maribor_hisa_denk
Photo credit: Hiša Denk

ENFANT TERRIBLE: GREGOR VRAČKO

Author: Jasmina Jerant

Notorious for being witty, sharp in his thoughts, work, words, for being uncompromising and outspoken, and known as one of the best chefs in Europe and as an owner of amazing collection of supreme wines, Gregor Vračko in his Hiša Denk in Zgornja Kungota in Maribor’s vicinity, brings to Slovenia and beyond a surprising approach to fine dining.

He is, as he says himslef, no ‘bullshit’ and no fake, he does not sell stories and he does not wrap words in colourful ribbons. And truly so, he is the cook and the person who with his words and actions expresses ‘this is me, take it or leave it’. He really doesn’t care how others are sometimes unhappy with him for his razor-sharp honesty. He just loves to do what he does and everything else is ‘other people’s problem’.

Talking to him on the phone was like a ride to an unknown and amusing landscape. A one hour chat signed the whole day afterward with laughter. And with respect. Similarly to what Vračko said about wine: »Sometimes you just need to experience a really amazing glass of wine in your life to realize the difference.« It is that rare opportunity when you get in touch with a high-class peculiarity which leaves you speechless.

I don’t care for things like monkey’s brain and crocodileS and similar bullshit …

It was quite challenging to keep Gregor Vračko on the phone. While talking, he was busy planning the dinner courses with his team. So we had to stop the witty and insightful discussion a few times. Early on, I realised we shared the same love: cigarettes … and coffee in large pots. One of his first sentences was: »Damn, my brother snitched my lighter again, I knew it he would, damn it.«

His brother David is also one of the best chefs in Europe and also working at a fine-dining restaurant – Mak in Maribor’s city centre. The restaurants of both siblings have been, by the Austrian culinary magazine Falstaff, consecutively ranked among Slovenia’s five best restaurants. While Gregor was frantically and vocally searching for the lighter, he explained they were just a bit earlier hanging out ‘as any other two brothers’.

Gregor Vračko, who drinks coffee from large pots because ‘cooks are coffee junkies who sip coffee constantly throughout the day,’ learned cooking from his parents; they introduced him to the secrets. Thus, his style of cooking originates from the house. He also got some formal cooking education: »And there another horizon opens up again when you realise all the possibilities. You get that push and your head opens up.« In the sense of inspiration, though, he is looking up to Marco Pierre White (editor’s note: the enfant terrible of the UK restaurant scene and one of the youngest chefs to have been awarded three Michelin stars). But the rest is the legacy from his parents.

If I want to drink cappuccino or Coca-Cola with my dish, I don’t give a damn. No one can force me to drink Sauvignon.

When Gregor Vračko (41) was younger, he left Slovenia and worked in some of the top-notch restaurants around the world – from Austria, to Germany, Britain, and USA. He worked in three-Michelin star restaurants before coming back to his home-town in Zgornja Kungota where he took over his parents’ inn. He transformed a popular countryside inn, for mainly Austrian guests loyal to it for decades, to a fine-dining restaurant and added to it an adjacent building with six modern rooms for overnight stays that offer breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well.

The loyal Austrian guests did not accept the new spin in the kitchen well: »In the previous house, the cuisine was more classical. Once we stopped preparing the same food, of course the same guests were not coming back. But it doesn’t mean that I neglect my parents’ note in the new cuisine, I just changed it.« The locals, though, ‘kind of’ accepted the fine-dining restaurant in their immediate neighbourhood: »I am gonna tell you like this: if you  do not keep up with the times, then you are lagging behind the times. Locals are sitting in pubs and drinking spritzers, and I am cooking differently. That’s all I have to say about this.«

The Nova Regio radius is in Slovenia established at around 5 to 10 km. This is ridiculous.

In his cuisine and in building his plates for which he is ‘always taking elements from nature’, he uses local ingredients in a traditional way but with the 21st century’s twist. However, he does not, opposite to the current trends of fine-dining, remain in the sole frame of the regional, local ingredients. He is not a worshipper of the Nova Regio cuisine in which a consistent implementation of regionality, seasonality, and ingredients at hand never used before in food is the main focus: »In Slovenia, we are geographically speaking one of the best areas for cooking. But the Nova Regio radius is for us established at around 5-10km. And this is ridiculous. In the Norwegian cuisine, for example, established after the Spanish avant-garde culinary movement, they get a radius of ‘regional’ in between 300-500 km. And I am supposed to get regional food from 5-10km around my restaurant? Come on. I have 200 km to the Adriatic Sea, 100 km to the Alps, 50 km to Prekmurje and Pannonia with its natural jewels. And what? I shouldn’t use those ingredients because they are ‘too far’ away? It’s absurd.«

Hiša Denk provides degustation menus as well as à la carte, but the latter only provides two courses and the priority is on the degustation menus. If the kitchen runs out of a particular ingredient, then the à la carte will not have that dish on offer because it will be only available for degustation menus. The menus are prepared according to that day’s availability of ingredients. Sometimes each table eats differently. The restaurant does not have a consistent menu because the kitchen does not operate with big quantities: »If we only have 3 kilos of meat, I cannot make 30 kilos out of it. From the 3 kilos we prepare a certain amount of dishes and as long as they last, people get them, otherwise, tough luck, they will eat something else what’s available on that day.«

He is focused only on making the best out of what is available and reasonably accessible. But when he wants some particular ingredient, he is adamant to get it: »Ok, I don’t care for things like monkey’s brain and crocodiles and similar bullshit, but when something is my ‘drive’, when I want to prepare something, then I go dig ditches to get to it. I move mountains for it.«

However, Gregor Vračko does not buy the ‘special food’ stories: »There is this chef who used 3 samples of rabbit brains in one course; this means that three rabbits were slaughtered for one plate. If this guy was holding this menu for two months, it means that maybe more than 5000 rabbits were used for it. And that’s just for the brain, the rest of their meat was not used at all. No one is going to convince me that this makes sense and that this is ‘the regional’ take. Where could he find local farmers with thousands and thousands of rabbits? Come on, it’s a damn joke, it’s unrealistic. I don’t buy this crap.«

As long as the dishes last, people get them, otherwise, tough luck, they will eat something else what’s available on that day.

Another enfant terrible, the Australian singer Nick Cave, once said that ideas are overrated and that only the work that makes them come true really matters. Gregor Vračko completely agrees with it. It is all about the hard work, the extremely hard work, not about the ideas: »The idea is one thing, of course, but then you need to develop it so it makes sense.« He sells to his guests only one story – his plate, he is not into selling ‘the story’. When he hears someone selling ‘the story behind the idea’, he goes ‘come on, dude, what a f***ing nonsense!’. He pauses for a moment and exhales: »My brother and I, we lack the filter. Sometimes people don’t like us. I can’t blame them.«

He also does not care for pairing wine with food, despite the fact that he has a rich collection of supreme wines in his cellar: »If I want to drink cappuccino or Coca-Cola with my dish, I don’t give a damn, no one can force me to drink Sauvignon.« He loves collecting wines. For him, it is not about selling them, but about sharing a really good wine with the people you love. It is about special moments, about the deeper note of one’s inner self and about one’s life, it is about what is important at some particular moment with special people.

Vračko can get an extraordinarily expensive bottle, but he does not sell it with a huge margin He rather shares it with guests for almost the same price of his initial purchase: »For me, it is a thing of collection and enjoying.« There are ‘beautiful bottles’: »One could go bankrupt if buying them, but if I like the person at the table, if I see them to be a real, true person, then I happily take them to my cellar.«

It had happened, though, that he regretted sharing wine with guests. A table of 12 hospitality experts wanted to try Armand Rousseau’s wine. Vračko brought 4 glasses of wine and they drank it immediately. By the time Gregor was leaving their table, he was already thinking: »Hell, what have I just done?!« He insists that no wine deserves this and that the point is not in the money but in the attitude towards the bottle: »I was so pissed off. If I knew at the time that they would pour it down just like that, I would had never had brought that bottle out.«

You either have rough working hands or you are a poseur and not a real winemaker. I don’t deal with poseurs.

Gregor Vračko collects a diverse specter of wines, from the Slovenian and international headliners to individual winemakers who are not that famous: »When deciding to try a wine from a small family winery, I choose them by hands. Seriously. If I see a winemaker with fine hands, I don’t buy their story of wine-making. You either have rough working hands or you are a poseur and not a real winemaker. I don’t deal with poseurs.«

As honest as it gets. He does, though, joke a lot; his humour is sharp and quick-witted and he can often leave one in awe of wondering ‘wait, was he serious about this?’ I admit, he pranked me a few times. You can hear his joy for life pouring out of his every slow word, giggle, and a curse. It’s a straightforward attitude to life. It’s about embracing who you are and what you do without the shiny aura around it. And he puts this side of him also into his creations, although, without joking, he is deadly serious when it comes to talking about food and wine.

My brother and I, we lack the filter. Sometimes people don’t like us. I can’t blame them.

Gregor Vračko did not want to provide his portrait photo for this article: »Put the photos of my food because the food says everything about me. I don’t give a shit for the photos of my mug being published. My food is more important than my face.« To this extraordinary chef, who is moving (not just literal Slovenian) borders with his cuisine and attitude, the holy things are sincerity, clear vision, and hard work. Poseurs, stay away, he’ll figure you out. Others, go to Maribor and from there drive for short 15 minutes to Hiša Denk; you’ll be up for a serious (and a joking) surprise.

P.S. At some point through our several chats, we comfortably crossed from formal into the in-formal zone. And for he pranked me truly well a few times (damn him!), I dare to do this: I found an online photo of Gregor Vračko that is credited to Hiša Denk. And, there you go, Gregor, I am adding your portrait anyway! Touché! 😉

Photo credit: Hiša Denk

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