An Italian in Hong Kong

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Hot on the heels of receiving this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant ceremony and a star turn at Identità Golose, Milan’s premier food event, notoriously shy Chef Umberto Bombana sat down for a candid conversation in Italian with FoodieS.

For nearly a quarter century, Chef Umberto Bombana has been an ambassador of authentic Italian taste in Hong Kong. But he did not plan it that way.

When he arrived in 1993, a short assignment managing Toscana in the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong was supposed to be just a mere stopover before moving on to greener pastures.

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“I didn’t think I would stay,” he recalled, sitting in the bar of Otto e Mezzo Bombana, his flagship restaurant in Hong Kong, as he sipped an espresso. “I had the opportunity to open an Italian restaurant. I thought I’d be here three months then leave.” But 24 years later “We’re still here!” he grinned.

When the hotel closed, the time was right to hang his own name on the door and Otto e Mezzo Bombana was born in 2010. The restaurant won two stars from the Michelin guide in its first year of operation, followed by three stars in its second year, an honor it has maintained ever since. Otto e Mezzo is in fact the only three-star Italian restaurant in the world outside of Italy. He is also ranked No. 4 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which itself is a spin-off of the World’s 50 Best, where the restaurant ranks number 60. This year the organizers of 50 Best gave him a Lifetime Achievement award.

But Bombana kept things in perspective. “I think both [Michelin and 50 Best] have been factors in developing the restaurant business in Asia,” he commented. “I tell my guys that awards are important, Michelin is perhaps the most important international guide, then Asia’s 50 Best, but most important of all is our customers.”

He has a reputation for being a little shy in interviews. “Ah!” he exclaimed coyly. “It’s part of the work. I was born in the kitchen and I’m always in the kitchen but one needs to learn to communicate more.”

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The native of Bergamo in northern Italy has always known that his place was in the kitchen. As a teenager when his contemporaries were more interested in kicking around a football, young Umberto was already working his way through some of the finest restaurants in the region, learning his craft the old-fashioned way, apprenticing under the guidance of masters like Ezio Santin at Antica Osteria del Ponte. Then came a decade at the star-studded Rex II Ristorante in Los Angeles and finally Hong Kong.

Years of experience have helped him overcome his reservations about speaking to the public. The chef has made promoting Italian products and Italian cuisine, and most notably Italian truffles, his life work. He was also enthusiastic when talking about his adoptive home. He can be seen saying a few words in Cantonese about delicious, fragrant food in Hong Kong in a video made for the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

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When he is not in the kitchen he can be found hiking around Clear Water Bay in Sai Kung or eating beef brisket noodles at local favorite Law Fu Kee. “The city is very livable. I can walk home in 20 minutes. I like the energy and the atmosphere of Hong Kong. It’s really beautiful. There are over 200 islands.”

“When you’re working, in my opinion, Hong Kong is the ideal city,” he said about the special administrative region. “I like working with my team here, they’re good guys. There is a steady flow of customers. Also if you find the right suppliers you can have the best products from around the world. There are no restrictions in Hong Kong and there are no import taxes so working conditions are good.”

What keeps customers coming back is the fresh pasta that he showers with truffles at the table; sgroppino, a blend or sorbet and gelato whipped together in another table-side show-stopper; and a seasonal menu that reflects the finest produce available, like an ethereal asparagus foam with morel mushrooms and celeriac in the spring. The restaurant also boasts an wide-ranging wine cellar reflecting excellent producers from all over Italy and around the world.

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He saw his ties to his diners on a very human level. “I have created a definite connection with the customers in Hong Kong,” he said. “And they are supportive of me.” It’s not hard to see why.

 

OTTO E MEZZO BOMBANA
Shop 202, Landmark Alexandra, 18 Chater Road
Central, Hong Kong
T: +852 2537 8859
www.ottoemezzobombana.com
Facebook: OttoeMezzoBOMBANA


Written by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan June 24, 2017.

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