HONG KONG (Reuters) - Umberto Bombana's distinctive flair for refined, regional Italian cuisine has taken him around the world and earned his Hong Kong restaurant three Michelin stars in 2011, within just two years of opening.
After more than a year of soul-searching following the closing of the restaurant where he previously worked, Bombana opened "8 ½ Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA" in Hong Kong's glitzy Central district. The name is a salute to the Italian movie by Federico Fellini.
Bombana, who said his culinary journey centers on the plate and the food he serves, includes signature dishes such as cavatelli with a shellfish ragout and sea urchin. He also plans to open a new restaurant in Shanghai this month.
He spoke to Reuters about his passion for truffles and what it is like to cook for an increasingly sophisticated mainland Chinese clientele.
Q: What have you learned by being an Italian chef in Hong Kong for more than 15 years now?
A: "It's very pleasant. I'm very happy to cook in Hong Kong. We have people who dined in New York the day before they come here. They eat here, they go to Paris. It's a very international crowd here. So it's very fulfilling to cook for people with sophistication and high expectation. And for me, it's fun, it's a good challenge."
Q: A lot more of your guests come from mainland China - from Beijing, from Shanghai. How sophisticated are their tastes?
A: "Now they are learned. They have traveled. They have traveled to London, they traveled to New York ... They are very sophisticated and they have high expectations. They really enjoy looking for the best wine, for the best food, and have a great experience. The Chinese already have good taste. They have a tradition. They have 4,000 years of history of food, so they know. When they come here they expect to have a great meal. You don't change your style based on the client. You just do the best. If it tastes great, it tastes great for everybody."
Q: Some people have described you as the "King of White Truffles, how did you get hooked on them?
A: "Truffle is amazing. When you smell white truffle you are shocked. At first, people are a bit suspicious. But everybody, they become almost addicted to this smell because it's such a unique and intense flavor. I'm talking about the white one.
The intensity of the fragrance is amazing. When you start to work in an important restaurant in Italy, you've got to know all the best ingredients. From the area where I'm from -- it was in the Southern part of the Alps -- they found some truffles all over. When you first arrive, you have this smell in the kitchen. (It) smells like gas. It's so intense. You say, 'What's going on here?' so this is the white truffle. The stimulation you have is quite amazing."
Q: And how did you tame that in your cooking?
A: "We know traditionally how it's been used, so based on that you do your creation. White truffle, for example, you don't have to do too much -- simple pasta with a little butter and parmesan, or simple Eggs en Cocotte with white truffle is beautiful. Based on the simplicity, you do a beautiful taste ... Of course, the best things are eggs, risotto, simple pasta, where the truffle gives you the full personality, the full amount of flavor on the simple item."
Q: What is one thing you still want to do in your career?
A: "The restaurant is evolving; it's evolving all the time. There's always place for improvement. You need to search for new ingredients. You want to have organic vegetables. You want to present in different ways. You want beautiful china. It's a challenge really; you know your competition (is) amazing. For example, here we have 10 Michelin restaurants in this building. So you need to evolve all the time, be the best, please your guests. It's really a journey; you never stop in a restaurant. That's what excites me. I'm waiting for the season of the black truffles and the season of the white asparagus. Every season is something new, something happens. It's life growing, year by year, season by season."
Q: Your restaurant in Hong Kong earned three Michelin stars in just two years' time. How did you react?
A: "I was shocked, I was amazed. I'm fulfilled. That's the best that can happen to you as a chef, passionate about this job. There is nothing like Michelin. There are about 10 Italian chefs who have three stars. I'm the first three-star outside Italy. For me it's touching the sky. Most important as well are my customers, they're happy."
Aromatic Cheeses Risotto
Celery root and black winter truffle
240 g Carnaroli rice (1.3 cup)
4 teaspoons chopped shallot
40 ml white wine (2.7 tablespoons)
800 ml veal broth (3.4 cup)
40 g taleggio cheese (6.3 tablespoons)
40 g parmesan cheese
40 g butter (roughly 3 tablespoons)
40 g olive oil (just under 3 tablespoons)
40 g black winter truffle
40 g celery root (4 tablespoons)
(serving for 4 persons)
Braise shallot in olive oil. Add rice and toast for a few minutes. Add white wine, cook with broth for 12 to 18 minutes until ready. Add celery and then mix well with cheese and butter. Then slice Black Winter Truffle on top.
Additional reporting by Andy Ho; editing by Elaine Lies and Patricia Reaney