Manor of Culinary Creativity

Photo: Iztok Dimc

June 2012

Towards the middle of the windswept Vipava Valley, Zemono Manor sits atop a little hill. The charming, almost fairytale setting of Zemono, where the cold breeze from Nanos mixes with the smell of the sea hidden somewhere beyond the Kras, is actually famous for itsGostilna pri Lojzetu , a restaurant managed by an exceptional host, Tomaž Kavčič

Tomaž Kavčič has received many accolades – only recently, the Dining Guide presented him with an award for best restaurant in Central and Eastern Europe; it took him by surprise, but he had a hunch that something was afoot when the organisers insisted that he attended the Food Show in Budapest in person. Before being proclaimed the winner in January 2012, Gostilna pri Lojzetu had been shortlisted as one of the finalists from ten countries.

Tomi, as he is called by his friends, is very pleasant to talk to and speaks about the hospitality business with the great enthusiasm and modesty that is characteristic of the best in any profession.

What kind of food does Lojze prepare?

Gostilna pri Lojzetu. Photo: Iztok Dimc

Slovenian dishes hold sway. Slovenia's culinary delights encompass a rich variety of food. Different cultural influences have intermingled in our region for centuries, which is reflected in our culinary heritage. In a way, this mix of cultures gives us privilege since the best things have always remained with us. Most of the ingredients used by Tomaž come from the region.

The restaurant at Zemono is best described as the cuisine of ideas. What Tomaž does and cooks is actually original cuisine. "Cuisine is the basic ingredient. I am always careful not to spoil it. We care for what we do and we serve food to guests so that they can see and feel our attitude. I would like them to see and feel that somebody did something especially for them. I choose different techniques, but I am faithful to those that do not change the primary taste of food. This is the very concept of my cuisine."

A cuisine of ideas and techniques that do not change taste –  the taste that only comes from the best of ingredients. This is why Tomaž still shops for food himself.  He believes that a meal in a restaurant must outshine food prepared at home. A guest comes to a restaurant to experience something better. "I see this as my duty."

When you let go …

Photo: Iztok Dimc

You won't find many guests at Zemono engrossed in the menu before they order.  They trust the choice of the chef. That could be the reason why he has so many regulars, while new guests mostly come upon recommendation.

Slovenians, Italians, and many other foodies from near and far, number among the guests at Zemono. Some travel across the world to taste what they have heard and read about, which in a way creates a sense of obligation to continuously provide high quality food and service. Furthermore, his guests are spoilt since he is always there for them.

Tomaž believes that his business – or his entire concept – starts with the words of welcome to the guests and ends when he bids them farewell. This is not just a job but also a lifestyle. Only on very rare occasions will you not find him in the restaurant; like a captain, he only abandons his ship with extreme reluctance. The restaurant has become part of my life: "My work fulfils me – everything I do, I do for my guests."

He also appreciates and accepts the ideas of his co-workers. He has an excellent team that he trusts and they develop dishes together. He does not describe his relationship with his staff as traditional. He is first to arrive and last to leave.

Manor of culinary innovation

Tomaž is the fourth generation of restaurant owners in his family. Even as a child he had his place and chores in the kitchen. This may be the reason why he never went to learn from the great masters in the culinary world. Despite regretting this a few years ago, he has now realised that this enabled him to develop the unique style that has brought him recognition and fame. His ideas are centred around his guests. "I fuss over food in the kitchen, but what I put on a plate for the guest always breathes with relaxation."

Tomaž considers the ratio between quality and price to be of great significance. How much will you pay for a meal at Zemono? A masterpiece of culinary delight with assorted wines will cost you between €50 and €70. His constant care for quality paid off.

Zemono is also the cradle of Slovenian slow food. "The main idea is still to preserve traditional dishes, for example jota (bean and pickled turnip soup) that we saved from extinction. Slow food dinner can also be made of one course when a particular dish would otherwise vanish from menus. I want to make it crystal clear that slow food does not mean ten different courses with ten different wines. Such eating habits are simply not in man's nature."

About Michelin stars

"There are several restaurants in Slovenia that, in my opinion, deserve at least one Michelin star. I am not saying that those still without a star have been wronged but, simply, that's the way it is in our business. Michelin is not expanding in this time of crisis. I know that Slovenians came very close and the future looks hopeful. Moreover, I am convinced that this is the wish of every serious chef."

Text by Polona Prešeren, MSc;  full text - Sinfo 3, 2012 
Photo: Iztok Dimc