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When Italian chef Umberto Bombana was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017, the Hong Kong-based chef reflected on his incredible gastronomic journey. He joined hotel school in Bergamo at 14, and worked in Milan, Los Angeles, Paris and New York before moving to Asia in 1993. He established himself at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong’s Toscana, before opening his own restaurant, 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, in 2010. In two years it had won three Michelin stars and became the first and only Italian restaurant to do so.
Now Bombana aims to share his wealth of experience as mentor to Zih-Yang Chen, the North East Asia finalist at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018. Fine Dining Lovers caught up with him ahead of the big event, and chatted about inspiration, expection and why a chef’s journey is all about evolution.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef – what inspired you and what obstacles did you overcome to achieve your dream?
I was inspired by my grandmother, who cooked delicious meals, and a very nice chef from my hometown. When I was a child, I lived next to a very good restaurant, which was owned by a chef who was respected by everyone in town. In my teenage years, I even worked there for pocket money. These two lovely people are very important in influencing my career decisions. There were absolutely some obstacles encountered while chasing my dream. For example, long working hours and working during holidays. These prevented me from enjoying a full social life and meeting friends and family.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
Every time my guests are pleased with the food I cook, and want to meet me, I see it as a triumph. Knowing that I am providing happiness to guests makes me feel fulfilled. There have been no major failures, but sometimes dishes do not come out as I wish.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef, and what do you think you can offer him?
I expect him to love and be passionate about food. To be fully committed, hard-working and devoted. He must never find short cuts and he must learn things in a proper manner. In return, I can show him how to be focused on the dishes, how to refine a dish, and concentrate on the flavours of ingredients.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
It is about participating with love and passion, and at the end everyone is a winner. We have to respect everybody and everything we do. Those who are very serious, focused and passionate, that give the best of themselves, will be fulfilled, and winning or losing will not be so important.
You’ve been called ‘The King of White Truffles’. What’s so special about the white truffles of Italy, and are there any other Italian ingredients that you miss from home?
I am lucky to be in Hong Kong where I can order every ingredient I like.
Having lived in Hong Kong since 1993, which Asian ingredients have inspired you and why?
Whatever tastes good would inspire me.
Tell us about some of your latest dishes at 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana.
For this white truffle season, I have prepared a veal tagliata, braised salsify with mushrooms, veal cheek jus and truffle mashed potato. Also, blue lobster with autumn vegetable salad and alba white truffles.
Why is it important for you to always push the boundaries of Italian cuisine?
You have to evolve in life. Every time I see an ingredient I will immediately see ten ways to prepare it. It is important to always come up with new ways to enjoy food.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?
I am going to consolidate what we are doing at the moment.