Three absolute winners of the national selection of the best Slovenian restaurants in 2019 in the alphabetical order are: Gostilna pri Lojzetu with chef Tomaž Kavčič, Hiša Franko with chef Ana Roš and Vila Podvin with chef Uroš Štefelin.
Congratulations to all three for this year’s award. Did this year left you something that still lives on in your memory?
Kavčič: Each year, many special events linger in the memory – and they are not necessarily media highlights. The most beautiful acknowledgment is undoubtedly a smiling and satisfied guest, who bids farewell with a friendly handshake and honest, heartfelt greeting. This is a fruit of many years of constant effort, which leads to acknowledgments like yours and, for example, when I received the JRE Innovation Award 2017/18 for the most innovative chef in Europe.
Roš: This year was again a very intense one, with lots of media attention, with numerous exciting and curious guests. It was also a year of work with a fantastic team, which made a lasting impression and with which Hiša Franko can only hope to continue collaborating in the future.
Štefelin: This year, we decided to collaborate with chefs from Skuhna (a social enterprise, which employs chefs from different countries), to learn from each other.
Slovenia is undoubtedly becoming – or already is – a European culinary destination. Largely also thanks to your credit. Where do you see its comparative advantages? How to explain them to someone who visits you from abroad?
Roš: I am not sure I am qualified enough to set the conditions that would, or have, or will make Slovenia a gastronomic destination. I believe, that to achieve the goal, we not only need quite a bit more time but also much more active people, whose energy would be reflected in the whole process, the industry as a whole, not only in the kitchen, in enological knowledge or the service. I think Slovenian restaurants are ready to be placed in the world’s most exceptional gastronomic guides, but how they will be accepted is another question – the uides use culinary foundations, which are based on standards of gastronomically more developed nations. I want to appeal to Slovene chefs and restaurants to continue doing great work, to get more interconnected, and to start contemplating how this green country could make significant progress to becoming a True culinary destination.
Štefelin: Slovenia boasts three completely different climatic areas, which of course, have an impact on the availability, and also the variety of ingredients. Nature is unspoiled. I feel truly blessed that I can use such a variety of healthy ingredients in my creative work, as well as to connect with the local producers.
Kavčič: Slovenia is indeed a small country, but very diverse. Sometimes we are not aware of this and this is our comparative advantage. In a small geographical area we offer a wide variety of natural sights and authentic flavours as well as unique experiences. We can show and present this to foreigners also in the gastronomic world. After all, gastronomy is one of the main branches of Slovenian tourism and is successfully present for many years on the international area as well, to a great extent by courtesy of some individuals. For the future, I see a great potential in Slovenian gastronomy, but only if there would be cooperation between actors, of course. We must highlight the exceptional diversity in the otherwise small geographical area, boutique restaurants, outstanding quality of basic ingredients, enthusiasm of restaurateurs and winemakers and our personal approach towards guests, foreign or domestic.
Staro selo, Zemono and Radovljica are not exactly Paris, Tokyo and New York. Do you think it is easier for chefs in metropolises, because they are in the centres of world gastronomy, or are less exposed locations also an advantage? How do you express local specificities?
Štefelin: In larger cities, there is also more competition. You have to be at the top of the pile, to be able to bask in the spotlight. It is also much harder to establish a genuine contact with a producer, and gain top-quality, locally produced, one of a kind ingredients. In our restaurant, we can surprise our guests with dishes, made from ingredients found in our garden, sourced from the nearby forest, or from our friends, who are farmers. All of the different elements hide stories, which strengthen our pride and self-esteem.
Kavčič: It is not easy for any restaurateur, nor in a metropolis or outside of it. There is a risk in the cities that a greater number of guests becomes a habit, but on the other hand, you have to struggle for them even harder, because the rivalry among the restaurants is so much bigger. In Slovenia we are lucky to have natural features, what a restaurant in a metropolis cannot offer. We offer our guest – especially during the summer months – an experience of surrounding nature, both in terms of atmosphere and cuisine, as we can offer local, seasonal and fresh ingredients of supreme quality, which is much more difficult to do in a metropolis.
Roš: I believe the comparison between the city and the countryside is a bit outdated. I share the opinion of others, who claim a countryside restaurant, in a way, has to work more to receive an equal amount of recognition. Although in cities like Paris, London or New York, where there are many ambitious people, the struggle for recognition is almost on the same level as the one you have to fight in the countryside, alone. The simplest thing to say would be that we are good at what we do, because we are based in the countryside, and therefore have to put in more effort. I claim that if we live in an urban environment, which is full of recognized and awarded restaurants, the struggle is entirely comparable with the one in the countryside. The main focus of a restaurant, no matter where it happens to be, should remain hard work. Belief in tradition, in the local environment, in seasonality, but most importantly, in a personal touch and being loyal to these beliefs – good results are difficult to avoid then.
It seems that top-notch restaurants are scattered throughout Slovenia. Does it make sense to emphasize the regionality and its specificities at all or would you consider that it would be more appropriate to speak about Slovenia as a single gastronomic region?
Kavčič: Mainly we must emphasize a unified and diverse gastronomic region at the same time. This very diversity in such a small geographical area is a feature and our advantage as well, which very few countries have. Slovenia is already so small (which is our great advantage) that nearly every corner of Slovenia can become an elite one-gastronomic destination. At best, Slovenia as a whole could perform sovereignly as a competitive gastronomic destination in a wider geographical sense.
Roš: I very much agree with the idea that Slovenia should be considered a single gastronomic region. We have micro subregions, each with their particular traits, but in essence, we remain a single region, which would have to open itself to the outside – towards Furlanija, towards Koroška, Croatia and the like. If we take a look at Holland, Norway, Denmark, or Russia, we instantly talk about much larger regions than our own. I think the question itself reflects a sort of backwardness, which originated from village life, and which has no place in the space of Slovenian gastronomy.
Štefelin: In an international aspect, Slovenia should do more to connect with similar regions, but in a domestic sense, our incredible culinary diversity should be promoted more whole-heartedly.
In your opinion, did you notice any progress regarding the promotion of Slovenian gastronomy at the state level?
Roš: In some ways, yes, but it is still done without realizing that gastronomy is one of the most potent touristic products we can offer to visitors, and should, therefore, receive more education, but also more fiscal stimulus.
Štefelin: The promotion of Slovenian gastronomy at the state level is going in the right direction. We might be a green destination due to the amount of forest coverage we have, but we still have much to do concerning ecology. I expect the state promote sustainability.
Kavčič: The state is always trying and standing by our side, but I miss a unified long-term strategy, which would lead us to the desired result. I think there are too many strategies and are set overly in the short term, so none of them achieves the desired or intended result. A major step forward would undoubtedly be formation of a Gastronomic Office, which would operate independently or as a part of the Slovenian Tourist Board (STB). It would only be responsible for the development and promotion of gastronomy and to perform an appropriate strategy, which all restaurateurs would support.
You mentioned international gastronomic guides. Last year, Gault & Millau came to us and rumours about Slovenia getting a place among Michelin stars are spreading around. What is your opinion about the most renowned international evaluations, with the Michelin’s “red bible” at the forefront?
Štefelin: The guides are essential for international recognition of our country. I tend to do things my way and not pay too much attention to standards of gastronomic guides. Our work is socially responsible; we connect with people and are respectful of tradition. If the evaluators recognize our efforts and culinary offer as exciting, we have no reason not to be content.
Kavčič: I am not a fan of ratings among restaurateurs, but the one who claims that he or she is not interested in a Michelin star, is not honest enough. I support the Michelin’s rating, as it is one of the few that does not differ and sort the restaurateurs from the best to the less good and from region to region, but it takes into account the fact, that there can be several best restaurants. Evaluations in the gastronomy were always a class for themselves, because it is very difficult to evaluate a culinary experience objectively. There are different tastes (fortunately) and it is difficult to evaluate, what someone likes and what not. I hope that Michelin’s guide will soon come to Slovenia. I will be honestly happy for anyone who will get a star or two (maybe even three), as this will be a great recognition for the many years of efforts of all restaurateurs in Slovenia and at the same time a confirmation that Slovenia is equivalent to the world’s gastronomic forces, which is undoubtedly deserved. The mentioned Gault & Millau guide was created under the guidance of the icon of the oenological-gastronomic scene, Mrs. Mira Šemić and is for many countries with a rich gastronomic culture (for example: Austria, Germany, Poland) even more valued and appreciated as the Michelin guide.
Roš: We should stay loyal to ourselves and our traditions. Since we survived for so long without being mentioned in any of the guides, I think, that it should be the guides that adapt to the space they are visiting, instead of the other way around. There is a trend these days, where the guides, in all their global reach, are starting to focus more on the local, regional specificities – which means before coming to a specific market, they learn to differentiate between regional characteristics. I sincerely hope that Gault & Millau, as well as Michelin, can adapt and understand these concepts, before coming to review the Slovenian gastronomic scene more seriously.
In recent years, the world’s most renowned chefs have got a celebrity status. Television shows, documentaries and movies show their world of high cuisine as unrelenting, competitive, almost brutal. Is it really so wild? Do you have any time for your private life beside all obligations, both in the kitchen, as well as promotional and similar activities?
Kavčič: I do not support celebrity in the cuisine world, because the restaurateurs are all there for the guest and not the guest because of us. Slovenes have a wonderful word “gostilna”. Gostilna (inn) – gostiti (to host) – gost (guest). We are the one who host the guests. In our world, we cannot speak about work, but about the way of life that lasts all day. It takes a lot from us, but it also returns a lot. Of course, we must organise this special way of life in a way, that we still have time for private life and to travel, where new horizons and tastes are opening to us. I prefer to travel with my family, because during our work we do not have time for each other, although we spend the whole day together. A quality free time is the one that
“recharges” our batteries, so we must take it regardless of what our profession is.
Roš: In reality, the question is not if we have enough time to enjoy our private lives, or what happens in our professional life, because the gist of what we do, is in quality and not in quantity. The rhythm is brutal, similarly to all other professions where there is a question of surviving, a question of working with numerous people, and one of a robust infrastructure that has to stand in the background. I am not talking about, and do not even want to mention violence or brutality – I would rather say that the systems of work in a kitchen are very intense and very rigidly set, which perhaps Slovenes are not used to. We are probably more comfortable in ˝the average˝, but there are not many escape routes there. In a kitchen, there shouldn’t be escape routes, but still, that doesn’t mean it is a brutal environment – walk into any Western European company, and you witness the same. Said differently, the system is not aggressive; it is seamlessly natural – every individual is required to do what is expected of them, and what they realize is their investment into the company (or infrastructure) in which they operate.
Štefelin: There is no dividing line between personal and professional life. I am a chef 24 hours a day.
THE Slovenia restaurants 2019- TOP 201
THE Slovenia Restaurants features the very best in Slovenian dining, chefs and restaurants.
The book that placed Slovenia on the culinary map of the world.