With almost 30 years in the business, Janez Bratovž knows how to source the best ingredients, and has a wealth of techniques to choose from when considering how they should be presented. It is this respect for local ingredients and deep reserve of knowledge, drawing on traditions while applying modern techniques, that are some of the hallmarks of Bratovž’s work in the kitchen. When first opened JB was almost on its own with regard to high-end dining in Ljubljana, and the growing number of world-class restaurants in the city can in many ways be traced back to the work done here. Despite this history, Bratovž remains more excited than ever about the possibilities of the local food scene. I spoke to him and his son, Tomaz, on a recent morning, before one of his usual trips to the Central Market.
Why do you still go to the market, and not somebody else? So I can see what’s the freshest, the best ingredients. And when I see a vegetable or something that’s interesting, then I have a new idea. I haven’t been yet, but I was called about some small fish that I want to use. I know how the plate will look, and so I know what other things I need to buy.
For today’s menu? Yes, for today. I don’t change the whole menu every day, but maybe some dishes are different from the day before, because I found something fresher today. I don’t think: new season, new menu. I think: new ingredient, new dish. So we change the whole menu through-out the year, a lot of times, but we never think “OK, scrap everything.”
For example, there are some things we think are perfect, so we keep them. One is ravioli with cottage cheese and pistachios and foie gras. Another is this egg that we make. It’s very simple, very Slovenian. Just an egg yolk with lovage and parsnip, which cooks at your table after we pour hot crackling over it, made from Mangalica pig. This is an interesting pig. It’s got curly hair and very thick fat, and we just use that from the back. We put it on the stove, on a very low heat, and it simmers away all day.
What changes have you seen in the local food scene over the years? I’ve seen a lot of changes, but Slovenia still doesn’t have much globalisation. We have a lot of small farmers with good vegetables, meat, cheese, and flour, and we must fight to keep this. The food culture has really taken off in the last ten years, and I believe - 100% - that the next big culinary destination will be here. Not just Slovenia, but part of Austria, the Friuli part of Italy, and Istria, in Croatia. I’ve been doing this a long time in Ljubljana, and for many years it was only me, but now there are many good chefs in the city, and also in Slovenia. Our time is coming.
What foods are you excited about? For me, the ingredients are always the most important, and then not too much, just two or three tastes on the plate, no more. I like to keep it very simple, not changing the flavour of the ingredients. I don’t need the nice cuts, the filet or rump steak. I need the chops, the tail, the sweetbreads. Ten years ago I was playing around with molecular gastronomy, but I stopped because I wasn’t enjoying it. Now I just think how can I make these veal chops the best in the world? So I’d say that I serve high level, traditional food, and I’m excited about that.
[Tomaz] For me, I’m excited about demi-glace sauce, because if you make it right, it’s like candy, the best thing. We make fish, veal, lamb, and pork demi-glace. It takes two days, and from 50 litres we get maybe two. We take our time.
You have a tasting menu with 11 courses. How long does that take to eat? I’d say two and a half, three hours is comfortable. We can go faster or slower, but people should plan on that. We get a lot of foodies who visit Slovenia, and on the first day they come and eat this, and on the next they go to another place. Some people even come to Ljubljana just to visit us.
What’s are your plans for the future? My son, Tomaz, is now working in San Sebastian, at Arzak, and then maybe he’ll go to some other places for another few years. Then when he comes back, he is my future. Will it be the same? I don’t know.
Do you get many young chefs from abroad here? Yes, but mainly from Croatia or Serbia, because we are better known there. I hope they learn to respect the ingredients, how to use all of it, not just throw away the peel. Because some farmer went outside in the cold, or the heat, and picked it. You have to respect that. Maybe they also learn some new techniques - we have all the tools here.
You went to Hong Kong recently, can you tell me about that? We were taken by the Slovenian government, and were cooking for 360 people, compared to 60-80 here. Everybody was excited, and we got good reviews. Hong Kong is great, and the people are very open to new food. I have friends there, so every night was some special dinner. But when we first arrived we went to a very simple, hole-in-the-wall kind of place. We had roast duck and suckling pig, and it was wonderful. I like any food, if it’s cooked with heart.