A KITCHEN EXPOSÉ began about 15 years ago. One by one, dining rooms across the globe demolished a wall to reveal their inner workings.
Like a colony of industrious ants, chefs in whites could be seen going about their cooking business. “The pass”, that gleaming metallic table, where head chef snaps a towel from his shoulder, wiping at minuscules of imperfection before declaring food ready to go, was centre stage and the show had begun.
No longer were diners content with food and talk du jour. Now, they were hungry for entertainment, they wanted to see dishes created, to hear the chop, the sizzle, the steam. They wanted to be a part of things. And so began the modern dining room as we know it, with Chef the headline act, his team the chorus and guests a rapt audience.
Perhaps, given the continued rise of the celebrity chef and the near-constant media chatter over food in the last decade and a half, the trend for the open kitchen has endured, and most certainly so at Caprice. The Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong's multi-Michelined restaurant features a kitchen exposed in its entirety, where chefs marshal pans and rock-chop leaves in a constantly evolving backdrop to the gentle murmur of dinner-time conversation.
The dining room, with white cloths, leather chairs and Czech crystal chandeliers that sling light in spears, is opulent chic and yet comfortable, complemented by floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook that always-killer harbour view. In tailored black jacket and bow tie, Head Sommelier Sebastien Allano has a knack for greeting guests like old, very admired friends. By the highest standards, this is an exclusive destination sure to impress.
And yet now there is more. With chefs reaching the pinnacle of celebrity in their kitchens, we, the guests, still crave. Yes, we can see him deftly grill a line-caught sea bass or caramelise a pigeon, but can we ask him why he is grilling rather than poaching, or how to test the doneness of the bird? Not so much. But we want to.
Not a place for laurel-resting or, for that matter, ignoring what its public wants, the Four Seasons has responded to this younger yet irrepressible desire for access to all areas.
“It's best if you know me,” says Caprice's Fabrice Vulin, about getting a reservation at his Chef's Table. The experience, which promises his lavished time and attention, and up to eight exclusive courses, takes place in a closeted room linking the main kitchen and Caprice's heralded “cheese cave”. Omakase with a French makeover, each evening's menu is created according to the nightly whims of whatever the chef is besotted with at that moment.
“Here we can do what we cannot do for 60 covers in the main room. Like this,” says Vulin, in accented English, cupping his hands around a bunch of thick asparagus spears. He turns to manager Sébastien Boudon, who translates. “Like last night,” explains Boudon. “Chef cooked a bunch of asparagus on the stove in front of the guests. It took an hour to perfect.” Vulin marches to a stovetop, perfectly positioned in front of a large window running the length of the private space. He indicates the ease with which he can view guests (parties of between four to six) and they him. “It is very personal. Very interactive,” he says. As long as you are in his Rolodex.
When Vulin took over the Caprice kitchen in 2013, there was much talk about his influences. It's true that diners are invited to tear hunks off a round loaf at the start of their meal. Made using semolina, this bread has a Moroccan flavour said to tribute Chef's time running two restaurants there. The same goes for the preserved lemons, bulbous and magnified, found in rows of glass jars in the cheese room. At Chinese New Year, pigeons on the menu seemed to suggest he'd succumbed to some Eastern culinary charm. But today, arms crossed, eyes narrowed, Chef is resolute. His inspirations come from France's seasonal produce. “People come here to eat French and so that is what we give them,” he says.
And so the focus of what's on offer at the Chef's Table shows off only the most seasonal and fresh. And when he says seasonal, Vulin means in season in France. Nowhere else. The chunky asparagus he brandished earlier is available for one month, in rare cases two, and then is gone. Like with a pulse-racing holiday romance, he tries to make the very most of this fleeting pleasure before it disappears. When we meet for a special tasting session, his dishes mark something of a seasonal crossover, highlighting the last of the season's spears and welcoming a new tide of good seafood, which Chef is diving into like a shrewd seagull into the ocean.
In one sculptural dish that resembles coral, we dip forks into a round platter of green asparagus stalks concealed in coiled white asparagus, presented on a pastry disc and dotted with clusters of caviar. In the second, a hearty slather of Kristal caviar partners sea bass and spider crab and crowns a chilled risotto and piped crème anglaise. If the first, with a fresh crunch and hints of saltwater tang, was a walk to the ocean bed, then the second, cool and frothy, celebrates the bounty of the creatures swimming through the waves.
Next, plump and succulent langoustines curl between morels in an intriguing, and winning, combination that pairs the flavours of earth with water on one plate. After this, jus-glazed veal sweetbreads wearing a coat of crunchy breadcrumbs are served with a single asparagus spear embroidered with a tapestry of green sprigs and capers. This is fine food, made better. “We like the food to taste as it looks,” Chef comments when asked about his pernickety quest for purity of flavour.
I'm not sure what a piece of 1998 beef should look like, but I would imagine probably not, as it does here, dangerously good. Like any top chef would, indeed should, Vulin has saved the best for last. This cote de boeuf, by the young French artisan butcher Alexandre Polmard, a friend of Chef's, is from a vintage collection, and was flash frozen in prime condition at minus 45 degrees, rather like some space-age experiment, using nitrogen. Yet, as it falls from Chef's knife, in what is surely tableside dining in its highest form, to reveal tender slices glowing garnet inside, not one thing feels futuristic (unless you count the seeds of a possible newly emerging trend). Indeed, for any keen terroirist, here is a pièce de résistance that is both remarkable and fabulous: a precise culinary pinpointing of a past place and time.
There are many exclusives at Caprice's Chef's Table: bespoken French plateware designed by Chef himself and only available here; personal time with the creative kitchenmeister; a tour of the cheese cave between courses six and eight (dessert, by the way, which follows, could or could not be lemon mousse or rum baba, whim dependent). Yes. Many exclusives. But that beef is really some departure.