My style is constantly changing organically; if you define it and say "this is my style" you put yourself in a box that is hard to get out of. Freedom is very important to me and I do not want to limit myself creatively.
Read the interview with our guest chef and Kul IN mentor Jorg Zupan. The Slovenia native is one of the most innovative chefs in the region. He has interned at Fat Duck, restaurants in Australia, Norway, Ireland and worked with many culinary legends in the process. Today, he is the owner and executive chef of the Atelje, a progressive and exciting restaurant in Ljubljana that has recently confirmed its Michelin star for the second year. Atelje is also the place where one of our alumni has interned after completing the Culinary Arts program. Jorg’s restaurant has initiated a kind of revolution on the gastronomy scene in Southeastern Europe – the restaurant's main philosophy is unpretentiousness and informality but without compromising the quality. The idea is to provide a relaxed atmosphere in a fine dining manner. Jorg let us in on the secrets of culinary profession and the colorful, busy world of gastronomy.
1. Tell us about your culinary beginnings
- I have been in the culinary arts for ten years. I started cooking at home during high school years - I finished high school in Kranj, Slovenia. Around that time, famous chefs started appearing on TV; Jamie Oliver and other TV chefs became popular and showed the public how to cook from scratch and unveiled a lot of culinary secrets to the public. After school, I was cooking first for myself, and eventually started cooking for the whole family. However, I didn't plan to do it professionally at that time. After high school, I enrolled in a vocational college for culinary arts in Maribor, Slovenia. I wanted to see if I liked it, it was a two-year program, so if I didn't like it I would just transfer to another college - that was my thinking at the time. We had some really good professors who taught me to love this profession. During my education, I went to Ireland for the first time on an internship and that's how things took off. After graduation, I worked for a year and a half in Slovenia with my first chef and mentor, Bine Volčić, he appeared in MasterChef Slovenia and is the most famous chef in Slovenia. Then I went to Australia, then London, and went back to Ljubljana for a while and worked at Ljubljana fortress, went to Fat Duck for an internship, and then again for an internship in Oslo - I always combine education and work.
2. You worked with a lot of mentors during your internships, which has influenced you the most?
- I learned something special from each. My first mentor, Bine, had a real passion for culinary arts, he taught me a lot about the basics. Then Igor Jagodic, for whom I worked for two and a half years as a sous chef, was very important as well. Igor was a real mentor, his style is very mentor-like, he transfers knowledge in a great way, he even teaches at a school now.
3. How did you get to where you are now with your cooking style?
- It all somehow developed organically, at the beginning of your career it is difficult because you do not know what to do first. You want to present all your knowledge on one plate! It takes a while for a person to slow down and become more patient. Then everything starts to develop organically, in collaboration with the team. Personal development, exploration and trying out new dishes and techniques - this does not happen over night; quite the opposite, it is a constant process of growth. In five years, I will probably have a completely different style of cooking, it is a constant process, you are constantly enriching your knowledge and upgrading your skills.
4. Did you plan to return to Slovenia and what prompted you to do so?
- I was on vacation in Slovenia and Igor called me, the owner of the restaurant where I work. I had known him from before. He is one of the best chefs in Slovenia, he worked in Germany in classic Michelin restaurants, he has this classic French base and I have always liked his style. He invited me to work with him. I went back to London after the vacation, but soon decided that I would return to Slovenia.
5. You work at and own the Atelje Restaurant, what is the restaurant like conceptually?
- It's hard to sum it up. As far as history is concerned, it is a restaurant with a long tradition. It has been a part of the Union Hotel for thirty years. The nineties were the golden years, fine dining began to be introduced in the late nineties, but the crisis came and everything slowed down after that. The hotel management invited me to take part in a project that included remodelling, change of concept, and I enthusiastically agreed. We decided not to insist on the formalities often associated with fine dining and just keep the fine dining quality. The problem with this formality is that people walk past a fine dining restaurant, conclude from the presentation that it is too expensive and walk on. We wanted to have a more relaxed atmosphere, however, the food is top quality of course. We wanted people to feel comfortable, not constrained in the sense "which fork should I use now, is anyone looking at me", etc. The cooking concept and atmosphere are relaxed. Everything is professional of course, but the dishes are relaxed and fun, this is what we want to convey to our guests.
6. What does a typical working day of a successful chef look like?
- When you are a young chef and you have not made a name for yourself yet, your day starts in the kitchen around 7am. Then you work like crazy until 12, you do the service, you have a half hour break, then you work like crazy again until 10-11 in the evening (laughs). You start cleaning the kitchen and finish by 1am, you go home, you sleep for four hours and repeat. That's how it is at the beginning, then you become successful. Depends, it changed for me when I rented the restaurant, became the owner, then a hundred other things come up - you have less time for cooking, so you need to surround yourself with a team of people you trust. That is the only way you can dedicate more of your time to marketing and management.
7. Can you define your cooking style for us?
- My style is constantly changing organically; if you define it and say "this is my style" you put yourself in a box that is hard to get out of. Freedom is very important to me and I do not want to limit myself creatively.
8. Which qualities must a good chef have?
- A good chef needs to think fast and smart, be focused, humble and that's it. Everything else comes with experience. When you have no experience you can't realize your ideas - you may want to cook something, but you don't know how.
9. What message do you have for aspiring chefs?
- I just talked it through with the young chefs at your school, I told them to be brave, not to be afraid of failure, just to push on and the world is theirs!