“Transforming Spaces” is a series about women driving change in sometimes unexpected places.
When Ana Ros became the head chef at Hisa Franko, a restaurant in the Slovenian countryside, she had no experience cooking professionally or running a restaurant. She had never gone to culinary school, nor had she dreamed of being a chef as a little girl. In college, her friends “escaped” when it was her turn to cook communal meals, she said, because they didn’t like her food.
Fast forward 20 years, and she is now one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, earning her restaurant international accolades and putting Slovenia, a small country in Central Europe, on the map as a culinary hot spot.
The world of fine dining is still a boys’ club: About 6 percent of Michelin-starred restaurants are run by women, according to a 2022 analysis by Chef’s Pencil, an online publication about cooking and the restaurant world.
When she took the job, in 2002, she was 30 and pregnant. Her partner at the time, Valter Kramar, had inherited the modest family eatery from his parents two years earlier. “I entered the small kitchen, closed the door, leaned against the wall and thought, ‘Ana what did you just do?’” Ms. Ros said.
Today, Hisa Franko employs 45 people and has two Michelin stars and a spot as one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants on an annual list from William Reed, a British media company. The company granted Ms. Ros the award for best female chef in 2017.
“Ana blends an international outlook with hyperlocal sourcing,” William Drew, the director of content for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, wrote in an email. He added that because Ms. Ros is self-taught, “her dishes don’t feel the need to follow any preconceived rules but are designed to showcase the ingredients and specialties of her homeland to greatest effect.”
Hisa Franko is in the Soca Valley, a remote mountainous region named after the emerald-green river running through it. It’s close to Slovenia’s borders with Italy and Austria and is known for its lush greenery and pristine water.
In her first days on the job, Ms. Ros dreamed of transforming Hisa Franko into a travel destination. She wanted people from surrounding cities to visit for a taste of local ingredients and intense flavors.
She had no skills at that time to execute her vision but had natural instincts. “The way a painter sees colors, I see flavors,” she said. Ms. Ros is now known for applying world-class techniques to local ingredients — trout from the Soca River, cheese aged in the cellar, porcini from the forest nearby. She doesn’t do signature dishes; everything is seasonal.
Last year, she opened Pekarna Ana, a bakery in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and in February, she opened a pop-up bistro in that city called Ana in Slon. The first permanent location of the bistro will open in Ljubljana this fall.
The prime minister of Slovenia, Robert Golob, who has known Ms. Ros since 2012, considers himself a fan. “Hisa Franko is an ambassador of our country as a culinary destination,” he wrote in an email.
But in her career, Ms. Ros described facing added scrutiny because of her gender. People in the industry have often called her a “marketing story,” she said, assuming she didn’t have the talent to justify her success. During visits to her restaurant, where a multicourse tasting menu costs 255 euros ($280), colleagues were sometimes surprised by the quality of the food. “Why are you surprised?” she said. “Of course, they think Hisa Franko is where it is, and I am where I am, because I’m a woman.”
Ms. Ros took a circuitous path to the kitchen. Growing up in the 1980s in Tolmin, a short drive from Hisa Franko, she was a competitive skier on the Yugoslavian national youth team from about age 10 to 17. She was also once a dancer and was a diligent student. After an injury, she decided to forgo her athletic career and study international relations at the University of Trieste in Italy, with plans to become a diplomat. She speaks seven languages, including Italian, English and French.
“How do you transform yourself from someone who isn’t a cook to someone who’s defining your national cuisine?” asked Brian McGinn, an executive producer for “Chef’s Table,” a Netflix series in which each episode explores the life and work of one chef around the world. The show featured Ms. Ros in its second season in 2016. “It’s a testament to how strong and dedicated she is, how opinionated she is, how imaginative she is, that she was able to carve this path that no one thought she would be able to.”
Mr. McGinn described Ms. Ros’s style as “avant-garde.” Consider some of the dishes on the 2022 menu: carrot kebab with grapefruit; barley with pork broth and rose water; and beef tongue with seaweed crystal.
To educate herself, in the early years after she started the job, Ms. Ros researched ingredients and cooking techniques, attended food conferences and experimented with developing recipes. “I was cooking from morning to night, and at night I was going to the books trying to understand what went wrong,” she said. She and Mr. Kramar visited restaurants around the world for inspiration.
As the years passed, she helped popularize Slovenian cuisine. She was invited to conferences and events with well-known colleagues, like the chefs René Redzepi, of Noma in Copenhagen, and Eric Ripert, of Le Bernardin in New York. But when Netflix invited her to be on “Chef’s Table,” few guests were visiting on weekdays or during the winter, and Hisa Franko was still relatively unknown outside Slovenia.
Then the episode premiered. “It broke down our reservation system,” Ms. Ros said. “It broke down our lives, actually. We were not ready.” Within a few days, Hisa Franko was booked for the year.
She continued her labor-intensive work at the restaurant — “I was still peeling potatoes and making bread,” she said — while fielding interview requests and being recognized in public on the streets of Melbourne, San Francisco and New York. The sudden influx of patrons, along with the newfound fame, overwhelmed her. She and Mr. Kramar split up at the end of 2017. (They still own the restaurant together; Ms. Ros married Urban Stojan, a project manager at an energy company, on New Year’s Eve in 2022.)
“I collapsed,” she said. “I needed to completely reset how I was working.” She hired more staff members (and took up yoga) and had her life back in order by fall 2018. “Today, I can have my people baking in the bakery, I can cook at home, I can do my television appearance,” she said. “I can have my normal everyday life without struggling so much.”
Ms. Ros lives in the Soca Valley, where seasonal tourism drives the local restaurant business. She said that before her appearance on “Chef’s Table,” guests tended to expect dishes like pizza, schnitzel and spaghetti with clams. “Instead, we had coffee pasta with trout,” Ms. Ros said. When she first started experimenting with offbeat dishes, she said, many guests would leave as soon as they saw the menu. But eventually, unexpected combinations were what earned her acclaim.
“She would come in saying, ‘I was dreaming yesterday — let’s put this and this together,’” said Natasha Djuric, who was the former head baker at Pekarna Ana, Ms. Ros’s bakery offshoot, and who also worked for three years at Hisa Franko, until 2022. “She feels the dishes on some energetic level.”
Today, nearly every ingredient the kitchen uses comes from within 50 kilometers (about 30 miles), and there are several dozen people in Hisa Franko’s supplier chain, Ms. Ros said, including shepherds, foragers, fisherman and a duo who grow New Zealand spinach, Mexican tarragon and more at a biodynamic farm on a mountaintop.
This network of restaurant employees and local producers faced major challenges during the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Farmers who were struggling to sell their products because restaurants and cafes were shut down called Ms. Ros. “We have thousands of lambs we can’t sell, tens of thousands of liters of milk we’re going to throw away,” Ms. Ros recalled them saying.
Hisa Franko was closed, and its staff couldn’t leave the country because of lockdown restrictions. The restaurant team used the farmers’ ingredients to produce packaged food to sell in supermarkets. “We would come up with a creative recipe, like gnocchi with ricotta with roasted poppy seeds and tarragon,” Ms. Ros said. Then her team scaled the recipe until it “tasted like a grandmother made it for 10 people, but for 10,000 portions.”
Ms. Ros found a partner in Tus, a supermarket chain in Slovenia, and the first products hit shelves by October 2020. The line encompasses dozens of items today, including apple strudel sorbet, steak tartare, candied cherry tomatoes in oil and noodles with juniper berries.
As she reflects on her career, Ms. Ros is reminded of a meal she cooked in northern Poland in 2012 for Cook It Raw, an invitation-only event where chefs learn about food traditions and techniques in a specific region of the world. Her cohort included Mr. Redzepi and Albert Adria, a famed restaurateur in Barcelona and the brother of Ferran Adria. (The siblings are known for the now-closed El Bulli.)
The event “all went wrong,” Ms. Ros said. She missed her flight and arrived late. When the group went canoeing, her vessel flipped. A dog bit her finger, and she needed stitches. And when she was preparing the final meal, a bee stung her, and she had an allergic reaction. “Everybody was like, ‘Look at Bridget Jones,’” she said. “‘Everything is going wrong. The girl doesn’t belong here.’”
In the end, she swept away the guests and other chefs with her meal of beets, pine-smoked apples and fish foam. She said the moment had showed her that the pressure to perform could influence every interaction for women in the industry, and that one moment could make or break a reputation. “We’re not given enough chances,” she said.
But she doesn’t let assumptions about her get under her skin, she said. “Remaining faithful to yourself is sometimes really painful, but it pays off,” she said, adding: “I always think there’s a better way to cook or a better flavor combination, and in the end, this is the only fulfilling thing. All the rest, it comes and goes.”