Chef Umberto Bombana of Hong Kong’s three-Michelin-star Italian fine dining restaurant 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana is often dubbed “The King of White Truffles”. Diners frequently wax lyrical about the generous portions of truffle in his dishes. Bombana is known for his Italian cuisine woven with creativity and great produce, which he personally sources.
A native of Bergamo in Northern Italy, Bombana arrived in Hong Kong in 1993 to helm Toscana at The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong. After Toscana’s closure in 2008, the chef launched his own restaurant, whose name is a tribute to his favourite Italian art film, 8½. The highly acclaimed restaurant received three Michelin stars in 2012, and has retained its stars for six consecutive years. It is also the first and only Italian restaurant outside Italy to receive this honour. The affable chef has also expanded his culinary empire to Shanghai, Beijing and Macau.
You have achieved a lot in your career. What else do you hope to accomplish in this lifetime?
I think to be happy, you have to create your own challenge. I would like to continue to refine my cuisine, search for new ingredients, and find new techniques. I’m a chef more than a businessman. When you travel, you see new things, you meet new people, but the restaurant is where your heart is. I still cook these days. It relaxes me.
Your restaurant has maintained its Michelin stars all these years. How do you keep the standards consistent?
You have to be on top of the situation and keep up in the kitchen. You do look into new techniques and learn from other chefs you meet. However, some techniques don’t last very long. For example during the past 10 years, there was molecular cuisine but it didn’t last long. In general, people want to eat rich, intense food, that’s satisfying and delicious. If you do too much to the food and it’s too visual, it’s sometimes not so pleasant on the palate. It’s extreme and avant garde, but it’s not my style. Now we go back to substance, the ingredient, the technique and the flavour.
What do you think about collaborations with young talents, including chefs like Kirk Westaway?
It’s the exchange of ideas. I need to see how the new generation work on their food. For this collaboration, besides discussing on the phone, I also met Kirk in Hong Kong to organise the menu together. Kirk’s very visual. I like his tomato dish (heirloom tomato with basil and burrata). It’s a great concept; the taste is familiar but the dish is presented in a different way. He has a good classical base, and he does pleasant food.
What’s your advice for young chefs who are starting out in their career?
Firstly, study. Secondly, you have to enjoy what you do. Because it’s very heavy work. When I was younger, I sometimes worked 16 hours. Thirdly, you have to follow your dreams. You have to love what you do. Of course, you need to respect the products too. And you have to build up a great team around you. Without a team, you can’t go anywhere. Many staff members have been with me for a long time, and one has worked with me for 20 years.
What are your favourite food memories?
Every Sunday was a food memory. My grandmother and mother taught me how to cook. We cooked according to the seasons. We would prepare asparagus or mushrooms. We made fresh pasta, such as meat ravioli. During Easter, we would eat lamb, as flocks of sheep would pass through our town in search of grassland. I’m originally from the southern part of the Alps (called Prealps) close to Milan. It’s a beautiful countryside with a lot of grass, trees and animals. There, you get things like porcini mushrooms, and wild raspberries and blueberries.
What sort of Asian ingredients have inspired your menus?
Spices from Indonesia and Thailand. And produce from Japan; we import a lot of things from farms in Fukuoka, and seafood from Hokkaido. Recently, I went mushroom hunting in Yunnan and found very fragrant matsutake. Even the vegetables there tasted so nice. Maybe it’s due to the altitude and the soil. It is fascinating. The food is very nice too.
What ingredients would you travel for?
Truffles! Last week I went to Kyoto to eat matsutake mushrooms. I would travel to Denmark and England for the shellfish which is quite amazing. I would even travel to eat great Thai food.
Is there one thing that you will never eat?
I suppose whatever that doesn’t poison me, I would like to try.