum. The Englishwoman was thrilled to meet Chef Roš and asked her mother what it was like to have such an amazing cook as a daughter? Roš’ mum corrected her: ‘She’s not a cook, she’s a chef’. It was another brutal reminder that no matter what she achieves, it will never be enough to make up for choosing a field that disappointed her family two decades ago.
“I was a super gifted child at sports. Skiing was the Slovenian national sport at the time. I was six or seven years old when I started practising. At the age of nine, I was in the national ski team and was fourth or fifth in the nationals. But I wasn’t dreaming about the Olympic Games, I was dreaming about an amazing dancing career,” she said.
“I had a love of dancing. From the age of nine I was doing contemporary dance with some classical ballet which was driving my coaches crazy because you cannot do serious skiing and serious dancing at the same time. I really wanted to do dancing, so I actually sacrificed skiing for dancing in the end. When I was 18 and I decided to quit, I was in team A and my mates were competing in the world championships and travelling to the Olympics, but I wanted to pursue dancing.
“I put in a lot of work with an American teacher because I had a very athletic body which is special for dancing. We were doing really amazing things, but then I had an injury, a neurological one, very serious, so they said no more skiing, no more dancing, just school.”
Roš was 19 at the time and the injury forced her to focus on her study. She had mastered French, English, Spanish and German and a life in international diplomacy was part of her plan. It led her to an international school in Italy where she made it three-quarters of the way through the course before realising it was what her parents wanted her to do, not what she wanted to do. By then, she had met her future husband, Valter Kramar, whose parents had owned Hisa Franko since the 70s, and who had a deep interest in food, wine and restaurants. It opened up a whole new world to Roš. She finished her degree in Trieste, predominantly because her mother didn’t think she would, but she never went back to pick up the paperwork. It wasn’t long before she was entrenched in the restaurant world.
But unlike every other part of her life up until that point – the skiing, the dancing and the study – Roš didn’t go to school to learn how to cook. She wasn’t a world-beater from the get-go. But just like with the other areas of her life, she got her hands dirty and got to work. Kramar’s parents had retired and handed down the restaurant to the young couple. He knew wine and cheese and made that his schtick. Roš taught herself how to turn a struggling, traditional Slovenian restaurant into an institution by reading hundreds of cookbooks, attending conferences held by famous chefs who would eventually become her friends, and leaning on a mentor who would help sharpen her skills in the kitchen.
“If I knew in the beginning it was going to be so painful and slow, I probably would have given up because I’m an impatient person who wants to see results straight away. It really went very, very slow,” she said.
“But this is how I did it. I bought a whole library of cookbooks. Some were very technical because I needed to learn how to breakdown a whole animal. A friend of my husband was a strong mentor for me who came once or twice a month to teach me how to be constant and not so spontaneous. I needed to learn all these things. I went to conferences of chefs who later on became my friends.
“I was doing things wrong but it made them more interesting. I wasn’t a copy and paste, I didn’t belong to any cooking school, I was just myself with my own ingredients that I gathered in the area. My base is a curiosity of how to do things. People from classical cooking schools don’t have that; they think they know everything; I’m still wondering how to do things differently. We created a food destination that never existed and a tourist destination that never existed.”
Roš and Hiša Franko had featured on television and in newspapers around the world before Chef’s Table came calling, but she wasn’t prepared for what was coming. She didn’t watch TV at the time – and still rarely does – and had to be convinced by Bottura, whose restaurant Osteria Francescana was the first restaurant featured on the award-winning series, to respond to Netflix’s initial pitch.
When you now dissect Roš’ rise, you can pinpoint May 27, 2016, as the day her entire world changed. This is the day Chef’s Table season two dropped. Hiša Franko went from attracting 200 website visitors a day to more than 10,000. First the reservations system crashed, then the entire website. The difference between high and low season almost disappeared overnight. It was that powerful.
“I’m not a television fan. I like the cinema but we don’t have one near here. When I got the first email from Chef’s Table I honestly didn’t care about it. I was a part of the second season and the first season had just come out so no one could measure the success yet. I didn’t reply to that first email,” she recalled.
“The second one came so I needed to make some phone calls. They sent me a story about Massimo Bottura. I thought it might be just another documentary. They wanted to have a phone call. It was June and I had just come from India and they said they wanted to start filming in September – September this year. Massimo Bottura convinced me that it made sense because the first episode was going crazy.
“We filmed for the whole month, 40 of them with very rigid schedules for shooting, 12 hours per day. I had to cancel whatever I had on that month. I couldn’t cook, I had to dedicate myself to them. Netflix told me everything was about to change. They said I was about to become a rock star, but I never really took it seriously. Other documentaries hadn’t had much of an impact.
“The day the show was released everything broke down. It was crazy. We used to have low and high seasons here, but then after Netflix that changed. Then Hiša Franko made it to top 50 restaurants in the world, then two Michelin stars came, so it was very helpful. It was a lot of work. In 2017 alone I did more than 500 interviews, no less in 2018 and around 450 in 2019. That’s more than one interview per day so it’s a lot of work. It means that behind the success is not just an amazing team, but you need to feed this animal. We are in the countryside that is very difficult to reach.”
Roš is still feeding that animal nearly five years after that show changed everything. The pandemic has threatened Hiša Franko’s existence, but Slovenia is nearly out the other side. They have focused on philanthropic ventures during this time and are ready when the government gives them the green light to resume what they do best. But when things do return to normal – whatever that means now – one thing will remain the same: Roš will still be an exotic animal in a place that doesn’t appreciate them. Lucky there are plenty of people who do.