JB the Cookbook was published in Slovenian in 2018 and won numerous national design awards. Matjaz Tancic took the photographs, Manca Jevscek photographed the dishes, JB prepared the recipes and the know-how, Zare Kerin designed the book, and I wrote the essays. This book, JB's second, follows our road trip around Slovenia in search of the finest ingredients in the country, and the best producers of them. Each chapter profiles an ingredient (many of them indigenous), the passionate producer or farmer who supplies the ingredient to JB's kitchen, and our travel adventures learning about Slovenia from a foodie tour perspective.
The book is currently available only in Slovenia by contacting the restaurant.
First you see the eyes, a cold blue that makes you think of Paul Newman, but steelier. Not the blue of the sea or of Slovenia’s unearthly Soča River, but of a raw blade on a grindstone. But then chef Janez Bratovž, known to all as JB, a man who you’d put your money on in a knife fight, quickly breaks into a smile and beams with delight at what he’s about to serve you. The street fighter façade melts away with the childlike delight at the perfect ingredient, perfectly prepared and paired.
Bratovž’s eponymous restaurant, JB in Ljubljana, was ranked Restaurant Magazine’s 10th best restaurant in all of Europe in 2012, and is a regular in San Pellegrino’s list of the top 100 in the world. The veteran chef’s food is strikingly beautiful, without being twee. He doesn’t go in for the performative, mind-bending illusionism of Wylie Dufresne, Grant Achatz or Heston Blumenthal. Instead the food provides the show, with a strong focus on local produce. A recent eleven-course tasting menu featuring his most-often remarked upon signature, ravioli filled with layers of pistachio and foie gras and a homemade curd cheese. There was also the Platonic ideal of an octopus’ tentacle set upon a Pollock-esque spatter of ink that was perfectly meaty and devoid of any of the chewiness or fishiness that can sometime come with a cephalopod that is imperfectly handled.
Like the best chefs, he takes A-list ingredients, which he purchases himself every morning from the farmers market, and treats them right, cooking them perfectly, but also combining them in surprising ways that would not only never occur to us non-chefs, but feel just right. That octopus’ tentacle was accompanied by a rainfall of avocado puree—a heavenly, but certainly not obvious, combination, like the pistachio and foie gras. His level of cooking is the sort that fellow top chefs remark upon with wonder, winning him fans like Heinz Beck, Massimo Bottura, and Hiroshi Ishida, the chef of Japan’s most exclusive and best restaurant, Mibu, who penned the foreword to this book.
JB is located on the ground floor of a building designed by Slovenian master architect Jože Plečnik (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). The dining room is elegant, understated, and a bit old-school, as is the service, perfectly polite and with surprisingly thoughtful details (two female diners were offered stools on which to set their handbags, so as not to leave them on the floor). Framed photographs in the atrium show a selection of international guests who have made the journey to Ljubljana to sit at his tables: Presidents, politicians, celebrities, food grandees. Bratovž travels the world by invitation (he recently cooked for 350 in Hong Kong, prepared a dinner at the Vatican and presented at the El Bulli Foundation), but unlike so many of the world’s best chefs, he is in the kitchen, actually cooking the food you are served, almost every day. And it’s a family affair, with his wife, Ema, handling front of house, his son, Tomaž, just back from stages at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and Spain, assisting in the kitchen and, until recently, his daughter, Nina, as sommelier (before she opened her own restaurant near the Slovenian/Italian border).
JB’s food, service and atmosphere have all the requisites for Michelin stars (whenever Michelin gets around to publishing a guide to Slovenia—rumor has it that this will be in 2018), but it is rare that such an establishment would guarantee the presence of the genius loci himself in the kitchen, almost every day of the year, lunch and dinner. And it is probably safe to say that it is the most reasonably-priced fine dining experience one could find: Three levels of elaborate tasting menus cost just 45, 60 and 80 EUR. That 45 EUR tasting menu in London or New York or Paris would cost 145 EUR easily.
Fellow Slovenian Ana Roš (named the best female chef in the world in 2017) recently told CNN: "Every country has 'The Chef.' In Slovenia, this is him. Chef Janez Bratovž is the father of modern Slovenian cuisine. He was the first to manage to enter the San Pellegrino list a few years ago (in 2010) and to be ranked among the top 100 restaurants in the world. I like his more classical interpretations, because they show off very well the skills of the chef." She is likewise intrigued by his “translation” of the basic elements—earth, water, air and fire—into tastes: Sweet, salty, sour and bitter. This is beautiful, delicious food, but with a great amount of thought behind it, and it is very much the fruit of this small alpine nation.
Considering the brilliance of Bratovž’s food, and the ascendance of Ana Roš headlining an impressive group of up and coming Slovenian chefs, it is clear that we are at the start of a new movement in fine dining. Numerous critics have suggested as much, with Slovenian food touted everywhere from The Daily Telegraph to Travel & Leisure, from The New York Times to Bloomberg. Nordic has had its day and remains strong, but we are witnessing the rise of Alpine cuisine.
As a foreigner living in Slovenia, I recognize the exoticism of food from this part of the world, which represents an elegant hybrid of Austrian alpine dishes with Mediterranean cooking (from neighboring Italy and the Dalmatian Coast), and a dash of Hungarian paprika and goulash in the mix. Over a very small footprint (the nation is just 20,000 square kilometers in area), Slovenia has strikingly varied topography. The Alps run above it, so you can ski in the morning, but take a swim in the Adriatic in the afternoon, just an hour or so by car from those storybook mountains. There are the karst limestone hills, renowned for robust Teran red wine and prosciutto dried by the burja wind, and the Prekmurje flatlands beside the Hungarian border, a region of gypsy culture, gliding storks and smoky paprika, not to mention the Italian influence of nearby Trieste (until a century ago, the largest city in Slovenia) and Venice. This makes Slovenian cuisine more diverse, quirky and interesting than the more monochrome traditional foods of its neighbors, like Austria and Hungary. Since it boasts four separate neighboring influences, and it inhabits both mountainous and Mediterranean areas, perhaps the most accurate label for it would be Alpine-Adriatic cuisine.
First and foremost, this cookbook will be a love letter to Slovenia and it’s beautiful cuisine. But this cookbook will also have a dramatically different form to it. While illustrating the genius of JB, and introducing the foods of Slovenia and this nouveau Alpine-Adriatic cuisine, this book will also be striking for the fact that it is written backwards.
Most cookbooks begin with recipes, followed by lists of ingredients and preparations. This book, however, begins with ingredients and features more robust narrative elements than most. Chapters are organized by primary ingredient (all of them key to Slovenian cuisine, some of them indigenous varieties), beginning with the story of the ingredient, its culture and history and relevance to Slovenia, as well as a narrative of my road trip with JB to select locations in Slovenia, where he considers the best version of that ingredient to be produced, harvested or raised. We meet not only the ingredient, but also the always quirky producers of it.