Ask a ... Slovene Gourmet Food Expert

more than a year ago
We recently had the pleasure of a chat with the most respected voice on Slovene cuisine, Uroš Mencinger. Mr Mencinger is the organiser of Teden Restavracij (Restaurant Week), as well as the man with the final word on all things gourmet in the country.

This month were focusing on the finest gourmet food from all over Slovenia. Please, can you tell us what Slovene cuisine means to you?
The main problem of the young Slovenian state isn’t the economic crisis, but a crisis of identity! We don’t know what we have, we’ve forgotten what we had and we do not know where we're going ... And this is exactly why I am so in love with Slovenian cuisine! When I say this I’m not really thinking about the traditional but rather the now and even more so the future. They say good foods are memories, but memories alone cannot fully satisfy. That’s why we can rejoice because there have been so many good, tasty and positive things happenings at the top of Slovenian cuisine in recent years. If we were as creative, ambitious and open to the world in other fields, then honestly Slovenia would truly be the promised land, whilst at the moment it’s "only" the promised land for foodies. We have a rich culinary tradition that has been influenced by our neighbours and also historical circumstances. Diversity is a flavour of this small land with so much beauty. For me, Slovenian cuisine is the top twenty Slovenian chefs who are joined by someone new each year, and together create a new Slovenian cuisine.

Is there a particular region of the country whose cuisine you particularly enjoy?
The joy of our small size is that we can have breakfast by the Ljubljanica River, eat a snack in the Karst, lunch by the coast, have dinner in the Alps and then wake up the next morning by the Mura River. How am I then supposed to have one favourite amongst the regions? Of course, dishes from Primorska are more every day as they are lighter, fresher, less complicated. In the Prekmurje region they are more fragrant and in Gorenjska all you need is a spoon. Though as a food critic I must admit; that most of the good restaurants are closest to Italy; that Dolenjska region is the most homely and the Štajerska region is the most happening. I would like that the people of Koroška would be more enterprising and creative restaurant-wise and that the Notranjska region would follow the path of its finest restaurant. I want the Zasavje region to wake up.

Much like travel guide writing, we feel that the job of Food Critic might be one that people have a distorted idea of. Do you still enjoy it? Are you still able to enjoy food from a non-critical point of view?
Do I still enjoy it? It is true that my wife and I have been involved in gastro-criticism for more than 20 years, and that on our website (www.rad-dobrojem.si) there are already more than 600 reviewed restaurants and that for Nedelo alone we are already at number 310 ... however, we enjoy it more than ever! This is because we're still learning. We’re still becoming acquainted with, discovering and searching for new restaurants, flavours and challenges. Food is our life, so even on vacation we photograph, take notes, visit and eat. We just returned from Spain, seven Michelin stars in three days, we’re heading to Amalfi in the autumn, restaurants in Rome are already booked over new year’s, in spring I am hoping we finally get around to Germany... Above all, food for us doesn’t just mean reviewing restaurants, so at our site there are many more recipes than critiques, as well as everything we’ve cooked, eaten, photographed and commented on. We are just junkies, aren’t we? It’s just we’re addicted to good food!

How often do you eat out, for pleasure?
Actually, we don’t even know what it’s like to be in a restaurant anymore without it being at least partly for work, or that we’d not be "working". Ordinarily once or twice a week we eat for work, to review, otherwise we try to eat at home as often as possible. Most of the time Violeta does the cooking, my goal is to cook at least once a week. I am convinced that without home cooking there is no restaurant reviewing. Though not like most people, who basically rotate ten, maximum fifteen, dishes year round. In a year we cook more than 200 different dishes. It is rare that we repeat a dish, but not because they were not good, but because it is necessary to cook new dishes. It's just like with the restaurants, many of them we would like to visit again, for pleasure, without a notepad and camera, but we simply don’t get to them. Sometimes, I also envy readers when I advise them where to go. But we have to move on...

Being a critic means sometimes having to say things people dont want to hear. Do you get many complaints from chefs or restaurateurs?
Because we publish practically only those places who get at least two and a half “sonček”, there are very, very few complaints. It is also that those which are bad are not the type of places that read culinary critiques. Those which are good and have their rating published, then have that much work for the next month or more that often they do not have time to write or call. But it’s also from the reactions that the good are set apart from the bad. The good know how to read and respond, so that they take into account the feedback!

What makes for a top rated, four sonček, restaurant?
Even if you are tired or you woke up in the morning on the wrong side of the bed or you read the first page of the daily newspaper ... when it comes to four ‘sonček’, it gets your spirits up! We can’t stop smiling, all of a sudden everything seems nice and pleasant, put simply when it comes to four ‘sonček’, you start to enjoy yourself.

The second Teden Restavracij of 2014 is coming up this October. Can you tell us more about the project? How did it come about originally?
Restaurant Week is a global initiative that takes place in many countries, but in each a little bit differently. We initially included it into our project which was associated with Maribor being the European Capital of Culture in 2012, so we started with eight restaurants in Maribor. In 2013 it became a nationwide project. In 2014 it will take place twice, in spring and in autumn. From the start the formula was shown to be a winning one, with selected restaurants, offering a special menu including at least three dishes, for a friendly price which matches the calendar year - we started at 12€ in 2012, now the price is 14€. Chefs are surprised by the number of guests; the guests are surprised by the offerings of restaurants.

How was the response from diners and restaurateurs at the first edition this past March?
Responses were amazing. Most restaurants were already sold out well before the start of TR. The best restaurants sold out the first day they accepted reservations. Guests take leave from work and travel all week between restaurants. Chefs during TR don’t put any less effort in, rather they try even more. It’s actually a real contest, who will prepare the better menus. The result is a real gastronomic movement.

What can we expect from the October edition? A wider range of restaurants? Seasonal delights perhaps? What should we be looking out for in particular?
In the autumn there will be a few more restaurants, though we do not plan to increase the numbers excessively. The basic criterion of the four sonček rating, which has the ability to delight us, remains. This time the chefs still have an entirely free hand in the selection of menus, although for the year 2015 we are also planning on a few new features here. But already this autumn there will be a noticeable trend: local suppliers, seasonal ingredients, creativity, not just meat.

Every year, you also organize the street food festival SladoLent, and for 2015 you predict a few innovations for restaurant week. Are there any other new projects on the horizon?
We will hold SladoLent in June 2015 with an added introduction, a symposium about original Slovenian cuisine. Each staging of Restaurant Week will feature a specific theme. Whilst our main focus, and the biggest project we are preparing, is Vivi, School of flavours. It’s not going to be a culinary school, but rather a school for foodies. More on this shortly, for more see www.vivi.si.


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