Even for an episode of Chef’s Table, Ana Ros’ story is particularly compelling. The 46-year old from Slovenia had a nascent career in the Yugoslavian (which dissolved into 5 different states, one of which is Slovenia) youth national skiing team, but decided against it and went on to study diplomacy. While studying, she met her current husband, Valter Kramar, whose parents owned Hisa Franko.
The rest, as they say, is history. Ros and her husband (who is the restaurant’s sommelier) took over the restaurant after the parents’ retirement and grew it from a traditional eatery into one of the most recognized restaurants in the world — Hisa Franko is no. 38 on the World’s 50 Best list and has become a destination restaurant for gourmands all over the world.
We spoke to Ros at her most recent visit to Singapore, where she cooked for a four-hands dinner alongside chef-restauranteur Beppe De Vito at Italian restaurant Braci.
Have you been inspired by anything in Singapore that you want to bring back to Hisa Franko?
Not really. Because the cuisine at Hisa Franko is contextual. I have to tell you the chicken rice story — The first time we were in Singapore was with my children when we were travelling to Perth.
David Thompson, who had a restaurant in Singapore (Long Chim), told me that I had to meet Lynn [Yeow-De Vito] because he thought that we would get along very well — and we did. She fell in love with my children, and every time they’re here she would bring them to eat chicken rice. So my children fell in love with the dish.
Last year, for my son’s 15th birthday, he requested that I cook chicken rice for him. Lynn wasn’t available then, and I was googling the dish, but I messed it up…My son ate it and said it wasn’t right.
I re-heated the dish — which you eat at room temperature — and the rice and chicken were both not the right kind either. I never attempted chicken rice again after that, we would rather come to Singapore to have it. So you really need the right ingredients and the right context.
You’ve mentioned that chefs should not be defined by their gender — purely based on your cooking — do you think there’s sense of feminity in your food?
Well, at the level of the kitchen I’m cooking at — it’s very personal cuisine. There’s a yin-yang story. It’s not about whether it’s a man or a woman, it’s a question of sensibility. For example, Mauro Colagreco — whose restaurant Mirazur was just won World’s 50 Best — we cook in very similar styles. There are a few ingredients, but they are well-dressed, well-prepared with a lot of sourness and sweetness. Then on the other end of this yin-yang spectrum you have the “rough” chefs who cook in a very raw style…with charcoal and the grill…but I know a lot of girls who cook in that way. It’s a story of the personality of the chef.
When you first started out at Hisa Franko you were also a new mother. Do you think that informed your cooking a little?
Of course. There are many factors, but there is one that’s very objective. When you are pregnant, or a young mother you don’t really travel for food because you are already working, which takes a lot of time, then you have your children, which takes up the rest of your time.
When you don’t travel so much you start cooking for yourself, and in a way, you get little insulated from influences. You don’t ask yourself ‘what would this or that chef do with this ingredient?’, you ask ‘hey, what would Ana do with this ingredient?’.
Then of course I think that the hormonal changes during pregnancy really affects a woman. I think she becomes a lot more sensible, and more precise with flavours. Even more disciplined. It helps you to cook better for sure.
Did your cooking evolve from that point on?
A lot! If I compare Hisa Franko last, and this year — it has been an immense step forward. Because when you cook spontaneously, the way you plate and the way you combine flavours becomes a very personal thing.
People are always evolving. So between the two years, my cooking has become almost unrecognisable. It’s still Ana — strong flavours and a lot of contrasts — but the difference is really big. I could never cook the same things I was making last year or the year before again. If we’re sitting here again next year, I’ll tell you the same thing.
Was there a point in your career where you consciously decided: “This is my style of cooking”?
You never say it out loud, of course, but it happens when you speak to a guest who is unhappy.
Three years ago — this was after Chef’s Table — we had a couple of older, French people come in. I had just come out of the kitchen in my chef’s jacket, and one of them asked if I was the chef. When I said yes, he said, “[the meal] was the worst thing that could happen to us. It was a horrible meal.”
I didn’t believe it. In my opinion, we were already a very strong restaurant at that point. Then he leaned really close — spittle flying everywhere — and began insulting me brutally.
He didn’t let me get a single word in. He started explaining how he frequented three Michelin-starred restaurants, and how he was always at places like Pierre Gagnaire…
So I had to defend myself, I told him, “I didn’t ask you to come here. This is the way I cook, this is the way I express myself. If you didn’t like it, you can leave the restaurant without paying, but there is no reason to insult me.
From time to time you get difficult clients, people who are close-minded. It happens because cooking is a very personal thing. I adore French cuisine, I adore Pierre Gagnaire, but I don’t want to cook like him. This was the first time I said that out loud: “this is the way I think, and this is the way I cook” … But then after that I cried.
So no compromises when it comes to the food?
At that point, three years ago, maybe I would have. But not now.
Chef’s Table was monumental — did it change anything besides giving the restaurant more customers?
It made our booking systems crash. But also people start to see you differently. Before that, I had a normal life. The show turns you into a rock star, you become a public person, you don’t get to manage your life wholly the way you want it — and I like my private life. People also started travelling to Hisa Franko, not because of the food, but because they wanted to meet me as they identified with my story. Sometimes, it’s more about making the selfie than food — which I cannot accept.
Do you resent all this attention?
No! You have to adapt. [The show] has done very good things for the restaurant. It has allowed us to be financially independent, to re-invest and hire more people. We could fill the wine cellar.
This is especially true for someplace like Hisa Franko. If you live in the countryside like us, a rainy year could cause the whole restaurant to close down. The people that visit the restaurant travel from far away. So the show gave us the most important thing in life, security.
Are there now many younger Slovenian chefs who see you as an inspiration?
I wish it happened more often. Slovenian cuisine has gotten a fair amount of international attention, but I wish there were more young chefs pushing harder. We have a few which I think are amazing but there should be more. The few young chefs we know — we’re all friends. They all have my personal number and call me for advice, but the community is still too small.
Do you consider yourself sort of like an ambassador for Slovenian cuisine?
Well, I’ve never said it out loud, but everybody says it…so I guess I have no choice [laughs].
All images: Suzan Gabrijan