La Dolce Vita

24 Nov 2014
5 min read
Umberto Bombana, Hong Kong’s undisputed King of truffles, speaks to Charmaine Mok about the parallels between food and film, cooking as artistic expression and finding solace in crises. As seen in FOUR’s International Autumn 2014 edition…

“Opening Otto e Mezzo in the centre of Hong Kong may well be the happiest moment in my life.” Umberto Bombana’s words come softly, with a measured cadence that leaves no doubt as to the authenticity of his statement. The chef is taking his time to reminisce about the day he unveiled his highly personal project to the city’s famously discerning diners, four years ago in early 2010. “It was a scary moment. It was exactly like Otto e Mezzo,” he says, referring to the Federico Fellini film to which the name of his restaurant pays homage. “The director [Guido Anselmi] was going through a crisis and so was I.”

Few hearing this now would believe his words, perhaps even less so if they had been present during our meeting on a hot summer afternoon in Hong Kong, and had witnessed the chef cheerfully thumbing through floor plans and printouts, contemplating which contemporary Italian paintings to hang in his next restaurant. The hugely successful Otto e Mezzo remains in the heart of Hong Kong’s business district and has maintained its three Michelin stars since 2011; the first two arrived just mere months after its christening, the third and final star cementing Otto e Mezzo’s reputation as the first Italian restaurant outside of Italy to achieve the accolade. Currently, the venue clocks in at number 10 on the San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and number 67 on the worldwide roster; there are sister restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing; and those restaurant floor plans Bombana was leafing through were for his fourth Asian conquest, Macau. February 2015 is the projected opening date, on the cusp of the lunar New Year—perhaps this will be an auspicious start for the chef who has for the past 21 years called Asia his home.

Born in Bergamo in northern Italy, Bombana arrived in Hong Kong in June 1993 to open Toscana at the Ritz-Carlton after a decade spent in Los Angeles working with the legendary Mauro Vincenti. Prior to that, the chef cut his teeth with Ezio Santin at Antica Osteria del Ponte—it was here that the then teenage Bombana first learned to cook with white truffle, an ingredient for which he would later become associated with. With not much of a reason to come to Hong Kong apart from youthful curiosity and a hunch that Asia was where he wanted to be, Bombana took the reins at the hotel restaurant and gained legions of fans over the next 15 years, surviving through first the political turmoil of a post- 1997 Hong Kong, and the industry-crippling SARS epidemic in 2003. The Ritz would eventually close in 2008 (before re-emerging across the harbour in 2012, with a renamed Tosca restaurant on its 102nd floor) and Bombana would spend the best part of the next two years soul-searching.

“It was a scary moment,” he says. “I asked myself, what kind of a restaurant did I want to do? What style—casual, or fine dining? In the end, you follow your heart, and what you like to do. Since I was working in hotels, I wasn’t sure if a freestanding restaurant like Otto e Mezzo would survive. It was very frightening. But even if you are lost, you need to try.” It is here the chef shows us exactly what he has learned from his adopted city.

In Chinese, the written word for crisis is a combination of the characters for danger and opportunity; the poetry is not lost on Bombana. “When you go through crisis, you are also going through opportunity,” he explains. “And you have the chance to create something beautiful. I lost a secure job at a hotel, and I had the opportunity to do something new. It could have been a disaster, or it could be a success.” We both reflect on this for a while.

I recall my first visit to the newly-opened Otto e Mezzo, still in its infancy. At once gleaming and rustic, the restaurant had a magnetism that was apparent from the beginning. A palette of deep sepias, cream and bronze suggested restraint; the zigzag of style from the Warhols and Picassos lining the walls were hints toward a chef ready to have a little fun. Several dishes remain in my memory: the vibrancy of a lobster and mozzarella salad, whose crowning jewel was a single Belon oyster soaked in Bellini, the peach nectar softly offsetting the brininess of the bivalve. Slivers of pata negra to bring the sweetness of lobster into sharp relief, cooling and creamy mozzarella to bridge the gap between salt and sugar. And the pasta—the “soul of Italian cuisine”, Bombana tells us—is tagliatelle with pork ragu and wild fennel, a riot of rich porcine flavour carried through in each bite of gloriously al dente noodles, as good as any local rendition of this classic combination of meat and wheat.

Today, the food has evolved, but is still tinged with familiarity —that Bombana touch. A riff on the classic Italian combination of ham and melon is distilled into a painterly appetiser combining a cold melon soup and slivers of pata negra. To drive the diptych of sweet and salty home, Bombana adds something extra: an olive stuffed with sweet raisin. Simple on the surface, but thoughtful all the way through.

“Food has to be honest. I don’t want to do something that might be intellectual, but fails to please the palate,” he says. “For me, you have to cook everything with affection, no matter your ingredients. It doesn’t matter if it is a white truffle, or a simple carrot. They’re all components of the kitchen and we need to produce beautiful food.” It may be difficult, come October when Alba white truffles are in season and fans flock to Bombana’s restaurant to experience the simpatico chef’s generous servings of the fragrant fungi, and that beautiful organic carrot is sidelined. When I ask if he feels tired of being known as the king of white truffles, he chuckles.

“Yes, I want to be known as a good chef, not just as a truffle chef! I’m famous for it, but white truffles are only around three months in a year,” he explains. “All ingredients are so beautiful. We are slaves to them, because knowing how to take care of them is worth more than our personal expressions as chefs. The first and most important thing is that you have to respect the ingredient.” His love for the bounties of the earth and sea also gave life to Ciak, his diffusion restaurant a mere minute’s walk away from Otto e Mezzo, in the adjoining Landmark shopping centre.

Opened at the end of 2013, the project allowed Bombana to present his favourite everyday foods in the format of a casual, deli-style eatery. Pizzas are made with organic fermented dough and natural yeast, and pastas are made fresh. And, as usual, the name is a film reference—in this case, the onomatopoeic clatter of a director’s clapperboard.

“It’s all open—the pasta station, the grill, the pastry kitchen —and so that’s where the action is. Ciak. I always seem to go back to film,” he says, smiling. “But in the film industry, you produce a movie and it’s finished. Then you might produce another one. Life in the kitchen is daily. It never stops, but I’m very happy with what I am doing and how I express myself. I live my dream.”