Reunion-born chef Philippe Orrico happy to be his own boss at Upper

After a culinary journey that has taken him from Reunion to Europe, and on a roller-coaster ride with the Michelin guide, chef Philippe Orrico is happy to be his own boss

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 November, 2013, 7:55pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 November, 2016, 1:48pm

Philippe Orrico, chef director of new bistro Upper, feels totally at home in Hong Kong, a city in which he has gained and lost a Michelin star. Even so, he has retained an attitude to cooking and ingredients that stems from his upbringing in a French colony and his training in France, which includes work at Michelin-star restaurants.

Orrico's Michelin star experience in Hong Kong started with a two-year stint at Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental and continued when he left his mentor Pierre Gagnaire to run the four restaurants at Hullett House, the renovated marine police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui. Gaining his first star for St George, a French restaurant, fulfilled an ambition.

The disappointment he felt when the star was withdrawn hurt him deeply, especially as the reason for the withdrawal was a mystery. Despite two meetings with Michelin representatives, he feels they have not given him an adequate explanation for the restaurant's removal from the guide.

Despite the setback, Orrico has moved on to open a bistro in Sheung Wan, an area that reminds him of the East Village in New York, with its mix of trendy art galleries and bars.

The well-travelled Orrico grew up on the island of Reunion, a French possession close to southern Africa and Madagascar. Reunion is host to five communities: Chinese from Hong Kong and Guangzhou; Indians from Malabar on the west coast; Muslims from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; and black Africans from the east of the continent, especially Kenya.

These communities have each brought their own ingredients with them to Reunion: spices from India; rice as a staple (which it is generally not in Africa), and many Chinese ingredients. "There is always some special soy sauce in my fridge," says Orrico.

The chef even has a soft spot for fried rice, which is known as Cantonese rice on Reunion; the familiar dish still reminds him of his island home.

Orrico also recalls the "fantastic" dates from the Middle East and Pakistan, and eating Muslim food like couscous and samosas around the time of Ramadan -

Being surrounded by high quality ingredients was a fact of life for the young Orrico.

"I didn't realise how special it was at the time," he says of the mix of fruits that were available, including excellent mango and lychees, and the indigenous flavouring vanilla bourbon.

Orrico left the French possession in pursuit of a girlfriend and realised he would need a job to support himself. An acquaintance in Bordeaux tipped him off to an opening as a trainee in a restaurant.

He phoned the restaurant on a Friday and was asked to turn up the following Tuesday. He got the airfare off his parents and caught a flight on the Monday.

A year at the restaurant was not long enough to convince him that he liked cooking. He took a course in decorative arts, travelled around Europe and discovered a passion for reading. He read two or three books a week: classics, poetry, crime fiction, anything that took his fancy. "It could be a book about penguins," he says.

Now he mainly reads books about food, as running a restaurant takes up too much time. "It's a shame," he laments.

Still unsure of what he wanted to do, he took a job at a restaurant in St-Émilion in Bordeaux. There he met a chef called Michel Souris - the Belgian chef's name really does translate as Michael Mouse - who was about to open a seasonal restaurant called La Tamarissiere.

The pay was low and the job would only last six months each year, but Souris said he would find him work at restaurants for the rest of the year.

The result was a job at the Chantecler restaurant in the Negresco Hotel in Nice, then a two-star Michelin venue. "This was the first time I had heard about Michelin," says Orrico.

The restaurant's head chef, Jean-Michel Lorain introduced him first to some Pierre Gagnaire DVDs that Orrico found fascinating. "Something spoke to me, something different, interesting," says Orrico. Eventually, Lorain introduced him to Gagnaire himself.

Their first meeting was not a success. Gagnaire didn't think Orrico was experienced enough to work for him, but Lorain intervened and a few months later Gagnaire agreed to take Orrico on.

Working for Gagnaire took Orrico from Gaja (Gagnaire's second Paris restaurant) to London and then to Hong Kong. Their working relationship lasted seven years and their friendship still continues.

Gagnaire's influence is not so much technical, although Orrico says Gagnaire is a superb technical chef, who inspires by the way he talks about food. When Gagnaire makes a sauce, he describes it in terms of moods such as "comfortable" or "sensitive" rather than in technical language. This sounds whimsical, but Orrico insists that Gagnaire is a perfectionist, whether he's making a green salad for his staff or a dish for a president.

Gagnaire is also not, as he is often portrayed, a practitioner of molecular gastronomy, Orrico says. While the application of science is certainly a part of Gagnaire's repertoire, Orrico uses the comparison of a jazz musician, improvising with flavours rather than notes.

"It might not be technically perfect each time but it is always touching." When Orrico felt it was time to cut the apron strings and move on, he took the post at Hullett House, and had his subsequent roller-coaster ride with the Michelin guide.

Now happy to be his own boss at Upper, Orrico says he is cooking in a more relaxed and less restricted style. The menu will change every three days, but some dishes are likely to become fixtures, such as the veal and foie gras slider that comes in a rich brioche bun. This dish started with the sauce - Orrico doesn't like the industrial cheese often used on burgers, so he replaced it with a sauce Mornay.

Orrico is also attached to a squab and tuna dish. He says this is not a Reunion dish, but is inspired by the island's way of spicing and its use of soy sauce.

It's a taste of home away from home.