TOP Slovenia Interview: KAJA SAJOVIC

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Kaja Sajovic is the most prominent food journalist in Slovenia, who travels around the world, tasting amazing foreign cuisines and wine. Did we mention she is also a sommelier? Kaja Sajovic has written for both domestic and foreign magazines like Slovenia Times, Fine Dining Lovers, Turkish Gasterea, and more. Kaja Sajovic is also the Slovenian ambassador on the Gelinaz project under the leadership of Andrea Petrini. Kaja Sajovic is a regular participant and visitor of food conferences like Madrid Fusion, San Sebastian Gastronomika, Italian Care’s, and more. Over the last year or two, she worked closely with the best Slovenian chef, Ana Roš, with the release of her book Sun and Rain.

Kaja Sajovic recently sat down with us for an interview. Read what she had to say.

What was your dream job when you were a child? Which food did you like most?

I had a short-lived dream of becoming an illustrator, then an archeologist. I also fantasized about becoming an actress, but I had no talent for that whatsoever. But becoming a writer/journalist was always at the top of my list. I loved writing, ever since I was a child. Making up long stories. My favorite food was my grandma’s cottage cheese strudel or her oven-baked lemon chicken or “sarme” (minced meat rolled inside fermented cabbage leaves) because my mom’s family is from Serbia.  

Did you ever think you will be a journalist who writes about food and travels the world?

 At first, no. I studied journalism (and French literature) and graduated from negative campaigning in the US, so American politics was my prime professional orientation. That said, I always needed like an extra topic to dedicate myself to besides politics, at first it was skiing and I was attending world cup races, then it was the music (alternative), before I turned into food. But I always always loved traveling and have traveled quite a lot even before. At first, it was exploring the US, Scandinavia, France, Italy, and England with my mom and sister, with a tent and hiking boots, then with my ex, traveling to Japan, Paris, London, Asia to eat at some of the world’s best bistros and restaurants and trying out natural wine. So, when I finally got to the point of actually being part of this international group of journalists who travel the world for food, it all kinda made sense to me. Also, because I grew up with my grandparents and cooking was a big part of my childhood and adolescent life.  

What is the one project, article or achievement you are most proud of?

Most definitely co-writing Ana Roš’ book Sun and Rain for Phaidon New York. It was a big project and I’m incredibly proud first that Ana picked me, and then that people are responding very well to it. It was a labor of love for me, really, a beautiful working process through which I learned a lot. I appreciate I had a lot of freedom and Ana trusted me completely with my writing style, plus the entire valley really was helpful, people welcoming and cooperative … It was a dream project.   

Since you traveled around the world quite a bit and had the opportunity to try many different dishes, can you tell us which was the most surprising dish that you ever tried?

When I first came to Brazil and then to Peru. Everything was so new to me. Almost no reference point. So it’s really hard to form an opinion of a certain restaurant. I had trouble just following all the different, exotic ingredients that you cannot get in Europe. But in terms of just dish, I’d say I was very surprised when I tried seal meat in Newfoundland, it’s gamey and fishy at the same time. Also, an acquired taste is milt (fish sperm) that I’ve had in a few places, like Elkano in the Basque country. But there’s plenty of unique, unusual dishes that still stick in my mind, everything from game season menu at Noma with mallard brain and reindeer heart tartare, to kokotxas in the Basque country, the most amazing ceviches in Peru, I absolutely loved the tartness of caju fruit in Brazil (especially in caipirinhas) or even a lot of the dishes in Hiša Franko, because Ana has the unique ability to put together ingredients you’d never expect.   

How do you evaluate restaurants? What is the most exciting thing?

First, I really appreciate restaurants that are uplifting the local gastronomy, I like a sense of place. I like an exciting journey that gives me an idea of the country’s landscape, gastronomy, traditions. Places like Central, Hiša Franko, Aponiente, Manu, Daniel Berlin Krog, Noma …. Sure, I can appreciate a perfected 3 Michelin star dining experience, I like caviar and truffles as much as anyone, but it rarely excites me. I don’t need necessary servers changing every glass or servers in white gloves and I definitely don’t need crystal chandeliers or trolley service for every course. For me, the true excitement is seeing how a restaurant is connected to the surrounding environment, how they support small producers, how they intertwine their own story with regional traditions and curiosities. In general, I like stories. But not the fake ones, not publicity stunts, also, I think you can pretty quickly see through them.   

Can you tell us, which is your favorite restaurant experience last year?

Noma. It was my first time and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I guess I thought it would be challenging, interesting for the lack of a better word, but not necessarily delicious. I was wrong. It was all of the above. I was absolutely blown away. Followed by Etxebarri, Mirazur, Oteque, Central Lido 84, and Hiša Franko.  

Which gourmet festival do you always look forward to visiting again?

I am over those festivals that follow a very rigid framework – presentation+showcase cooking. I think events like that are in decline. The most exciting festivals now are slightly more alternative ones, with a dynamic structure, maybe with some mixology, natural wine class, music thrown in. I really like Ein Prosit in Italy, for example, or Sangue na Guelra in Portugal.   

Do you prefer your country’s dishes and flavors or do you prefer foreign cuisine? Perhaps a mix of both? 

In general, I prefer foreign cuisine. Mostly because Slovenian cuisine has trouble finding its identity. We’re on a crossroads of different cultures so sometimes it’s hard to pin-point what Slovenian is. Žganci? Potica? Polenta? Štruklji? It’s all very heavy and starchy food, or it’s Austro-Hungarian. But there are some exciting ingredients and prime produce that should be showcased more, for sure. I like Slovenian chefs who do work from Slovenian traditions and are not using foreign ingredients. Slovenian dishes with a twist. But otherwise, I am a big fan of Italian, New Nordic, Basque, and also Mid-Eastern gastronomy.  

Wine goes very well with or without food. What is your favorite wine? 

I am a fan of natural wine. I like the excitement of it, how it’s juicy, bursting with life, and has sometimes unpolished edges, but there’s an edge to it. A punch. Some of my favorite producers are Slovenian or Slovenians across the border in Italy, Marko Fon, Terpin, Radikon, Klinec, Gordia, Keltis has made a major leap forward, Aci Urbajs … And then Sebastien Riffault, Casa Belfi for sparkling, Pheasant’s tears from Giorgia, lots of Sicilian winemakers, winemakers from Jura, Gut Oggau … If I had to pick one style it’s skin contact (amber wine).   

What is the difference between Slovenian and Croatian culinary scene?

I think Slovenians are lucky to have Hiša Franko because of its international recognition. Just because of that we might get some extra attention from the foodies. I do think other Slovenian restaurants should try and connect more and maybe see what she’s doing that really resonates with the international public. Croatians, on the other hand, don’t have that one superstar who could garner more attention to its food scene, but on the other hand, they have much more tourists, they were smart enough to really push for Michelin early on, and they have some amazing products that they can showcase. What I do worry with them is their consistency and staying power – some of Croatia’s best and most promising chefs quit.   

What would you recommend to young chefs?

Don’t try to showcase on one plate all you know. Please, do not put emphasis on techniques you’ve learned, but work on flavors. Don’t try to imitate, create, trust your gut, don’t overdo it and don’t show off. Work with your country’s ingredients, don’t try to impress with heaps of caviar and imported lobster. And be ambitious. Be very ambitious. Be daring, don’t be afraid to be different. Travel. Soak up different cuisines, techniques, flavor combinations, wine/juice pairings, then internalize it, but never copy it. Play with your own ingredients, your own country’s traditions, and specialties.  

With the quarantine lockdown coming to an end, which restaurant or country are you looking forward to visiting first? 

My first stop will be Hiša Franko as soon as they reopen June 3rd. But then, as soon as the borders open, back to Lido 84 on Lago di Garda, one of my favorite restaurants in a gorgeous setting. Also, will go back to Basque country as soon as possible (Etxebarri is another one of my top 5 restaurants for sure), am planning a foodie trip to Sicily. I can’t wait to go to Newfoundland again where my sister lives because I think it’s a fascinating, remote part of the world. But travel-wise, it might be more difficult.  

Slovenia is about to receive the first Michelin stars, Croatia already has some for a few years –  how many recipients of the prestigious award do you expect? 

3-4. I would be surprised if it’s more. Also, I have my doubts that they will hand out more than one star per restaurant in the very first year.