MORE AND MORE TRAVELERS are discovering Slovenia, the tiny Balkan nation offering Alps, the Adriatic, and endless amounts of greenery. It’s been a mere 30 years since the country gained its independence from the former Yugoslavia, still fresh in the collective memory alongside the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Over the three decades since, caught between a past steeped in socialism and strong influences from neighbors Italy, Austria, and Croatia, the country has struggled to form a national identity. And yet, in an old chalet atop a hill, overlooking the small village of Šentjošt, one family is carving out their own story of Slovenia, weaving the past and the present together into one incredibly special restaurant: Grič. With a Michelin green star for gastronomy and sustainability, Grič’s menu is a modern reimagining of Slovenian heritage. But getting the restaurant to where it is today has been a journey.
Grič’s chef, 34-year-old Luka Košir, began sharing his vision for Slovenian cuisine amid a very different landscape: “It was really stiff when I started. We had an identity problem; we were stuck in Yugoslavian culture. Then when you’d go closer to Italy, it was Italian-influenced. Closer to Croatia was Croatian-influenced. And in terms of fine dining, there was a lot of French influence, and not in a good way. It was all just caviar and foie gras.” When asked what the most important influence is for his cuisine today, his answer is nature. “I know this is a romantic answer, but it’s true.”
All of Grič’s produce is grown in its garden, foraged from the wild surrounding forests, or sourced from local farmers. This has led to comparisons with Sweden’s mythic and now sadly shuttered Fäviken, a pioneer of hyperlocal, innovative cuisine. “Every ingredient is so special and we are so grateful to get each one,” says Košir. The restaurant has a deeply intimate relationship with each of their producers. “We understand their troubles and they understand ours.” The land and surrounding community informs the restaurant’s offerings. The neighbors’ goats, which provide milk and cheese to the restaurant, inspired a baby goat dish, for example, baked in a cast iron pot with wood embers, caramelized, and served with onions. Everything is, of course, highly seasonal. “We develop dishes in the way things grow around us. We plant stuff in the peak of summer, then ferment them to serve in the winter.”
The winter, Košir explains, is when the real creativity comes out. The investment of energy is highest during warmer seasons — tending to ingredients at their summer peak, which then pays off in preserving them through the cold months. He describes this as limiting yourself — thinking about food with a degree of scarcity, thinking of how to do more with less. This limitation can result in magical inventions. “If people had refrigerators hundreds of years ago, we wouldn’t have charcuterie,” he points out. “You get creative when you limit yourself.” This innovative spirit can be seen across all the restaurant’s dishes, no matter the season. Past tasting menus have featured Adriatic tuna and eggplant with hazelnut miso, covered with truffles and nasturtium, oyster beignets, and trout roe and smoked egg yolk on koji brioche, topped with rosa di Gorizia, a local variety of radicchio resembling a fuchsia-garnet rose.
The first certified organic duck farm in all of Slovenia is on the Grič property. It is home to the most diverse collection of ducks in the region — 350 currently — and their care is a top priority. Ducks bought at the grocery store are typically four or five months old, but the ducks Grič serves are one-and-a-half years old, or two summers old. “We make sure they live a good life,” says Košir. They’re only served in October, when it starts to get chilly after summer, but guests wait and request them year-round. “Everyone’s always asking ‘When are you serving the duck?’ and I have to explain, ‘When they’re old enough.’” Sometimes people ask if they can buy the ducks directly from the farm to cook themselves. To this, Košir always says no. “It’s hard to do it, to take the duck’s life,” he says quietly. “It’s emotional. People ask to buy the ducks but I could never sell them. I want to be part of whatever happens to the animal.” The signature dish takes a long time to prepare. The bird is cooked slowly over the embers and brushed with birch syrup, beer, and bits of the meat’s own fat. It’s rotated constantly, with a pot below for the juices to collect. One person looks after it for the whole day.
As for the feel of the restaurant itself, Košir wants his guests to feel relaxed. He wants people to find the cuisine professional but playful, and for there to be an energy of lightness. “There’s a really nice view of the garden from where the restaurant is, up on the hill. Some guests come 30 minutes before the service so they can walk through the garden.” The chalet was built by Košir’s father when there was basically nothing else around. It began as a humble wooden cottage where people would come to have a beer and a good time. Today, almost everything inside was built by father and son. On top of being an awarded chef, Košir humbly reveals himself to be a furniture artisan as well. “We make the ceramics, the wooden plates, the tables. We use materials from the forest.” He is quick to clarify that they did not make the chairs though. Their neighbor did.
Ultimately, what’s most important to Košir is transparency. This, he feels, is how people become connected to something. “From the garden to the kitchen to the dining room, we want the restaurant to be as transparent as possible. It’s part of our philosophy, so people can feel like they're part of it. What’s special is seeing the story and being a part of it.”
Slovenia may be relatively young, their national identity perhaps still in flux. But when it comes to this small, spectacular local restaurant, there’s no question about it — they know exactly who they are. And turns out, the world is taking notice. About a month after my call with Chef Luka, Grič was awarded their first Michelin star for excellence in cuisine. They are the sixth restaurant to receive this universal marker of prestige in all of Slovenia.
Sophie Mancini Writer
Sophie Mancini is an Editor at Departures. Born and raised in New York City, she holds a degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University and has a background as a writer in brand and editorial.
Kata Geibl Photographer
Kata Geibl is a photographer living and working between Budapest and The Hague. Her work is mainly focused on global issues, capitalism, the Anthropocene, and the ambiguities of the photographic medium. Coming from a background in liberal arts has informed the way she creates her projects. Drawing concepts from philosophy and cultural studies, Geibl steps in with metaphorical images to fill in the gaps where words fall short. Her work is exhibited worldwide in solo and group shows. Her first monograph published by Void will debut at Paris Photo in November 2021.