How the stars came out for the 'flower pot' man

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 December, 2011, 12:00am

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Uwe Opocensky, executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental since 2007, oversees all the property's food and beverage outlets. And he's clearly doing something right, because under his tenure the hotel has won Michelin stars for three of its dining rooms: Pierre has two, Mandarin Grill + Bar has one, and this year Man Wah also earned a single star.

Opocensky was born and raised in Worpswede, Germany, and has worked in top-end restaurants around the world. But he considers the time he spent working alongside Spanish master Ferran Adria in the kitchens of El Bulli as the most formative in his career.

Opocensky's extremely imaginative approach has earned him a keen following among foodies for dishes such as 'flower pot' salad, which resembles its title in forensic detail, edible soil and all.

Your food has been called culinary theatre - why the showmanship?

People want to be entertained these days. If it's just food that you want, go to a fast food outlet or a brassiere where you don't have to think too much about what you eat. But for fine dining, you need to add another element.

Who do you consider your biggest culinary influence?

Many of these ideas I have had for a long time, but the man who opened the door that was always locked was Ferran Adria. With him, it's much more than food - it's about what you can do with it. It has no limitations as long as it tastes right. But it's a very fine line, because if you go too extreme, people won't understand what you're doing.

There's an element of surprise in your dishes, but after a second or third tasting that novelty can wear off. So how do you keep things fresh and original?

It is exhausting, but that's part of what we have to do. If you ask Mick Jagger or Elton John if they're happy singing the same song over and over, or if they'd rather create something new, I'm sure they would opt for the latter. Do they find it exhausting? No doubt they do. It's the same thing.

Keeping with the Jagger theme, what do you consider your Satisfaction - the one dish diners demand again and again?

There are a few, but it would have to be the flower pot salad.

How is the flower pot's 'soil' made?

One part is the rocket cream, which has rocket, raisins and coconut cream. The other side of the soil is made from pumpernickel and black olives. [The texture is] part of a dehydration process and, depending on the season, there are generally 15 to 18 [types] of greens in one pot.

What was the first thing you did when you got the call that the Mandarin Grill + Bar was awarded its first Michelin star in 2009?

I called my wife. She was at ThreeSixty [supermarket] and she burst into tears when she heard. It was a lifelong dream to have a star. I've talked about it, dreamed about it since I was 16, when I started cooking. [When the Hong Kong edition was published] in its first year, we didn't even get recognised, which was so disappointing. But it only pushed me to do better. Then the following year, we finally got the call, which was amazing.

Describe a typical day in your life

I wake at 6am and go for a run, which helps clear my mind. I get to work at around 7.30am and after my cup of coffee, I walk around each outlet to make sure everything is up and running. I usually help out at breakfast and then there are meetings with the food and beverage director and sous chefs. Then it's another check of operations and some tastings. I also look at the ordering, receive goods and check them off. By 11.30am, I have more briefings. At midday, we start service at the Grill.

I grab a quick bite to eat with my pastry chefs and executive sous chefs around 2.15pm - we try to talk about non-work-related things for 20 minutes or so. Then I do some paperwork from 3pm to 5pm. After that, I meet with my development team where they present the dishes and I do tastings. At 6pm, I run around to check operations again. I start service at the Grill at 7pm and run between the Grill and Krug Room and any special banqueting events (tonight we are hosting an event for Dior). Then I wrap up and I'm usually home by 11.30pm.