The History & Magic Behind Hiša Franko And Its Rise to Become One of The Best Restaurants In The World

I stop by Movia one more time before I leave Goriska Brda and head north—Vesna had asked me to bring a few bottles of wine to Valter at Hiša Franko. About this time, I hear from Demo who offered to pick up the new swingarm bearings from BMW in Ljubljana and bring them to Kobarid. I’m relieved because this saves me valuable time.

Hiša Franko is a world-class restaurant and guest house. Tucked into a remote village in the foothills of the gorgeous Soca Valley in Northern Slovenia, it’s just a few kilometers from Kobarid. With a history that spans some fifty years and is now in its second generation, Hiša Franko’s rise to fame is not merely the result of its appearance on the critically acclaimed Netflix series “Chef’s Table,” but also because of the passion, philosophy, and focus of its proprietors, Chef Ana Roš and her partner Sommelier Valter Kramer.

I made the journey to this part of Slovenia at the suggestion of Katy Daniels—another wine lover who, before developing a wine adventure tourism company, owned and operated a wine import business that focused on wines from this region. At the time I didn’t know about Hiša Franko’s Netflix episode. Katy told me that Chef Ana Roš received the prestigious award of “The World’s Best Female Chef 2017.” By the time I crossed the border into Slovenia, I had learned that the restaurant now sits on the coveted list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants.

So, it’s no wonder I had difficulty coordinating a time to meet with the famed chef and her sommelier partner and making a dinner reservation. As readers of this site are all too aware, I travel with no itinerary. While this allows for spontaneous adventures and flexibility, it’s not helpful when trying to meet with the top chef in the world. Manca, Ana’s personal assistant, delivered both bad and good news, 

“The restaurant is booked out for two weeks, so it is very difficult to make a reservation in such a short notice. I can squeeze you in on Saturday for lunch at Noon.”

She also advised me that Ana was up against a tight deadline for finishing her new cookbook. However, her partner and wine and cheese guru, Valter, would be available. We agreed to connect for a chat at five o’clock on Friday afternoon.

I meet Demo at my hotel in Kobarid where we make the hand-off of the prized authorized BMW parts that Tomaz ordered for me last week. After, he follows me for the short ride to Hiša Franko. 

I park Doc in the far corner of the leafy driveway. There are two pale rose-colored buildings and a modern dining room with floor to ceiling glass walls opening to a cozy stone tiled courtyard with casual tables. It’s warm, and there are just a few diners relaxing inside the dining room. 

I walk into the reception area inside the front door of the main building where I’m greeted by two young ladies who call Valter to let him know I’m here. There’s a dark wood bar, a few small cafe tables, and an antique upright piano next to a door that opens to another dining area. Original artwork decorates Hiša Franko’s dark brick-red painted walls. 

Sitting at one of the cafe tables is a woman, her head buried in her MacBook, shoulder-length blonde hair falling over her face, as she taps at the keyboard. She looks up at me and smiles. Seeing her face, I realize it’s Ana. We exchange hellos, and her eyes return to her laptop.

Valter shows up a few minutes later and leads us to the courtyard where we sit at a small circular table. “We should have a glass of wine,” he asserts before returning to the house. His hard-soled shoes reverberate as he walks over the stone patio, tapping the rhythm of his quick pace. He returns with three glasses and a chilled bottle of Malvasia.

2017 Female Chef of the Year, Ana Ros works on her new cookbook between seatings at Hisa Franko in Kobarid Slovenia, one of the World’s Best 50 Restaurants.

Valter’s English is good, with an accent. At times he looks up in the air, searching for the right word. Dressed smartly, but casual, his neatly pressed white shirt has the sleeves rolled up. Dark-framed glasses compliment his thick black hair. I tell him that Aleks Simcic told me he had a BMW GS. He pulls a small satchel from his pocket, unwraps it and rolls a cigarette. “I never really go off-road,” he says, “I ride with respect for the bike, I’m not crazy. Sure, I may be crazy snowboarder, skier, or kayaker. I go fast, yeah. But I’m not crazy, I ride with respect.”

Valter talks about outdoor enthusiasts flocking to this part of Slovenia from Italy, Austria, and Germany. There is a world-renowned para-gliding festival in Kobarid this weekend.

I present him the bottles of wine from Vesna at Movia. “How’s Ales?” he asks me about the renowned genius and winemaker of Movia. Before I can answer, he says “Working too much, right? He’s always working too much, like me. Work. Work. Work.”

Sommelier and natural wine enthusiast, Valter Kramer of Hisa Franko chats about wine, food, television, and motorcycles.

Our conversation is casual and bounces between Slovenian when he’s speaking with Demo, and English with me. He tells me about Vesna’s father, who served as mayor of a farming community. “Politics,” he says with a roll of his eyes.

His phone rings and he excuses himself from the table. A few minutes later Ana Roš sits down. She has indeed been working on her cookbook. She tells me it’s due today, but she’s still working on it. 

She knows of my book “FORKS,” so asks my opinion of the various options for photography for the cover of her book. They are beautiful black and white images, mostly outdoors and expansive. She appears understated and elegant in the photographs. I choose the picture with her hair free—I tell her it invokes curiosity, and wonder, and looks a bit mysterious. She likes this one too. But all the photos will work, I assure her. For her, decisions like this are tougher than creating recipes which not only tempt the palate with unique flavors but also appear on plates as art—delicate and with purpose.

The dining room inside Hisa Franko awaits the next seating.

By the time Valter returns with a bottle of wine, Ana’s back at her computer. He pulls the cork fast and with a pop—the opposite of how a sommelier would at a fine restaurant. But our conversation is casual, and we are sitting outdoors like friends that are catching up after a long time. “This is a Sauvignon from Marija Zoran in Stajerska. It’s crisp, clean and with a nice minerality, stone fruits, and bright acidity—only twelve percent alcohol.

“One coffee. One cigarette.” Valter says, then he’ll take us for a tour of the house, and the wine and cheese cellars. In Slovenian, ‘Hiša’ means ‘house,’ or ‘home.’ And the legendary Hiša Franko restaurant and hotel has a history stretching back over one hundred years. It has been a roadside inn, a village mill, and during World War I when during the Battle of Caporetto decimated the nearby town of Kobarid—it served as a hospital.

Sadly, more than a half-million soldiers lost their lives here between 1915 and 1917. The infamous battle forced the retreat of the Italians and also sets the scene for Ernest Hemingway’s anti-war novel “Farewell to Arms.” Here Though it’s questionable if the famous author ever set foot in Kobarid or Hiša Franko, I imagine Hemingway (or his “Tenente”) ushering wounded soldiers in his ambulance, driving over these roads through the bucolic alpine meadows and valleys, with their trout-filled rivers. 

The washroom at Hisa Franko celebrates it’s more than fifty-year history in Kobarid.

Valter’s father opened Hiša Franko in 1965. The restaurant and the house were smaller and simpler in those days. We walk into the reception area. “This was the restaurant, there was a long bar here and around it about six tables. Over there we had a small dining room with just four tables.” He points in the general direction of the reception desk and tells us this was the door to the small kitchen. “We had a larger room, but only for weddings and events.”

It was during that time while working for his father in the restaurant; he met Ana. She was at a university in Italy studying diplomacy. They fell in love, and in 1999 their lives changed forever when he took over the business from his father.

“I started to change things,” he lists off details that would impress an engineer, “fifteen years ago I invested 1.2 million euros. People thought I was crazy here in the middle of nowhere.” First, he built a new dining room that extended beyond the house, like an enclosed veranda in the garden. “The kitchen service, storage, and even the guest bathrooms were outside, so I moved them inside and built a new kitchen.”

The gorgeous outdoor dining room at Hisa Franko in Kobarid Slovenia.

“To provide more comfort for our customers, we built ten guest rooms, and just this year we rebuilt this outdoor dining room,” he explains, It was too cold to use in the winter (temperatures drop to as cold as -15 degrees Celsius). The new dining room features a heated floor with multiple layers of insulation, triple pane insulated floor to ceiling glass, and new high-efficiency lighting. Now they serve guests year-round.

He pushes open a door and guides us into the new kitchen which is almost as large as the outdoor dining room. Sparkling clean and modern, it glistens with stainless steel. “All the heating, ventilation, electrical and plumbing are hidden,” he explains. “everything is underground.” 

There’s a kinetic rhythm of shuffling feet as the staff jockeys around the kitchen in slow and careful motion. I smell the wafting aromas, both sweet and savory, as they prepare and plate exotic dishes. Servers whisk by me carrying plates ready for presentation. 

The modern kitchen and passionate chefs of Hisa Franko, Kobarid Slovenia.

Valter tells me that culinary professionals and aspiring chefs come from all over the world to work and learn in Ana’s kitchen. This season’s crew includes men and women from Colombia, Poland, Italy, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere. They stay six months or a year, then return to their countries bringing a dose of Ana’s philosophy, new energy, and inspiration. 

We walk down a narrow staircase to the basement where we pass by several towers—stacks of cheese wheels he received just last week. “I am getting a new cheese cleaning machine,” he tells me as we walk into a larger room filled with cheese, neatly stacked on shelves. “This is completely new.” he explains, “My dream was always to build a wine and cheese cellar. This is my place.” 

All the cheese is local and comes from the mountains. Farmers who raise cows, goats, and sheep bring them from the valley to the high mountain plains every spring, bringing with them all the equipment needed for making cheese, butter, and ricotta. The animals dine on mountain herbs and flowers which differ entirely from those in the valley and give the cheese unique flavors. 

During the winter, they retreat to the valley. Valter prefers to buy the cheese very young, usually about two weeks old. He then ages them anywhere between two to five years in his cellar. He has a large barrel where he cleans the cheese in the liquid whey, a by-product of cheese-making. “It’s perfect,” he smiles, elated. “This is not a beautiful showroom—this is a working cellar,” I tell him it is perfect, and natural—real.

Down in the cheese cellar at Hisa Franko in Slovenia with Sommelier and cheese connosieur Valter Kramer.

We walk past more shelves stacked with jars of jams, spreads, and pickled foods on our way to the wine cellar. There, wines line the shelves of two rooms. The first room is packed with stacks of wine boxes. Loose bottles are organized and stacked in bins on shelves lining the walls. In the other room, dozens of stacks of boxes cover a large table that seats eight or ten. 

Valter grabs a large map of Slovenia and gives us a quick tutorial on the various wine regions— “here I hold wine and cheese tastings—just yesterday we enjoyed a tasting and a brief history of Slovenian wine for sixteen Americans. I’m crazy about natural wine, so crazy.” He tells me he must further organize the cellar, telling me it’s in disarray because of his catering business, something they’ve been doing to pay down their debt, but this year he’s closing it down. 

In 2017 he and a group of friends opened a more traditional and rustic restaurant with a brewery in nearby Kobarid. He also holds cheese and wine tastings there. Called ‘Hiša Polonka,’ they serve roast beef made from the original recipe that his mother and father used and served at Hiša Franko before Valter took over. I suggest that I dine there this evening since there’s no chance of getting a table upstairs at Hiša Franko.

It’s time wine lovers of the world wake up and take notice of the great wines made in the viticulturally diverse wine regions of Slovenia.

Valter shows me an exclusive bottle of wine made from the oldest vineyard in Slovenia

As we discuss wine and the various Slovenian regions, Demo wanders the cellar like a kid in a candy store. Valter pulls a bottle out of one box on the table—4Stati—an organic and natural wine made by Marko Fon from one-hundred-twenty-year-old Malvasia vines, the oldest vineyard in Slovenia. The name ‘4Stati’ means ‘four states’ because the vineyard survived many wars and the regimes of Austro-Hungarian, Italy, Yugoslavia, and now Slovenia. 

Valter’s criteria for his definition of natural wine begins in the vineyard. They must manage it without chemical products and tend it entirely by hand—where the grapes are cared for in a way he believes preserves nature. “Don’t put the bullshit into the wine,” he explains, “spontaneous fermentation, from juice to wine without adding yeast.” He says yeasts all over the world are the same. “What we have here is respect for the land—the ‘terroir.’ Sure, it’s a longer process, but in the end, the wine is much more pleasurable, and the effect on the stomach is completely different.” He further explains that they should make the wine with sufficient skin contact to protect the wine and with very little sulfur.

We rummage through the cellar talking about wine, favorite producers, and memorable tastings. Before we leave the cellar, I have a page full of recommendations. Before we return to the courtyard, Valter shows me one more bottle—“this one is my brother, he makes this wine. Does it all himself—alone, only a little help for harvest.”

We return to our table in the courtyard. Valter lights another cigarette and introduces me to Alen, the sommelier at Hiša Franko. He is young, confident, and speaks in a serious, matter-of-fact tone. After three years of training with Valter, Alen now helps to pair the food and wine and handles most of the guest interaction, answering questions about the wine and why they pair each wine a particular dish. “When the kitchen brings us new dishes, we open lots of wine—crazy amounts of wine—to find and test the best possible pairing for our guests.”

 

 

We return to our casual table in the courtyard at Hisa Franko in Kobarid Slovenia.

Hiša Franko offers just one tasting menu, there is no ‘à la carte’ ordering. There are two seatings on weekdays, first at 5:30 and the next at 7:30. On weekends there is a lunch seating at noon. They offer just one wine pairing, but if guests don’t prefer it, they can order bottles off the wine list. Most of the wine served here is from Slovenia. Over eighty percent of the wine in the cellar is “natural.” About twenty percent of the offerings are traditional wines, keeping true to respecting and celebrating local ingredients.

The tasting menu may comprise eight or more courses. While the kitchen will respect any food allergies, to ensure consistency and quality they do not offer substitutions for vegetarians.

But it’s the philosophy of Hiša Franko that captures the attention of aspiring young chefs. There are two types of fine dining restaurants—one uses international ingredients, and the other uses products that are local or regional. Everything at Hiša Franko is local. They have a local forager who goes to the forest every day to get what the kitchen needs. Valter reiterates, “We use nature to create flavor combinations you never tasted before. There are some herbs and unique porcini and other mushrooms,” He explains, “You need to know them and where to find them and then how to use them to make the right combination.”

In Valter’s opinion, personal choices make the difference. “You decide what you want, where you want to live and what kind of work you want to do, how to be a great baker which goat makes the best milk for goat cheese, and which animals and plants provide the best flavor and texture. The small details make the difference.”

Valter believes this is why journalists, chefs, and foodies have been long attracted to Hiša Franko. “We’ve been doing this for fifteen years—it’s our philosophy, and those details, that’s the difference.”

“If we were doing what everyone else is doing, nobody would be interested. We need to be two steps ahead of everybody else.”

When Ana and Valter took over Hiša Franko, Valter was both the chef and sommelier. He ran the kitchen and the wine cellar. At times, guests would dine in the restaurant two or three times a week, sometimes every day. Valter spent most of his time in the dining room with his regular guests. It’s not like that anymore. Today, they serve sixty different people every day—from all over the world. 

To achieve their desired level of excellence and quality, there had to be more focus in the kitchen. They decided to let Ana direct all her attention there. “I was unsure at the time because I didn’t like too much change. We agreed she would take over the kitchen, even though she knew nothing about running a kitchen.”

“In three or four years she did a crazy, crazy, good job,” he tells me, reflecting on the early days of Ana’s work in the kitchen. “Because she is very intelligent, she would never stop until the food, the meat, the bakery, the ingredients—were right. She would work day and night until it satisfied her, and that it was perfect.”

“This was the time chefs all over the world began posting recipes and techniques online. Ana speaks six languages and would search, dig and learn exactly what she wanted. She has a crazy memory, and can remember something we ate at a restaurant twenty years ago.”

So over the years as Ana honed her skills, she captured the attention of chefs and food journalists. Hiša Franko’s reputation for Ana’s food and her “local only,” or “zero kilometers” for sourcing ingredients grew. Chef communities and culinary organizations would invite Ana to take part in pop-ups, guest appearances, master classes and talks at conferences. This led to her appearance in 2014 on the French and German ArteTV network series “Happiness on the Plate.” Just two years later came the Netflix “Chef’s Table” appearance. 

“We need more wine,” he announces as he gets up and returns to the house. The sun is setting, and a cool breeze rustles the leaves in the trees above. The dull roar from the conversation of diners barely mutes the ringing bells from the church down the street. 

He returns with a wooden platter with cheese, ricotta, and homemade bread—and a bottle of wine. “Rebula,” he announces as he pours our glasses full of amber-colored nectar. This one is from his brother. “This was not a great year,” he explains, “we had lots of rain. My brother risked production, waiting for the better weather,” Valter discusses the challenge of rain so close to harvest. They need sun, so the fruit ripens. “He left the grapes on the vine two more weeks, and this gave them a hint of botrytis.”

Valter admits he doesn’t know how Netflix found Hiša Franko, but he recognizes the impact the episode had on the restaurant and community. Before Hiša Franko’s popularity put Kobarid and Slovenia and the world gastronomy map, the small town attracted outdoor enthusiasts interested in kayaking, paragliding, fishing, and water sports. The tourist season was short, just in the summer from June through August. There were no major hotels and only a few local restaurants. 

“We serve sixty guests every day,” notes Valter, and on weekends they serve forty guests for lunch and forty at dinner. The restaurant is open ten months a year. “So all the guests that come here need a place to sleep. There are only ten rooms here, so everyone else needs a bed.”

Changes in the community resulting from Hiša Franko’s growth and popularity include opportunities for residents to rent apartments, open restaurants, and shops. “In the past two years,” Valter explains, “they opened two taxi companies here. They never had taxis here before. But now these taxis work from about 5PM to midnight and drive dinner guests back and forth to guest houses and apartments.”

Valter also recognizes the opportunity Hiša Franko offers to local farmers, hunters, cheesemongers, and foragers. “We are a big customer for these things. We buy as much as fifty kilograms (100 lbs) of butter every week, it’s the best butter in Slovenia made right here. Even nearby in Dreћnica, they opened a slaughterhouse for goats, sheep, and rabbits—many things have changed, many opportunities.”

There is a river that runs behind the house that supplies fresh trout for the restaurant. “We catch just what we need the night before,” he tells me. “And we have a large garden here too.”

Seeing the beautifully plated dishes emerge from the kitchen sparks my curiosity. I know the food tastes as good, if not better than it looks. I ask “How come there are no Michelin-starred restaurants in Slovenia?” 

“For Michelin to rate restaurants, they must have a big enough market to sell its guidebooks. We are a small country,” he shakes his head while explaining the economics of Micheline restaurant guidebooks. “They no longer publish the Michelin guide in Austria,” he tells me, “they shut it down because they didn’t sell enough.”

I tap into his frustration and displeasure with the Slovenian government and tourism promotion board. “They spend money on stupid things—150 million euro and nothing happens. Imagine if they cover the cost of Michelin guide, maybe only 60,000 euros, how many more people—foodies—would come to Slovenia?”

I ask him about Croatia, and how I tried to dine at Restaurant 360 a one-star Michelin restaurant in Dubrovnik. “Croatia is smart,” he explains. “They have the money to promote tourism, and they pay Michelin to publish the guide.” He tells me that the Michelin guide is essential not only for those restaurants that earn covered stars but the guide also recommends fine restaurants without stars. It supports culinary tourism.

“Besides,” he admits, “we will never have three Michelin stars.” The French guide for gourmands uses anonymous judges and a secret ranking and scoring system to determine which restaurants get stars and how many. “We are so crazy. The combinations are too wild. Sometimes the flavor shock. We are too… too…” He’s looking up in the sky again, searching for the right English word. He’s frustrated, pushes his chair back, gets up and walks into the house. Moments later he is back with his phone and Google translate.

“Ahhh, bold. We are too bold,” with the help of Google he finds the word. “I think our creations and philosophy is too bold to earn us three stars.” Even so, Hiša Franko would surely earn one star, but it’s all moot unless the government invests in the Michelin guide.

The businessman in Valter calculates just how easy it could be. “They tax every glass of wine twenty-two percent and food at eleven percent. Every month I pay the government nearly €23,000 to €25,000 in taxes from sales in just this one restaurant. Imagine what I pay, the government could pay for the guide in just a few months from taxes collected at Hiša Franko.”

Valter’s phone rings. Church bells ring again too. He excuses himself and goes into the house. We sip our wine, sample the cheese, and I coat a piece of bread with that legendary butter. With all this talk of food and a belly filling up with wine, I feel hungry.

Demo smiles then points to the rear of the courtyard where we see Valter’s motorcycle parked, a BMW F800GS. “Moto,” he says pointing at me. We laugh.

 

I hear what is now the familiar sound of Valter’s shoes as he walks across the stone courtyard. I hear the clanking of glasses. He has another bottle of wine.

“We are at the time we move guests from the dining room to the terrace overlooking the garden and meadow. We then prepare for the next seating,” he explains while pouring us another glass of wine. “So I must go help move the guests, and you can have more wine and relax.” He arranged a reservation as his other restaurant in town and promises to meet us there later.

Guests savor wine and cheese on the terrace in the garden after an incredible dining experience at Hisa Franko in Slovenia.

Demo holds a bottle of Nando Rebula, a biodynamically produced wine from Vipava Valley in Slovenia.

“Rebula again,” he laughs. “This is 2017 Nando. My love of  Rebula concerned Ana when she was pregnant with my daughter, she was sure I wanted to name her Rebula.”

“This is completely organic and biodynamic wine.” This means they do not use herbicides or chemicals in the vineyard, and they harvest the entire vineyard by hand. Nando winemaker Andrej Kristancic doesn’t use added yeast, or sulfur. Instead, he lets the wine spontaneously ferment. 

It’s twilight now, the sky is a deep dark blue, almost indigo. Soon it’s dark and they light candles on the tables in the courtyard. I hold the glass up to to the light. I’m again taken by the beautiful color that the extra skin contact with the Rebula grape gives the wine—a deep vibrant honey yellow.

The wonderful and exotic amber color of Rebula through the candlelight on the courtyard at Hisa Franko.

Valter suggests I leave my motorcycle here overnight and ride with Demo to Hiša Polonka where we will connect later this evening.

Demo and I enjoy the wine and watch the transition of guests to the patio and the refresh of the dining room.

Later we drive into town and get a table at Polonka, in a much more rustic dining room. It’s like a farmhouse tavern with exposed thick dark wooden beams stretching across the ceiling, and dark wood wainscoting accent natural white walls sparsely decorated with whimsical art drawings Blackboards tout the brews on tap. 

Here it’s beer, sausage, cheese, and that incredible roast beef. Comfort food.

Tomorrow will be my day to dine at the other end of the spectrum and savor the creations of Ana Roš with wine paired by Valter.

 


Hiša Polonka
Gregorčičeva ulica 1,
5222 Kobarid, Slovenia
+386 51 486 676

Hiša Franko
Staro selo 1
5222 Kobarid, Slovenia
+386 5 389 41 20

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