Kobarid: Gourmet food
There is one thing you need to know about what you are about to read, and that is that it is not a restaurant review. Well, it’s not intended to be at any rate. It is a review of a place and the way designs and interactions with that place work. Sometimes what follows is about food. To disqualify it even further, it’s been over a year ago and I have the memory of an ant. So there.
Green and blue
It is a very nice part of the world. On this much about every human can agree. The foothills of the Julian Alps ramp up into the sky as they traverse Italy and Slovenia. The hills and mountains reach up all around and swamp any level land between with deep green forest and field and an effervescent turquoise Soča River. The river, known in Italian as Isonzo, is the feature of the place. It snakes through mountain valleys until it drains into the Adriatic Sea. It ends somewhere near Monfalcone. There it dumps into the sea in the anorexic strip of Italian coast weaselled from first Yugoslavia and Slovenia.
Before food became a reason to come there, it was most known for two things. First was all the action sports you can do there. The second was the immense amount of mountain-shattering bloodshed that took place there. Kobarid was where Austro-Hungary and Italy collided from 1914–1918 in WWI. It was where Hemingway wrote a decent amount of “Farewell to Arms” and where it took place. Somewhere between the adrenalin and the memorials to the tens of thousands dead, you have a very famous restaurant. By famous, I mean it was on Netflix. People started flying from all across the world to sample bites of foams made from Adriatic mussels and Alpine cheeses all from within 25 km1 of the restaurant.
If we go a little further back in history this was Roman territory. This is how this whole piece should have started. This is because this is how we’re used to reading and thinking about places. Of course you start with the Romans. You open up the travel journal from someone who either is wearing a pith helmet and having someone darker than him person carry him around. Or one who works for the Guardian who talks about the fair trade olive oil from the collective of one-armed orphans there. Never anything in-between. It’s usually about who was there first and what wacky things they did. This setup I just mangled so let’s get on with the cleft notion of this place.
It is close, spitting distance really, to Italy. There they’re very proud of their ancient Roman forebears and should likewise be of their alleged gorging and orgies. This includes the proven to be fictitious vomitorium. This is an appropriate although arguably unhealthy move. The notion of gorging and purging is treating food as a temporal experience. They didn’t have Instagram or Michelin stars like this place does. They knew it would go through you and they didn’t mind it coming out. They didn’t have the pictures and the posts to put it back in or hold it there on the internet forever.
I didn’t want it to go back in, I wanted it to stay. I wanted the flavours to continue ring in my mouth forever and the wine to make me eternally and beautifully dizzy. I wanted the wacky cousins-all-finally-in-one-place chat and jokes to never end. I wanted it to last. As all things, it didn’t, especially because it was food and because I refused to photo it.
I’m not the person to have gone there or be writing a review of this particular place. That is because it is a restaurant. This is because I paid €150 for something that I kept on thinking would come out of my ass 24 hours later.
This sounds crude. It is. Food is crude, but not as much as our obedience to it. It is something that keeps us alive and yet can kill us. We’ve made it an object of worship and a point of conversation. Nobody talks about breathing the same way they talk about eating. Historically it was only royalty who could make it momentous or obscene. Now it is prime time viewing for low-borne folks like myself.
It Always Starts in New York doesn’t it?
“How was the food?”
“Filling, thanks. For the most part satisfying.”
This is how people used to think about food and eating. I miss this.
In the past decade, food has become more than something to consume and sustain. Now with the likes of Facebook and Instagram, we have a completely non-taste-based-medium telling us how to eat. It has become status and much beyond. It has developed into a type of wealth and sensitivity signalling never seen before. You eat a thing to photograph it. You then show where you’ve been, how exclusive it and thus you are. Then jealousy and disappointment ripple through the internet outward from you. Winning. It is how we try and reflect how much better we are than others these days. People used to do this with cars. Oh, eating your soggy ham and cheese sandwich sitting in front of your computer are you? Try this endangered puffer fish grilled to perfection on a sunset, tropical beach and there’s my middle finger. That sort of thing.
Food was always sustenance for all save the top half a percent who ruled over us. This doesn’t discount grandma’s sauce however. That sharp tang could only be had from her sweating buckets in a cramped kitchen over an open flame bathed in a shapeless sheet of flower-patterned polyester. She had a concern for flavour, but hedonistic enjoyment was not the end goal. The end goal was to make the consumption of calories happen easier. Taste was a vehicle to get a pile of kids to consume carbohydrates and nutrients efficiently. This would make this next generation statistically less likely to be weak or sick.
Food as entertainment is something I consider despicable. You can’t watch anything on what used to be TV without watching people talking non-stop about food, eating food in overly sexy and overexcited ways. I’m guilty of it too. I watch it. The far flung destinations awash in exotic colour combinations, drenched in sun. I can’t help myself either. Oh man, Mexican Street Food2, sure I could go for some of that. That cold, two day old rice and half an apple I just struggled through without thinking doesn’t quite live up to it. Nor does the ensuing self hatred every time you open the fridge that night, hoping, just hoping.
I’ve always been foodie-curious in a way that only a bible-thumping Alabama senator in a motel room with a same-sex prostitute and a crack pipe could truly understand. That is, curious to the point of needing that which I claim to despise which is consumerism at its possible worst. That is the worship of stuffing something into your body as an achievement of culture.
But, as you’ll soon find out, I finally participated in the end of Western Civilisation. It was really, really, really, really good, but left me with horrible gas. I still don’t know how to understand this.
Word on the streets was that you had to wait a year for a reservation. By the streets I mean those streets crossing the Atlantic that ferry little electronic messages between my cousins and I. They were due to come over to Slovenia with their dad in mid-April of last year. It was bound to be fun. We had no reservations with a month to go.
One thing you should know is that my one cousin, despite being a Clevelander has evolved into a proper New Yorker. Fancy restaurants, Brooklyn this and that. She is in the epicentre of the foodie epidemic. She’s been into trying to go to this Hiša Franko place on Netflix when they were over here visiting. It seemed a reasonable enough thing. When else would I ever go to a Michelin Star restaurant? Never. Why not? Oh yeah, I was then not-employed.
I remember very little about what led up to this. There were emails, messages or varying formats and platforms, video calls, everything to make this happen. There were some exploited tenuous connection between my cousin’s daughter’s old boss and the world famous chef Ana Roš. This led to a pile of us driving from Ljubljana a couple of hours to the left towards Italy and on to Kobarid.
Cost over Time vs. Calories over My Failing Corporeal Body
We sat down, the lighting looked to be right. It looked like a restaurant. There was art on the walls that looked like they should be there but could also be somewhere else. The walls were a medium, crimson red which warmed the place like a well built German radiator. White linen draped tables with solid, dark chairs arranged around them like any other nice place. There was a tree in the middle of the restaurant. I couldn’t stop looking at it.
It was hard to decide what to think. Part of me demanded gilt chandeliers and perhaps a young, barefoot girl in a white dress with a halo of daisies and edelweiss tossing flower petal before us. Violins or trumpets for the entrance? I would be given a powdered wig before I was lifted gently onto a sedan to be carried to my throne. None of that. We were whisked like so many eggs, gelatines and reductions to our seats where the trials would begin.
My wife sat down, after me because I don’t pay attention to things like that. Next to her they placed two crossed pieces of wood on an axle with a leather seat. It, in fact, looked to be a fancy folding stool. Here it was a seat for things that held money not people. Other people took pictures of their plates, I took a picture on a broken phone of a thing that holds purses. I was amazed. I’ve never seen one before and I like to think I’ve been to a lot of places, albeit not Michelin star rated ones. The stage was set.
We were each handed a yellowed sheet of A4 to introduce the evening. Now we’re talking I thought to myself: a tasteful pastiche hinting at the old and the monied. At the head, the script font trawled out a poem and then a quip referencing some famous food person. I didn’t understand either. Listed below were eleven or so food experiences, listing ingredients wrapped in words. I didn’t know what was going on. But, as a guy who designs experiences, I was super into this briefing plotting out the duration of our stay. The food as bullet points were all ordered with what I’m sure was some logic my peasant mind couldn’t quite grasp the subtleties of. There was I’m sure some sort of reason for having a thing made from cheese after a thing made of mussels somehow. There was going to be a lot going on, this much was clear as day. The wine began.
An explanation proceeded each course. The nice young woman of ex-Yugoslav3 origin would go through a monologue introducing what we were to consume. Each prologue was roughly two to five minutes in length. It covered its contents, the contents’s origins, cooking conditions, and intent. A woman named Magda prepared in a 435 year old house the mussel cream in the light of a full moon while stirring counter or clockwise every other minute. This was either written or imagined.
The spiel would end and then you got to eat the morsel positioned before you. Creams, orbs, crusts, too much to describe. There was some yellow at some point and we probably ate way too much bread. I was also quite wasted by the time we were actually eating. I won’t go into detail about how good it was. There aren’t words for this sort of thing because I don’t believe words to be for this thing. Amazing. How’s that?
The detail was overwhelming. My head hurt. Was it from the five litres of wine I’d somehow pushed into my body or was it the dizzying food narrative that I couldn’t understand? Why did this thing have to be in this form? There was so much I didn’t understand and couldn’t without deep domain-specific knowledge, the kind I only have in regard to various forms of rock and roll, skateboarding, 17-th century sieges and “Point Break”. There was no break. No bit on the A4 sheet said, “15 minute breezy jaunt in the garden for a bit of fresh air.” Nope. Not to be had. The plates and the glasses and the instruction kept on coming without mercy, burying the senses alive in a mine shaft.
I’ve always been a massive fan of long, full day meals. As a child growing up in the US, Thanksgiving was one of my favourite holidays. The notion of a meal as something you need to prepare for and to be endured is something that fascinates me. “Thanksgiving: The Restaurant” was a concept I brought up every November while living there. If you could go to Thanksgiving any time of the year, sit there, gorge, lay down and then gorge again anytime you want, that would be the restaurant for me. Alternate establishment restaurant concepts were “Caligula’s Binge Palace” and “Santa’s All Day One Price Gut Buster.” The concept was always the same.
It was tiny and damn tasty. There were things I never tasted and never will again. It was actually insane what was going on. It was going on between my mouth, my gut and my brain. My mind raced to volume price each of them. I tried trades. I’ll give you this one for two of the next one. It didn’t matter. It all left the plate and slid down my throat into my gut with about as much ceremony as renewing your drivers license. It was gone, like that. Nothing left. All over.
Guilt costs, and so does scarcity. Both pointed to me not deserving the powdered wig or to be at Hiša Franko that fine yet balmy, late April evening. Each course was roughly valued at fourteen euros. This number sounds small, but it added up. Each course was roughly one bite. Consider your typical sandwich and how many bites that takes. Also consider bites versus chews and then spreadsheets start exploding.
When something costs something it involves an exchange of value. This is worth that. I thought about this a lot on that particular night. I didn’t have a lot of money in the bank at that time, was out of work and was more than slightly panicked about it. I could not justify spending that much money on food that wasn’t at least also for my kids. Or this is what I told myself.
People wanted those bites though, and they flew in tubes in the sky there to get in about a dozen of them without batting an eye. One of my business innovations, trumping even a restaurant chain themed on a US holiday celebrating Native American genocide4, would be something like volume surge pricing. If it was a tasting menu you should be able to pick any of the 11 items and then for an extra €50 get ten bites of it. For an extra €100, you get a kilo. There is an innovative, mathematical curve in there that would either win me a Nobel Prize or that describes the end of our universe. The laughs and salon style repartee belied the exhaustion setting in.
Many of you may know the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment of 1972. In it, children were secretly videotaped while offered “one small immediate reward or two small rewards if they waited for some period of time.”5 The basic gist is that the kids who could delay their gratification would go on to great and wonderful things. The kids who stuffed their faces post haste all became crackheads, White House appointees or murderers.
I always liked to consider myself a member of the first cohort of kids who can sit there and wait. Through Jedi-like mental powers I can resist drinking a beer offered to me for nearly 1.4 minutes and can resist a cookie for about three. This level of mental agility and strength is not without limits and is taxing on the mind and body. It was no different at Hiša Franko.
And then the plate would be empty. Just like that. I’m apparently a barbarian because I would look around and my bite per plate was gone a quarter of an hour before anyone else’s. They could savour. They would get the marshmallow. What I got was empty glass after glass. Water. Wine. Can we have some more bread please? Wait, this is what? Repeat. Ad infinitum.
It was hard work. I realise the inanity of what you just read and what I just typed. This was some next level shit. But there was a list and we were going to get through that damn list if it was going to kill us. An exploded intestine or a ruptured transverse colon was not going to shorten that list. It was also mentally exhausting. That short, garden jaunt to consider the mountains and lush Alpine nature would not happen. Not consuming didn’t happen.
Bruno Hauptmann and Me
He didn’t so much walk into the room as brush into it. There was a whoosh and a hush as all the air left the room, his very presence sucking the life’s air out of the room. Bruno Hauptmann was here.
He appears inside. His too-tan face led a paunch mismatched to his otherwise svelte body over tailored trousers. These rode high on the bare ankle and rested on purple suede shoes with gold buckles. He doesn’t need shoes though because he doesn’t seem to walk. He just is. He is Bruno Hauptmann, restaurant raconteur extraordinaire.
The staff scurried. Loud whispers flitted above the seated guests as the staff’s quiet panic connects and charges the place. The matron teleports from one end of the restaurant to the other, beams of pure energy connecting her to forks, plates, cooks and fire like a Tesla coil.
Phones are pulled out, almost in unison under every table. The guests know Bruno. Is he supposed to be here? Isn’t he supposed to be in Rome? Hushes flash between those who know and those who don’t. Glances. Eyes shifting extreme left to right.
He is seated. Nobody was aware of it happening, rushing to watch every word, and hang on every bite. He stares at nothing, and chews slower than a cow. What is he thinking? Where is the notebook? He’s supposed to have a gold lamé notebook! Where is it? There is considerable consternation about the notebook and his chewing speed. It’s roughly 2.3 seconds per bite. This is unheard of. He lifts his thick, white glasses and glances for a second at the sheet of paper explaining the poetry of the food. He then brushes off the server.
This is what is supposed to happen. Eating as a performance of higher calling. To call it an event would be to denigrate it. This isn’t what happened for me because I’m a bit of a slob. I warned you at the beginning of this that there was to be crudeness. I’ve expounded on value and volume calculation, but not forgotten one of my own personal battles that evening, which was not wanting to shit. I didn’t want to let it go.
I am not the rarefied critic that Herr Hauptmann typifies and never will be. I am stuck in a mode of living where I can’t get this immigrant mentality of food as fuel and visions of burning villages on the horizon and future disaster out of my head. I can’t get, despite multiple arts degrees from across the world from august institutions that are supposed to have bred this out of me, to that station in society. That station is one where I can enjoy things that temporal for that amount of exchanged value. It won’t happen. Part of that might be because this is now happening in the land that my parents fled. The same place where my mom talked about starvation and not having shoes. Not this Bruno Hauptmann shit.
Times have changed, and regimes have come and gone, and with them various economic systems. Maybe this swinging flirt from socialist pragmatism and efficiency at all costs to the utter excesses of Late Stage Capitalism is appropriate. Maybe it’s appropriate for the valley of Kobarid, which for millennia eked out an existence between brutal winters, altitudes and alpinised trench warfare to have a go at flippant overindulgence. Maybe it’s appropriate for me to just loosen up a bit and every so often get on a decent pair of shoes and some glasses that make me look smarter than I am and really put those degrees to work.
Was it worth it? This is what I kept on asking myself. There should have been a guarantee. A medical guarantee on the bottom of that A4 handout in just legible 10 point type explicitly stating that you would in no circumstances have horrible gas and god knows what else coming out of you all night afterwards. Wasn’t this what I was paying not to happen? I was paying for the equivalent result of five lagers and a kebab to explicitly not happen.
This is what you think when you don’t let your inner Bruno out every once in a while. This thinking happens when all’s you feel is the crush of having to provide for another generation while bearing the guilt of the one before you. This is what happens when the wrong person goes to the wrong place.
What I ate there was mind-blowing. Everyone was super nice. I give it five stars.
Don’t quote me on this. I don’t remember if it was or still is delimited to 25 km distance. This ultra-localism of product and produce though is compulsory for these sorts of joints. ↩︎
Remember Food is a capitalised thing now ↩︎
This is sort of important as a side note to the story because we had no idea which language to speak to her in. She understood much Slovenian, would answer in English and mixed Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian. For a very particular place where the borders change every fifty years, this detail was a great subtext. ↩︎
Bear in mind, Thanksgiving wasn’t meant to explicitly celebrate the wiping out of the Native American tribes that inhabited what became Plymouth, Massachusetts. However, if you look at the story that every American school kid was taught forever was that the local tribes helped the Pilgrims their first year settling and then disappeared from the story afterwards. This was of course because most of the first contact tribes were wiped out. ↩︎