Top Slovenia Interview: Jason Hartley

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Jason Hartley, a British chef, chief strategy officer, restaurateur and food campaigner. A man that wears many hats. Which role do you like the most?

Don’t forget entrepreneur, probably the most relevant hat now. In terms of which hat fitted best. No question that of a chef. This was the hardest path I’ve ever taken, I gave up everything to become a cook at 36 but I’ve never felt more of a sense of contentment, that I was doing what I was meant to do, when I was cooking. It’s a tough game though, physically, mentally, financially, and I started too late in life sadly.

What brought you to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia?

I’ve been visiting since 2003. I met my first Slovenian in 2002 when living in Amsterdam, I’d never heard of the country I must confess. I then met another Slovenian friend in Paris in summer 2003 when studying photography. At that point I decided I had to visit, and I met some lovely people, fell in love with the country and it’s been an on off love affair ever since.

What are the biggest differences between Ljubljana and Amsterdam?

Well there’s one pretty obvious one. Amsterdam, and the Netherlands, is as flat as a Dutch pancake and used to be the bottom of the sea, and Ljubljana and Slovenia has the most amazing diversity in geography and nature. In terms of rabid amounts of bureaucracy and an anti-entrepreneurial culture they are remarkably similar (I really pick the oddest locations to follow dreams). Amsterdam is a much more cosmopolitan city, it’s used to being multicultural, Ljubljana is still at that start of that journey. The Amsterdam I knew at the end of the 90’s and early Noughties was an absolutely wonderful place to live, it’s seven years since I left and I am told by many people that pre-Covid over tourism and increasing clampdowns on the social freedoms of the city mean it’s less enjoyable than it once was but I always say everyone should spend at least a year in their life in Amsterdam on a bike and if you’re lucky once every decade walking on frozen canals. Ljubljana in bloom has a much more city-village like vibe although it’s been so long now since we all got to enjoy the city in its full glory I’m starting to forget.

Can you tell us more about Cultisan? When did the project launch and what is it about?

So we launched across the EU from our Ljubljana base last week, but the idea has been clawing at me for over five years. When I became a chef in Amsterdam I had to work really hard to find the very best produce in The Netherlands, travelling across the country to find rare breed pork farmers, artisan cheesemakers, craft brewers in garages and the like. That journey showed me hard hard these people work, how they dedicated their lives to their passion. I did some digging into the global farming landscape – the strategist in me. Did you know there are over 570 million farms in the world. 90% are family or individually run. They farm 80% of the worlds farmland and feed 70% of the planet every day. The notion that we are dependent on processed food, factory farming and the like is a paid for myth. It’s lie cultivated for corporate profit. Traditional farming is the enemy of corporate boardrooms, it’s inefficient, unpredictable, uncopyrightable – and it produces the most wonderful food and drink you will ever experience. Cultisan was created to connect the worlds digital consumers to the worlds finest farmers and makers in a way that is fair and convenient.  

How does Cultisan work?

We’re on a quest to unearth the world’s best farmers and makers, one region at a time, and we want you to taste, indulge and explore with us every step of the way.

Firstly, we create content, for our in-app Cultisan TV, to bring you closer to the producers and the chefs we meet.

We then offer you the chance to subscribe to our monthly Adventurer’s Packs and taste along with us. These are a tasting selection of the definitive flavours of each region, curated with the best local chefs. We also offer you the chance to indulge your favourite products in our every growing in-app farmers market.

We also offer food travel, obviously not right at this moment but from Autumn. You can come and join our quest with us and book a food adventure to meet, eat with and learn from the best farmers and the chefs who love them. This is so important, it’s when you sit and talk with these people, when you understand their vocation, and you taste their product with them, you truly understand what the essence of food and wine, and the connection to nature and our ecosystem, really means.

Finally, if you’re someone who prefers solo travelling we also share a directory of the best producers we find along the way so next time you are in a region we’ve visited you can hunt out your favourites for yourself, and we offer the chance for producers and chefs to message each other and form new supply chain relationships.

Where does the journey of tasting Slovenia begin? Where does the first box take us?

Well. The hardest thing was how to limit the box to 5-8 producers. This will be a challenge wherever we go. We go to Čadrg near Tolmin for artisan cheese, to Šepulje in The Karst for a natural Malvazija, to Istria for olive oil, to Štajerska for Krškopoljski pork salami, ocvirki and hand crafted pralines, Prlekija for pumpkin seed oil, and back to Vrsno near Kobarid for honey and wildflower tea. We have other producers from all over the country appearing in our in app farmers market as well.

Why base such a pan-European venture in Slovenia?

I ask myself this every day! LOL. I have a tendency of making decisions from the heart not the head, this was one of them. I didn’t want to be in the UK speaking honestly. After 15 years in Amsterdam I am more at ease with the continental way of life. It was a choice between Lisbon and Ljubljana, Lisbon has a much stronger infrastructure for start ups, but I knew more people here. The pandemic has made it tremendously challenging, it would have been challenging anywhere of course, but there really isn’t a support system in place for start ups and innovation here. The additional element of the political climate in the last year has also really disappointed me. I will be honest and say a lot of what is happening is counter to my principles, and also counter to my vision of seeing Ljubljana as a beacon of integration, innovation and agritech. With that in mind I will see how the next 6 months pans out and make a decision where to base the business from there. I really hope it’s still here, I see so much potential for Ljubljana and Slovenia.

Perhaps a tad boring question, but could you tell us what is your philosophy in the kitchen?

Let someone else do the cooking these days. I was always about making something you think you knew better than you’d ever had it through sourcing of ingredients and attention to detail. My cooking was never technically on a par with the likes of a Jorg Zupan or Luka Košir but I realized that if I put the work in and made sure I cared as much as anyone I could create some lovely simple food that made people happy.

Slovenia is known for its amazing traditional dishes, such as potica, kremšnita, and others. Could you tell us which traditional Slovenian dish is your favorite?

Doormouse (polh)! No not really. I love a beautifully made simple juha with beef. To be honest I’m more into ingredients than classic dishes. I love a green salad with beans and pumpkin oil. I love pršut, cheese and wine, more into the products – for obvious reasons, than say a gibanica, potica etc.

Perhaps a difficult question, but could you tell us which is your all-time favorite wine?

It is tough because I have some good friends who love good wine and have shared some stunners with me over the years. The one that stands out though was my first great wine, around 17 years ago. A good friend from Bordeaux – who now happens to be my business partner despite living in Boulder, Colorado – was sick of me singing the virtues of Italian wines so came to a dinner party I was hosting with a 1983 Chateux Margeux he’d taken from the family cellar. That was a defining moment in my food and wine education, I had never heard of Chateux Margeux at the time and the layers and complexities blew my mind.

I will say over the past few months I have been a complete convert to Slovenian natural wines. I’ve been lucky to be guided by a good friend who helps us source local wines for Cultisan and also by Nejc Farčnik sommelier at Grič. I adore the wines of Zorjan, Štemberger, Blažič, Terpin, Klabjan, Gravner, I could go on. Slovenia has such an abundance of natural wine makers it really punches above its weight in that regard.

Have you gotten the chance to visit some of Slovenian restaurants? If yes, could you tell us which ones did you like the most?

My journey with Slovenian food started with one of the best gastronomical experiences of my life back in 2003 at the legendary Skaručna. I remember a friend bugging me for a week telling me we had to go, even though it was EUR 50 – EUR 50 in Slovenia for food in 2003 was a shit ton of money and I was skeptical. I eventually gave in and my god I am glad I did. 10 hours of never-ending waves of hyper local food, schnapps and wine, and if I remember a bloody big reefer and some dancing to finish it off. Utterly magical day. Cultisan gives me an excuse to hang out with some of your best chefs and nothing makes me happier. Luka Košir, Jakob Pintar, Jorg Zupan, have all be hugely supportive and helped us curate our Adventurer’s Pack for Slovenia and I’m proud to consider them friends and have had some wonderful times with them – and Grič, Tabar and Atelje are three of my favourite restaurants. But I have to say we’ve also had encouragement and input from the likes of Ana Roš, Bine Volčič, Janez Bratovz, Uroš Stefelin and Igor Jagodič to name but a few which has been very humbling and massively appreciated.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you over the years?

Christ, how long have you got?

In Britain there will always be a class divide you can never breach.

That I was an utter immature selfish dick in my twenties.

That none of it matters so have fun and leave the ego behind.

That I should have never sold my 1962 VW split screen camper in the 90’s.

That there aren’t always better days ahead.

Seriously though, I have made so many mistakes in life it means I have learned so many lessons, some I keep having to learn time and again which is unfortunate. I think if it was one lesson I wish younger me knew it was that you aren’t as special that you think you are, it’s not about you, and you need to graft for everything that matters. 

What is your personal motto or philosophy in life?

I’m not American! LOL. Look, anyone who says “live life without regrets” is an idiot who has never been outside their comfort zone, but, I do want to try to live and die knowing I had a go, that I tried to achieve something that impacted others positively, and to realise my potential, and to do try and do something that made me proud. I was lucky to fall into a well-paying and easy career in digital and advertising but it was soulless. The journey as a chef and now with Cultisan has, and continues to be, ridiculously hard. The pandemic added to that has left me questioning my sanity, but the fact I can get up every day and follow a deep sense of purpose, and at 48 still wake up following a dream, is something I’m proud of. The fact I get to spend occasional days with the farmers, winemakers and chefs I meet means I have a pretty special job.