Many Hong Kong chefs view food as an adventure with no boundaries as they seek to give eager diners new taste sensations
Legendary chef Pierre Gagnaire cannot stop playing with his food. During a recent visit to Pierre in the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong, the personable Frenchman turned out dishes with unusual presentations - even placing food on the rims of plates.
His food is clever - a jelly made of Guinness, black pudding topped with a thin slice of green apple, and a roasted beef fillet accompanied by beetroot syrup and bone marrow.
Gagnaire is known for revolutionising French cuisine, deconstructing traditional cooking and creating new tastes and textures. But breaking from centuries of traditional Gallic cuisine was not motivated by mere rebelliousness.
'I worked in our family restaurant because I was the oldest, so it was not my choice,' Gagnaire explains. 'I matured early because my parents didn't have time for us children, so it was challenging. The atmosphere was intense.
'I decided that one day I would work for myself, respect people who work with me and we will have a fight, but not a war. You need energy. When you give energy, you have power.'
He channelled the power into his signature restaurant Pierre Gagnaire, garnering three Michelin stars, and continues to innovate.
'You cannot take anything for granted. My mission is to be honest. When the customer comes here to spend time, you must serve them pleasure. I try to use the best materials we can find. I am not a fan of new techniques [molecular gastronomy]. It's about the combination of flavours.'
Colour plays a big role in Gagnaire's dishes. He likes using omyza, or sea-buckthorn, from Korea that is high in vitamin C. He also likes serving beetroot with oysters and cheese. 'You must play with the produce because it's living. For example, Hong Kong's green beans are different from ones in Provence, so the approach must be different,' he says.
For Bo Innovation's 'demon chef' Alvin Leung, cooking was a necessity to survive in his younger years. It later led to the sound engineer breaking out and taking adventurous diners to the edge of 'X-treme Chinese cuisine'.
'A dish should have flavour, texture, appearance and smell, but I'm doing it differently,' Leung says at his Wan Chai restaurant. 'We take Chinese food, play with your sentiments, memories of it, and then take you to the border; you won't fall over the edge, but you get excitement. If the food is uncomfortable, you won't eat it.'
One of the dishes on his tasting menu is a raw oyster topped with a foam of green onion, ginger and a dash of lime sauce. The foam is light and has subtle hints of the seasonings to complement the fresh seafood taste.
'We Chinese use a lot of ginger and green onions to flavour dishes but not to overpower them,' he says. 'Westerners have this misconception that we eat the ginger and green onion, but we leave those on the plate.'
With the mui choy ice cream with foie gras, Leung reasoned the preserved vegetable usually goes with fatty pork, so why not substitute it with goose liver? 'All my dishes are engineered,' he says. 'Why not use all these things we didn't have years ago? We are being Westernised while the West is being Easternised.'
Spanish chef Paco Roncero also takes his diners on a culinary adventure. His new View 62 by Paco Roncero, at the Hopewell Centre, offers interesting interpretations.
While there's philopizza - a phyllo pastry stick generously seasoned with tomato powder - and chocolate mousse dessert dipped in liquid nitrogen, there are also traditional cooking techniques such as slow-cooked salmon with deconstructed tartar sauce, or braised beef shank with potato puree.
Roncero aims to create a type of cooking that 'people are intrigued to try. The whole process is experiential. I am lucky that my cuisine is not restricted to one form, so I can be as adventurous as I like.'
His ambition to explore comes from having worked with elBulli's Ferran Adria, where Roncero learned 'to view food as a science experiment. A single product was never the finished work. Take a potato - boil it, fry it, mash it, cook it - keep going until you have explored every way in which to modify it. Then start adding flavours and textures. The opportunities are endless.'
Roncero aims to move beyond molecular gastronomy and towards creating what he calls nouvelle cuisine, even though the term has been used before. He is keen to be part of the Hong Kong food scene as he considers the city one of the world's culinary hubs. 'It is a leader in cutting-edge design and innovation - everything that my food tries to represent.'
While Seiji Yamamoto's dishes seem revolutionary, his Michelin three-star Tokyo restaurant RyuGin pays homage to the past with creative tweaks. His new branch on the 101st floor of ICC in West Kowloon offers modern kaiseki cuisine. One signature dish is charcoal-grilled alfonsino with roasted rice over the skin, a different take on sushi.
Recently in Hong Kong, Yamamoto stressed he was not bound by his predecessors, nor was he doing things for shock value. 'I am not changing things for the sake of innovation. It's about a Japanese doing Japanese cuisine and delivering the message that it can evolve much like French cuisine.'
Returning to his version of sushi, Yamamoto explains the charcoal grill is a traditional Japanese cooking technique. 'There is no direct heat and as fish have fat on them, this grill burns the fat from the heat from the inside. As a result, the skin of the fish is crispy, but too thin to have crunchiness, so I added roasted rice on top combined with soy sauce and vinegar, similar ingredients to regular sushi.'
He becomes animated when explaining the famous strawberry dessert that, when the sugar case is broken, reveals ice cream powder that is then complemented with hot strawberry jam - hot, cold, soft and hard.
He used sucre souffle, or blown sugar, to create the shell of the fruit and then decided the inside should be cold. 'We tried apple mousse and the ice cream, but that ruined the moisture of the sugar shell. By using liquid nitrogen, I could make the ice cream into a powder, which solved the problem of moisture and also was easier to put into the shell.'
Another aspect of Yamamoto is his keenness to share his techniques - on YouTube. 'It's like surgeons who find a new technique and hold a conference to share what they've learned. I want chefs to take what they have learned from the videos and apply it to their own cooking.'