Move to Hong Kong, at Mandarin Oriental Hotel, design the ideal stage for himself.
Mandarin Oriental is a hotel group emphasizes on their food and beverages section, and in additional, it was when they were opening the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel. If I do something, I would like to do everything from scratch instead of succeeding the old Mandarin Oriental history. I wanted to have all the decision rights and create my DNA of my culinary style in Hong Kong. But at that time, the hotel management gave offer to other restaurants as well. My mentor, Pierre Gagnaire, Heston Blumental of Fat Duck, and me.
I made dishes for the hotel’s top management. I’d presented dishes that best expressed my culinary style, such as pork with black vinegar, and tuna with soy sauce and maple syrup. I was so happy when I was told that “This project is yours”.
I guess the reason I was selected was, I have a rich experience in hotel management.
One year before the opening of the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel, I finished my contract in Barbados. So, I started thinking about the whole food and beverages section of a hotel. Not only restaurants, bars, and room service as well.
It was 2005 then and at that time, the main trend in Hong Kong was old-fashioned restaurants. Service staffs were wearing a bow tie and their service was so stiff. But I wanted to change it. In my restaurant, I prefer to put the music on louder and have the service show more of their individual characters.
You were also particular about the interior design. I like art décor design and it was the golden era of Hong Kong at that time.
So, I told the designer, Adam Tihany, I had been wanting to ask him to design my restaurant. He designed the famous huge wine tower in Charlie Palmer’s restaurant, Aureole. Staffs were referred to as wine angels and they picked the wine with a life rope fly and down. He was known for his dramatic design and I wanted to make my restaurant as dramatic.
For example, I was particular about the height of the celling. The hotel management said they would like to make this restaurant famous. So, I said, “If you really would like to express luxury in a crowded city like Hong Kong, the most important factor is space. We need to use two floors and make a high celling”. The real estate agent at the meeting laughed at me and said “This chef doesn’t know about the per square feet price of land in Hong Kong” and walked away. In next meeting, Adam, the designer joined and he agreed with me, so the high celling was actualized.
A journey to explore ideal ingredients, he finally finds Kyushu, Japan. The difference between palates of western people and eastern people.
Until now, you ‘ve been expressing cuisine which reflects the local culture, how did you do it in Hong Kong?
The opening was in 2006. Regarding the food, I first thought about using locally produced ingredients, but it didn’t work. I used local fish like grouper, XO sauce, but diners said that “ If I wanted to eat grouper, I’d go to a Chinese restaurant”. Some others said my menu was like Da Vinci code which can never be cracked”.
Actually, the local products in Hong Kong were limited to only some local vegetables and fishes. So, two years after the opening, I decided to look back on my background. I had my career on 4 continents, so I started using global products and cooking more freely.
That’s why you started using Japanese products?
Yes, I tried to find good products from areas nearby, and the best areas were Japan and Australia.
In Tasmania, Australia, there were very nice products. I was born and raised the town by the seashore, so I couldn’t compromise to the quality of seafood. But there were not many direct flights to Hong Kong and it also takes a long time. I couldn’t be satisfied with the quality.
Then, I flew to Kyushu, Japan, and found out the quality was great. It took only 2 hours to Hong Kong by airplane, and had direct flights 6 times a week. The fish which left Kyushu at 6 am arrived Hong Kong at 8 am and delivered to the kitchen at 12 noon. That was ideal for me, so I decided to use Japanese products.
You visit Japan frequently to find products.
Yes, not only normal Japanese produce, I decided to use premium products directly from the producers, such as Akauni (red sea urchin) or wild duck, the produces that Hong Kong people couldn’t eat unless they go to Japan.
At that time, I visited Japan every month. Even now, I’m going to Japan every two to three months. My concept, Japanese produce prepared with French cooking technique was widely accepted by people in Hong Kong. I have also shaped some of the flavors.
Is Asian palate very different from European’s?
At first, I was told that my stock was too salty. So, I decreased the amount of the salt, finally, I stopped using salt, but they still said the stock was salty. I was completely stumped.
I had been wondering why and found out the reason — Umami. My stock was too rich in Umami, and it was because of the difference in the chewing patterns between Western people and Eastern people. Eastern people are not only chewing, they grind the food more and thus extract more Umami and salt from the ingredients.
So, since around five years ago, I do use French fond or jus, I made base soup stock like how you’d make Japanese “dashi”. Not just making traditional dashi with kelp or dried mushroom, when I need meat stock, I will cure the beef or the pork and dry it, then grate it like bonito flakes. After I’ve made the kelp stock, I add it to the flakes and strain.
I wanted to make a flavourful and light meat dashi and it eventually led me to the method.