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Umberto Bombana is a chef who is proud of his food, his heritage in the North of Italy – not far from Milan, and a chef who is proud of what he describes as his role of being an “ambassador for Italian flavour” to the many diners who visit his 8 e Mezzo Bombana restaurant in Hong Kong – the only three Michelin–starred Italian restaurant outside of Italy.
Bombana says he found a love for food and cooking listening to his grandmother’s tales. “She used to cook for an aristocratic family and I was fascinated by her stories. On the Sunday lunches we had a lot of fun and lots of interest to cook the meal for this family.“
After graduating high school he went straight to the local cooking school where he picked up a formal culinary education. He was then lucky enough to be accepted to work with Ezio Santin at the famous Antica Osteria del Ponte restaurant. “He obtained two of his three stars while I was working with him," says Bombana, “that’s where I started from the basics, working there for almost five years.” He loved working in his home country, but says he was always destined to leave Italy, “I was curious to travel and at that time in Italy you dreamed of going to America.” So that’s exactly what he did.
Fascinated with Los Angeles he started work at the world famous Rex restaurant. Rex was a well known restaurant and celebrity haunt, and was also the setting of the famous scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts is taken for her first fine dining experience by Richard Gere. While based in LA he went back to Paris and Lyon to pick up some classical French cooking techniques: “Still now, they are the strongest basics,” he says. But after nine years in LA, a contact with another chef led him to an offer to work in Hong Kong – the place he now calls home and a place where, thanks to zero importation tax on food, he can source some of the world’s best ingredients.
We caught up with chef Bombana ahead of the two exclusive dinners he will prepare at at Le Normandie, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, on 13 and 14 July 2016. The first dinner in a new Fine Dining Guest Chef Series initiated by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna.
How would you describe your cuisine?
I cook with the best ingredients from around the world. I try to use the best protein I can find – in Hong Kong there is no tax on the importation of food. That’s the advantage of being in Hong Kong – you can get everything from everywhere.
What do you miss most about Italy?
I miss my family there, the people from my hometown, going to a church full of 16th century artists – you have all of this history in Italy when you walk around. There is always a small town with their speciality – I miss this a lot. The regional traditions and culture. The fascination of discovery of a new town, a new place, a new taste. A ravioli from my home town, the Cassouela from Milan – I miss discovering all of these beautiful things that maybe a small valley has to offer. Some specific cheese, or some specific dish – that is the most fascinating thing for me. Everywhere there is something unique.
Why have you never opened a restaurant in Italy?
I’d love to open a restaurant in Italy, but you have to be there to live your theme and truly understand what do to. Maybe in the future with a great partner I will do it. I’m used to Hong Kong now, I made my routes here. Expressing Italian food outside of Italy I think is more fun. You express the cultural part of your country to another audience, it’s like being an ambassador and I love that. I’m very strict with Italian traditions in the kitchen – they want to have olive oil, oregano, not lemon grass. I really like to express the flavour of Italy.
What would you do if you weren’t a chef?
A farmer or a philosopher. I think you need to think – farmers are in contact with nature and see everyday life and I really like that. I’d rather see meat or touch vegetables than work on a computer or something like that. Philosophy is the basics of our life, why are we here – what pleases us, what we do. It fascinates me.
Tell us more about the dinner in Bangkok.
I will do some classic dishes with interesting proteins that are very famous in Asia. I do a carpachhio of New Zealend Red Abalone – I confit the abalone for almost two days and then slice very thinly. I will do some classic flavours of Italy – for example, the dessert will be a classic ricotta cake but what I do is buy my own milk, I use lemon, make my own ricotta and I will do the ice cream with that as well – a classic dish from Tuscany. I like to go deep into the Italian tradition and flavour and put it in a beautiful way to eat. See the full menu.
What do you think about Massimo Bottura's recent win at the World's 50 Best Restaurants? What does this mean for Italian cuisine?
What I first must say is that Italian cuisine is the most poplar in the world – in America it was the most popular. What is considered as Italian cuisine, maybe is considered more like casual food like pizza and pasta, something. But everywhere you go it’s popular – you go to England, France, America, Hong Kong. It’s a very popular food but at the same time it’s seen as more simple, family and casual food, but in Italy we have lots of sophistication – we teach the whole world to hold a fork and knife and the win of Massimo and this shows a whole new side of Italian cuisine to the world. With the win of Bottura and other famous chefs in Italy – all the great chefs in Italy are bringing a refined aspect to Italian food – it’s not only considered a casual food.