Umberto Bombana may be a chef, but he is also a charming host. At a recent dinner in Landmark’s 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo, he graciously welcomed guests into the dining room and more than once was spotted on the sidelines to make sure his carefully plated dishes were being enjoyed. Not that he had any cause to worry. 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo is the only Italian restaurant outside of the country’s borders to have received the honour of three Michelin stars, so you can be sure the food served is of a certain calibre.
And now, this Italian eating destination can add more accolades to its ever-growing list; Chef Bombana is the recipient of the 2017 Diners Club Lifetime Achievement award, while 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo recently placed fourth in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017.
From humble Italian beginnings, Chef Bombana chats to us about his vision of great food and why he loves Hong Kong.
Tell us how you came to be a chef, had you always wanted to work with food?
I found what chefs did in the kitchen so fascinating from when I was very young. Food is one of the greatest experiences that can offer enjoyment. When good food is served, people will come back again, and that is how I work on a daily basis. My first chef-mentor once told me that ‘a person has to steal the job with eyes’. You have to learn, to ask and to improve yourself. For me, I’m still not yet done with that.
You’ve been in Hong Kong for almost 25 years. Had you always planned to stay?
I was really excited about experiencing Asia and I enjoy the dynamism of Hong Kong. After Toscana closed, I felt that I wanted to open my own restaurant. I like being able to make the decisions, whether it relates to the culinary direction or the design of the space. 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana opened in 2010 and since then, we have expanded to Shanghai, Macau, and also to Beijing with Opera Bombana.
Congratulations on recently receiving the Diners Club® Lifetime Achievement Award. Do you value this type of recognition?
Yes, I see this as a recognition for both me and my culinary team. It is very touching to be on the list both for Asia’s & The World’s 50 Best as it represents my hard work in the industry for over 30 years. It’s an honour to be recognised by various renowned publications and to be seen as a role model in this industry.
How would you describe your style or approach to cooking?
Continuously making good food from the heart is my passion. The experience at our restaurants is all about delighting our guests, focusing on sophisticated dishes created from fresh ingredients to develop an appreciation of Italian cuisine. When good food is served, people will come back again, and that is how we operate on a daily basis.
Where do you find inspiration when creating new dishes and menus?
Most of my career is spent in Asia. I am very fond of it, especially Hong Kong. The city has its geographical advantage where food ingredients can be easily sourced and imported all over the world. It also nourishes the freedom of culinary creativity. My cooking style resembles the dynamic facet of Hong Kong people, energetic and lively. Hong Kong people do not waste a second. Therefore, it is very important to stay focussed and concentrate, as well as to be efficient when creating my dishes.
Is there an ingredient you have never used that you would like to try?
I’ve never really used some Chinese traditional herbs.
As a chef, do you prefer to be in the kitchen or meeting your guests?
I love cooking, so I prefer to stay in the kitchen.
How important is feedback from your diners to you?
My true belief in cuisine is to please my guests and impress them with sophisticated dishes that lure them into coming back. It is important for us to embrace, love and delight our customers. When they feel joyful, so do we.
Where do you enjoy eating in Hong Kong?
I think Hong Kong people should be proud of the local culinary scene they possess as it houses many food options, both very affordable and high-end. Some people may look down on local cuisine and that’s one of the biggest misconceptions. Even though in casual dining venues like wonton noodle restaurants, diners can savour some of the best local flavours.
Do you consider any country or city to be the pinnacle of good food?
It is hard for me to choose a particular place, as every city or country has something different to offer. We should see things with an open mind and appreciate all the efforts made by chefs!