Creative culinary ventures at the Art Café Odeon
Tanja Plešivčnik Zelenko, the creator of Art Café Odeon, has dubbed it "a melting pot of creativity and culinary ventures". Why is that? First and foremost because it is a major hub for experimental cuisine, a gallery space, a venue for various events, and most importantly - a new gathering place for the locals. And sometimes even a place to brainstorm and seek out new ideas for a better future for our city.
Tanja Plešivčnik Zelenko: "What's different is interesting!"
The Art Café Odeon has spiced up the culinary scene in the city centre of Isola. It provides an exciting alternative to traditional, mainly seafood dishes - meat-free lunches seasoned with spices from "the Mediterranean to Japan". Where do you draw the inspiration for your dishes?
I draw inspiration mostly from myself, my imagination, life experiences, travels, relationships and the numerous cross-cultural contacts in my life. However, the inspiration comes mainly from the challenges I like to set for myself: for example coming up with something different, something new every single day. In fact, I find the creative process itself to be a great source of inspiration. Honestly, I never thought that I would try my hand at cooking, but creativity seems to know no boundaries. The truth is, the dishes I prepare at the Art Café Odeon are no different than the ones I make at home.
Why focus solely on meat-free cuisine? Do you think of it as a fad, or is the future of gastronomy going in that direction?
Well, going meat free was the only option for me, because I haven't eaten meat since I was 14, so I've been preparing meat-free meals pretty much all my life. I'm not used to preparing meat dishes, and I also follow my own principles on what's good for the body and the environment and what isn't. Let me put it this way: I can eat what I can actually imagine eating.
You could say that vegetarianism and veganism are just the latest craze; but perhaps this will no longer be the case in the future, mainly because it will (have to) become "the way of life". People are finally starting to question and become aware of what we eat: where does our food come from and can we accept the reality of the food industry and still enjoy our food? I don't think this trend is ever going away; there would have to be some kind of truly miraculous or catastrophic turning of events for that to happen. (laughs)
"The great thing nowadays is that we don't eat just because we're hungry, but we can choose our food carefully and according to our personal preferences."
Your accent tells me that you are not from Izola. What brought you to our region?
That's right, I was born in Slovenj Gradec, and since my university years, I have travelled all over the world, creating and writing along the way. I have been to almost all the European countries, I lived in Portugal for two years, and I have been to Asia: Iran, India, Pakistan, Turkey and North Africa. On my travels, I have met many people from different parts of the world who remain good friends of mine to this day.
One of them was my husband, who is originally from Grožnjan, and we met when I was a university student. About fifteen years ago, we moved to this seaside town – to write our graduation papers and start a family. Becoming parents had quite an impact on our lifestyle, so we decided to settle down in Izola.
Does Izola feel like home to you now?
I must admit that it's only now that we have our own café that Izola feels more like home. Before that, both my husband and I commuted to Ljubljana for work and Izola was mostly just a place where we came to sleep, so I didn't really know how many nice people lived in this town! Now that we actually live here, we are living and breathing with the city.
How did you come up with the idea of opening the Art Café Odeon and creating this concept that is so unique and different from anything in our area?
Before COVID I worked in Ljubljana, where together with a friend, a painter from Portugal, with whom I have collaborated on many projects in the past, I wanted to create a kind of literary or artistic guest house: a project that would combine accommodation facilities and a platform for intertwining creativity, cultural images and ideas. We managed to create a really unique space, which won us several awards, but only lasted for three years. But then came COVID and sadly, ours was one of the places that had to close its doors.
Truth be told, I channelled the trauma of the loss of our successful project, this pain that I felt, into a new project - the Art Café. In the beginning, I didn't even know exactly what the concept of the space would be, I just knew that we wanted to give Izola and the people of Izola something completely different from what they already had. I approached the project as a creative experiment in sustainability. Only later, we came up with the idea to make it a place where one can get brunch, amongst other things.
So were the brunches and the rest of the culinary offer an idea that just come to you one day?
I have always loved the culinary arts. I've always loved to cook, even when I was a student, and we'd always get together around food: whether it was for lunch or for "late dinners" at 3 a.m. But my love affair with food really started when I lived in Lisbon, where we used to prepare meals for large groups in hostels, host visiting chefs, and try different spices and flavours from all over the world. It was there that I really fell in love with the culinary arts!
You say "we", but you're the one who is actually making the food, aren't you? Who are the other members of the Art Team?
I've been basically doing all the cooking myself for a year and a half now, but I have quite a few assistants: all of them very, very pleasant and very loyal. But we never run out of challenges. At the moment, just being in the hospitality business is a real challenge for me. I've spent my whole life moving between science and art, so this is a whole new ballgame for me.
Is there a demand for non-traditional, meat-free cuisine in Izola? Do you have a customer base? Have you made any converts?
I think that our customer base is slowly growing, or rather, in a way, we are building it ourselves. Interestingly, most of our regulars are not vegetarians at all. We have a steady group of 15-20 regulars who come in every day. If they miss a day, we know immediately that something is wrong - they're either not feeling well or they went on vacation. (laughs) Sometimes they even tell me that they are noticing changes in their bodies since they've changed their diet. Which is really nice. We also do a lot of take-away, where people take their lunch home or to the office.
This is pretty common in other countries, especially in Europe's major cities. Do you get any tourists at the Art Café? What percentage of your clientele are tourists?
For the most part, tourists are very impressed whenever they visit us. Most of them come in the summer, mainly travellers, we don't get many people who are here on vacation. We actually get a lot of international visitors from all over the world, who are amazed by the look and feel of the place and what we have to offer. I remember two film directors from Paris who came in for a meal and said, very enthusiastically: "Wow, we have nothing like this in Paris." And recently, a well-known American female skier came in every day for an entire week and was so impressed that she came back for a packed lunch before she left for her journey the next day. (laughs)
But the café is more than just a place where you can get food, it's also an art gallery, and a venue for literary, theatrical, storytelling and musical performances. How often do you host these events?
We just organically collaborate with different artists, as they are also part of our social circle. I would very much like to see our literary and storytelling project take off. At the moment, we are working with a great storytelling group that caters to both children and adults. We host these events 1-2 times a month. We also hold exhibitions regularly: 1-2 per season. Lately, various creators have been approaching us on their own, which is very exciting for us. I would also like to thank the Centre for Culture, Sport and Events, our excellent partner, for their support in all of this.
I would also like to quickly mention our involvement with the local community: some time ago, we organised a swap meet with Komunala Izola, which was very popular. I have also recently started working with the Intergenerational Centre. I'm looking forward to cooking and creating with the lovely ladies!
Last year we set up our ART KUHA institute, an incubator of artistic and sustainable practices, aimed at maximising creativity and networking in various ways. ART is one of the projects we will continue to build on in the future: the ultimate goal is to connect even more with the city's movie theatre and to establish this space as the cultural and social heart of the city.
Do you wish there were more creative spaces like this in the area?
Absolutely! I'm convinced that if there were more spaces like this, people would come together and get even more involved. In a way, supply generates demand. The Art Café Odeon is living proof of that. And once people sense that something is happening somewhere - something different, something powerful, they are drawn to it, they start to experience life differently... Most of our clientele, the locals, never even thought about trying a different diet, about drinking tea instead of coffee, until we showed up. The Art Café has, in a way, awakened this desire in them: it has offered them a new alternative, a more environmentally friendly alternative, one could say. In the absence of spaces like this, people tend to stay at home and go about their routine, not opening up, not getting to know each other... But this is precisely what life is all about. I'm glad to see that we are spicing up people's lives. You can feel it... Occasionally, someone will offer to help me in the kitchen. And it's wonderful to work together and help each other.
Why is it so important to stand out from the crowd nowadays and to always strive to offer something extra? In your case, for example, it's not just about making food, it's about a way of life?
Honestly, we aren't concerned with standing out, we just want to do what we love. For example, I don't make the same dish twice, not because I want to be special, but purely because I've always loved the challenge of doing things a little differently. I don't like routine. When I'm making food, I just let myself go and embrace the process. For example, on a rainy day, my food is a little different than it is on a sunny day. (laughs) Our kitchen is a "living" one, and it reminds people of what it really means to be alive.
Will we see you at the Pier of Tastes? It would be a great opportunity to introduce yourself to an even wider public.
Maybe you will. (laughs) We would really like to get involved, I hope we can make it at least once this year.
Check out the dates of the Pier of Tastes culinary event and experience the wide variety of Istrian food and drinks to choose from.
We are nearly at the end of our fascinating chat. Tell us more about yourself, what is your life philosophy?
My current life philosophy? Because it changes all the time ... (laughs) At the moment, I just want to make sure I have enough freedom and tranquility in my life for contemplation. To reflect on what I have done and where to go from here.
Where would you take your friends from different parts of the world, when they visit you in Izola? What are the three things that everyone should experience?
Let me think about where I usually take them. Well, I would definitely take them for a walk to Bele skale beach and the Strunjan Cliff. I would also show them the Besenghi Palace, the lighthouse beach, and take them to Bujol for some seafood. It would be great to be able to take them somewhere else in the future. I believe that Izola has a lot of potential, especially in terms of sustainable development and creating vibrant new content. The development potential of this municipality is enormous. And once this potential is fully unlocked and enjoyed by the locals, it will definitely become a magnet for tourists and other visitors. Because what is beautiful on the inside - if we stand together as a community - is bound to be beautiful on the outside as well.
Try to prepare your own tasty "art" dish with asparagus. Check out Tanja's recipe and be sure to add her secret spice: a touch of instant inspiration.