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Making food is like entering an art gallery, says Ana Roš

The celebrated chef talks about learning how to cook, what Slovenian food is, and the direction global food is taking

Ana Ros
Ana Ros

One of the things Ana Roš, often regarded as among the world’s best chefs, looks forward to every morning is her plate of pasta. “It’s my favourite food,” she says. “I make it in 15 minutes with whatever is growing in my backyard (kitchen garden).”

That’s her general approach to cooking: combining hyper-local ingredients without following any preconceived rules to showcase the richness of ingredients and specialties of Slovenia, her home country. It’s a philosophy that has helped Hisa Franko, a restaurant in the Slovenian countryside of Soca Valley where Roš is the head chef, earn its third Michelin star. Her restaurant in the remote mountainous region doesn’t serve signature dishes; it’s all seasonal.  

Becoming a chef was never part of her plan, though. In fact, Roš, who wanted to become a diplomat after studying international relations at Italy’s University of Trieste, had no experience of cooking or running a restaurant when her then partner asked for help in running an eatery he had inherited from his parents. 

Also read: Cooking, eating and the path to nirvana

Today, at 51, Roš, named the best female chef in 2017 by British media company William Reed, has been credited for putting the central European country on the gastronomical map. 

She was recently in India for a food pop-up and masterclasses at the Taj Mahal hotel in Delhi and Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace. In an interview in the national capital, Roš talks about her journey, what Slovenian food is and the direction global food is taking. Edited excerpts:


I just learnt you went to Old Delhi’s spice market on the first day of your arrival in India. How was it?

I didn't buy anything initially, because I was just tired (jetlagged), and when you buy spices, you need to be really present. So, I was just observing, looking at and understanding the different textures, smells and complexities of spices. I was stunned by the sheer volume, colours and varieties, especially green cardamom. The market mostly had two varieties (of the cardamom)—Indian and Guatemalan. Globalisation is happening at the ground level—at the spice market (laughs). 

Did you buy anything finally?

Lots of Indian cardamom. We put it in our teas; I’m a big tea lover. And some other spices to test. 

Like cloves, cinnamon…  

No, that would be boring for us. These two spices are actually part of the Slovenia traditional cuisine. Slovenia was the part of the spice route between Vienna and Venice. If you look at the old Slovenian recipes, you'll find a lot of different peppers, cloves, cinnamon and star anise. Yes, it’s a surprise for a lot of people but it makes sense if you consider Marco Polo, a Venetian, journeyed through India (around 1292), and then there was a lot of trade, with Venice being one of the ports through which things like spices were sent for the European courts.

I bought a lot of tamarind from the market. Right now, I am trying to understand how to prepare and use it. And turmeric too. 

I think the (Old Delhi) trip has been very revealing to all senses. I was overwhelmed by what was going on, even the pace of life. I think it’s difficult to understand Indian cuisine in a fine-dining restaurant if you don't understand what's going on the street. I have been travelling since I was 15; my first trip was to Tanzania, and it had a huge Indian presence. That was my first contact with India; we were eating street food and discovering Indian flavours. 

So, when it comes to absorbing food and what it stands for, it is important to imbibe things that are happening on the street. You need to know the source of your ingredients. 

Did you discover your love for food during the Zanzibar trip?

Maybe. That place was like Alice in Wonderland. There was no Internet at the time; it was a place I had never even imagined before. I remember going to the spice market and picking and smelling every ingredient possible. It made me curious about food. 

One of the most striking experiences was when I went to an Ethiopian restaurant and ate with my hands. I think at that moment I understood the connection of food, heart and mind. But I honestly never cooked until my 30s, unless you consider making noodles and pasta in university cooking (laughs).

So when did you start enjoying cooking?

It happened when I started dating my now ex-boyfriend. Once, he got very late for a date and I was angry with him. He took me to this place where they had the best prosciutto. I remember thinking at the time how food is not just about feeding the body, which was how I had always looked at it. Food was also about love.

Now I think food is also art. It’s an experience… like entering an art gallery.

In one of your earlier interviews, you mentioned you look at flavours like artists’ look at different colours. What’s your approach to making food?

It's weird, honestly. Sometimes I read the recipe, and I am like, this is not going to work, and everyone else goes, why not? And I say I can see it; it's not going to work. I have faced such challenges in the past. I once made coffee with green peas and people around me said, this is never gonna work. I was adamant. And it worked; people appreciated it. 

I see colours, and match them. There is neurological process that happens when we think about food. It's based on the unknown and known.

There’s a world beyond what we see and what we know. It is much bigger, and we need to explore it.

Was this always your approach to food?

I don't want to stay in a box; I don't like boxes. People who stay out of the box are the ones who are not scared of doing things differently—that’s what I believe in.

You've been credited for putting Slovenia on the food map, a country which perhaps not a lot of people would associate with food… 

When we were trying to analyse how foodies travel, we realised that people who have money to travel pick a restaurant in a comfortable way. They want to have background information about what they're going to get. So, it's easy to run a place that’s Italian, Mexican, Indian, Japanese. When you are buying dinner at a place in Slovenia, a country which many people can’t relate to, you don't know what to expect. We have been trying to put our country of two million people (Delhi population is about 35 million) on the gastronomical map since we started, and even with Michelin stars, it is a long way to go. Plus, it’s difficult to define Slovenian cuisine. We have influences from Italy, Croatia, Hungary. 

You are a self-taught chef. How did your chef journey start? 

When I started, my self-confidence was super low. But since I was self-taught, I was always a little bit wild when it came to food, texture and flavour combinations.

In 2006, four years after I started cooking, I made this one dish: fresh pasta filled with liquid potato soaked in trout broth and served with steamed trout, trout eggs, and steamed seaweed. It was a hit. That’s when I realised I could cook with my mind and heart—and all those ingredients were seasonal and local produce.

That’s also a core part of your cooking, with a focus on being sustainable… 

You have to be, if you live in Soča valley. It’s in one corner of the world. Suppliers that usually work with restaurants don’t operate here, since we are far away from everything. We started first by asking local farmers if they would like to share their lamb, butter and fermented cottage cheese with us. Their answers helped us decide our menus for the day. We still follow the same process; our menu is never the same. This trend of hyperlocal (food) sourcing is something we’ve been following from the start.

The world of fine dining is still a boys’ club. Do you think things are changing now?

There is a serious gender diversity problem and it's a natural consequence of the reality. Most workplaces have gender imbalances. I don’t think things will change anytime soon.

What does food mean to you?

Food for me is bringing people who like each other together.

Where do you think food is headed?

Towards originality. It needs to become more regional, and it’s happening. Would you travel to Peru to eat in an Indian restaurant? No, right. That’s what I am trying to say.

Also read: James Beard winner J. Kenji Lopez-Alt makes Maggi for breakfast


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