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We talked to Igor Jagodic, chef of one of the most prestigious culinary institutions in Ljubljana, the Strelec Restaurant at Ljubljana Castle, about cooking philosophies, the city’s gourmet scene and the meaning of international awards and recognitions.

Igor Jagodic Strelec

In November of last year, the Gault&Millau Slovenia culinary guide declared you Chef of the Year 2019. What does this recognition mean to you?

The recognition confirms that our work is good, by which I don’t only mean that we cook well. It’s important that the guide also recognised our efforts in working with young people to develop their talents, and the fact that we always think of supporting local food producers when putting together our menus.

Slovenia is solidifying its position on the global gastronomic map. Last year, Gault&Millau issued its first publication dedicated solely to Slovenian restaurants. Hiša Franko has been on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for several years, and in 2021, Slovenia is set to be the European Region of Gastronomy. Has the time come for the first Michelin stars? How do you yourself view the evolution of Slovenian cuisine?

I think the time has come, yes. There are definitely a few restaurants that deserve to get at least one star. Slovenia is becoming increasingly visible in terms of cuisine, even on a global scale. In addition to Ana Roš we have quite a few other excellent chefs and, what’s extremely important, high-quality ingredients. We need to build on these foundations, on tradition, instead of blindly following or copying outside trends. A very important part of further development is forging connections and collaborations, not only at the level of Slovenia, but at the level of the entire region.

For several years now, Strelec has been one of the most popular spots for Slovenian foodies. What do you think convinces them time and time again to return to the Archers’ Tower at the Castle?

Besides exquisite food, superb service is undoubtedly a major factor that we are always very attentive to. In addition to these two elements, which are definitely the most important, a charming ambience and a stunning view of the entire city certainly add to the experience.

Summer is about to transition into autumn, and you are surely already thinking about the autumn menu. Would you care to highlight any particular dish or ingredient we can expect on the autumn menu at Strelec?

The new seasonal menu will feature quite a few new dishes. At the moment, we are testing an autumn-inspired dessert that uses pumpkin, citrus fruits and sheep’s cottage cheese.

Your kitchen is the place where young and promising chefs are forged, later to be encountered in other superb restaurants across Slovenia and around the world. What is the most important lesson they take from working with you?

In addition to all the practical knowledge they gain here, I find it very important to encourage young chefs to think about their own creations and dishes. I strive to make them think for themselves, to use their own heads instead of just following my ideas and mentorship. At our restaurant all the chefs are given the opportunity to contribute interesting new ideas for plates every time we are putting together a new menu.

How would you describe your cooking philosophy? And has it changed much over the past few years? Is there an individual that has especially influenced your approach?

I find it difficult to speak of a specific philosophy. Others usually associate me with classical cuisine, but I think that we are great at combining classical basics with modern ways of preparing food. The emphasis, of course, is on ingredients, which we strive to be as seasonal, fresh, local and organic as possible. I would say that my only guidance is that food and dishes should simply be GOOD. Styles and dishes change, of course, that’s normal. Nowadays, for example, we focus less on appearance alone as was usual in the past, although it is still certainly very important. We might even simplify a thing or two, as we find again and again that taste comes first, so we give it the starring role. Though I’ve never had a particular role model, I’ve been drawn for a while to the cooking by a Swiss chef who’s been working in the US for some years now, Daniel Humm.

Rather than spending your working time in the kitchen alone, you often participate in projects outside the restaurant; in December of last year, for instance, you were cooking on a boat sailing down the River Ljubljanica, and in March you were part of the Gourmet Ljubljana Crawl culinary tour. How do you perceive the role of such projects in the development of Ljubljana’s culinary scene?

All the events taking place outside restaurants are extremely important, as they bring us and our dishes closer to the general public, including guests that wouldn’t normally decide to visit our restaurants. This raises the food culture, as it isn’t enough for chefs to train and become better and better. It is also important that the guests become more educated as well. In events of this type, the direct contact of chefs with guests is essential. These events are invariably more relaxed than a restaurant setting, and give chefs a chance to approach diners in a different way.

Not long ago, Ljubljana Castle saw the opening of the Strelec Castle Wine Bar and Shop, complete with a restaurant or, rather, a bistro. How will the cuisine tie in with the extensive range of wines and what can visitors expect from this new story at the Castle?

Since the range of food to be enjoyed at the Castle is already quite diverse, we will start by offering a small selection of simple seasonal dishes, accompanied by a lovely choice of charcuterie and cheeses, along with homemade bread.

Where do you most like to go with your family or friends when you want to eat something that will feed your soul?

During holidays, my family and I love to pop by different European cities for a few days, and we always choose at least one top restaurant there. We are currently planning a trip to Madrid during the autumn holidays. When we’re at home, in Slovenia, and we want some food for the soul, we usually decide to visit one of my chef friends. It’s a good thing there are quite a few of them, so we always have a varied choice.