Not far from the Italian border and sprinkled with delightful castles and manor houses, the Slovenian Vipava valley stays green all year round. Its idyllic setting, surrounded with hills and ridges, is home to many gastronomic traditions inspired by Italian cuisine and traditional Slovenian farming culture, such as mineštra, a winter vegetable soup reminiscent of minestrone, fine prosciutto, or bleki - fresh homemade pasta. The valley’s exceptionally pleasant climate and its famous wind, the Burja or « bora », whose brief gusts can reach speeds of up to 200 kilometers an hour, make it ideal to dry cured meat (hence the unique local prosciutto) and wine growing. Natural wines are a historic tradition in the valley. One indigenous, unique grape is the semi-aromatic white variety called Zelèn, responsible for a lot of fruity, complex and harmonious blends, which are very typical of Vipava.
Drawing on this rich local heritage, one-Michelin-starred chef Tomaž Kavčič is at the head of Gostilna pri Lojzetu, a restaurant set in the seventeenth-century manor house of Zemono. The blindingly white building perched atop a hill is jettied over the Vipava valley, offering a breathtaking view on serpentine rivers and green meadows. The former motorbike sportsman and race car athlete, who took over the restaurant in 1997, is the fourth generation of cooks and farmers in his family. His respect for the traditions of this littoral region stems from his mother’s side. His grandfather taught him how to choose perfect ingredients at the local market and his grandmother, whose specialty was freshly fished octopus with beans and polenta, was an excellent home chef. Kavčič’s mother herself used to run a gostilna, a traditional Slovenian inn, and naturally passed on her love for simple, clean cuisine to her son.
Even though Gostilna pri Lojzetu is a fine-dining address hosted in the former leisure mansion of the Counts of Venice (legend has it that Casanova spent three days on its premisses), Kavčič insists that it’s still a gostilna and not a restaurant. « Gost means guest in Slovenian », he explains. « I’m not a star chef. I’m here for my guests. The guests’ experience must include everything from hello to goodbye, it’s not only about what’s on the plate ». Yet innovation is key to Kavčič’s approach to fine-dining, which quickly made him one of the pioneers of Slovenian modern gastronomy. « When I started cooking here, the country was not ready for this type of cuisine », Kavčič says over a clean, invigorating drink made with his homemade gin. « The guests and the chef grow together. »
Paired with delicious biodynamic wines from the Vipava valley, Kavčič’s dishes are daringly creative. The traditional local trout, the sourdough bread, and octopus fresh off the boat find a new expression in almost abstract arrangements. The house’s signature dessert, a lemon ice-cream with gin and tonic aspic, presents itself in exhilarating puffs of smoke. « This dessert has been in the family tradition of restaurateurs for decades », Kavčič explains, « Slovenia is the country of juniper berries and wild herbs. All of this inspired me to make my own gin, Monologue. The whole Vipava valley is in that bottle ! » Elaborated after seventy-two different test distillations, Kavčič’s gin is made in Slovenia’s oldest distillery. Its clean, dry, aromatic taste is a real success.
At the other end of the Vipava valley, at the Italian border, Uroš Fakuč’s DAM boutique hotel & restaurant is a new staple of Slovenian fine-dining. This elegant address paired with a tasteful boutique hotel is the ideal setting for Chef Uroš’ delicate, inventive and romantic cuisine. Each plate is a subtle homage to the terroir of the Vipava valley. « The amuse-bouches - sourdough bread, local olive oil, crispy polenta, sardine and cod - are reminiscent of what Slovenians like to eat at Christmas », Chef Uroš explains. « Slovenia is a small, new country. It’s a strategic place in Europe. Last year, our national gastronomy improved massively. It amazes me. »
While he is deeply admirative of his country’s farming traditions, he admits that he finds most of his inspiration when travelling. « One needs to see what other chefs do. It opens your mind to see different types of ingredients, other techniques, other cultures. I don’t believe in kilometer zero, but I believe in kilometer vero : the most reasonable distance to get the right ingredients. I need the best produce possible and constant quality. If it means ordering oysters from Brittany, that’s what I’m going to do. » Chef Uroš’ philosophy is simple : « Fine-dining means perfect food, perfect wine, nice atmosphere and service. Taste is the most important element in high gastronomy, but everything around it must be at its best. You need to treat your guests with a professional tone, with politeness ; you must make them feel special and greet them with a warm, open heart. I want to create a place for real hedonists. I like to know who is here, who likes what kind of food and ambiance. » To make sure everything is the way he intends it, he personally sees to every little detail in his restaurant and hotel, and takes the time to sit at the front desk to welcome his guests. When Fakuč isn’t there, the place is closed.
Uroš Fakuč’s gentle, sincere manners do make a great impression. Whether in the restaurant or in their hotel room, at DAM, the patrons feel immediately looked after. The chef’s sense of detail translates marvelously onto the plates, which all look like small Art Deco gems. However, there is nothing stuck-up about Fakuč’s idea of fine-dining. « One could simply describe it as a modern mediterranean kitchen », he says with a smile. « Ingredients from the sea represent my style best ».The sea-loving chef used to work as a consultant on Mediterranean islands. « The coast is so atractive », he fondly remembers, « The sun, the smell of the wind… I can stay quiet and stare at the sea for hours and feel perfectly happy ».
When he opened DAM in 2005, Fakuč invested all of his savings into the restaurant and the boutique hotel. « It was really hard, but it’s my life, and even on holiday I look forward to going back to work. Passion is much more important than money. I love to make other people happy with my restaurant. I know I’ve made it when I see guests coming back. » Today, the sophisticated, warm-hearted and hard-working chef is freshly crowned with a Michelin-star. « I feel so honored », he says. « And I feel the responsibility that comes with it. I have big dreams, of course, but I’m taking it slow. Qui va piano, va sano. »
Hero Image : DAM/Aaron Chervenak.