Spanish surprise: Michelin-star chef Jonay Armas on how he delights diners

Michelin-star chef Jonay Armas strives to delight with his diverse dishes, writes Bernice Chan

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 11:12am

Reading the menu at The Principal is like reading a shopping list of ingredients that don't necessarily go together. One dish reads: King crab, Alaska, avocado, yuzu, wasabi crème, grapefruit and herbs.

It's not until the plate arrives that you see it all come together - crab meat rolled up and covered with thin slices of avocado, decorated with flowers and herbs, garnished with bits of pomelo, more crab meat and rings of spicy, creamy wasabi encircling pools of olive oil and dollops of yuzu.

The bouquet of flavours, which at first seemed disparate, creates a refreshing and slightly spicy taste.

Head chef Jonay Armas, 31, seems to revel in surprising and delighting diners at the Star Street restaurant that garnered its first Michelin star last November.

According to Armas, the original concept for The Principal was an American steakhouse complete with aged meats and a top-of-the-line grill.

Armas was on holiday in Thailand after finishing a contract cooking at an independent restaurant in Bali when he got the call from The Principal.

The owners of the Press Room Group were so impressed by what he cooked that they scrapped serving grilled meats and settled on contemporary European, with an infusion of Asian and South American flavours. Armas creates many dishes through trial and error, and is inspired by all kinds of things - from food he has eaten, to paintings, flavours in cocktails and even ice cube moulds. He once saw some shaped like the stone heads on Easter Island, and used the moulds to create his own "Easter" dessert, featuring chocolate-covered ice cream Easter Island heads.

The ease with which Armas integrates different ingredients and flavours is perhaps thanks to his childhood on the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the coast of Morocco.

In his early teens, he knew he wanted to become a chef. He learned about growing vegetables, and when he didn't like what was served in the school canteen, he asked his mother to teach him some simple recipes.

After attending cooking school, Armas worked in Britain, followed by stints in the Canary Islands, Madrid and Barcelona.

He then moved to Aman Resorts in New Delhi, where he was tasked with presenting Spanish food to mainly vegetarian diners.

"Being in Delhi made me appreciate the small things in life that we take for granted here in Hong Kong," he says. "The Spanish restaurant I worked in offered Catalan fine dining and tapas. But I quickly found out that half the population is Muslim, half Hindu, and 60 per cent of the entire population is vegetarian. Some don't even eat root vegetables or eggs."

After New Delhi, Armas did a stint in Seminyak, Bali, before coming to Hong Kong a year and a half ago.

He is pleased to source at will for his dishes, and to have gained a Michelin star for The Principal.

"It was totally unexpected. At the end of the day, we want to make our guests happy," he says. "This is a big challenge for us to compete with other restaurants. We are serving modern European food, and we have to keep pushing to keep surprising our guests."

He notes that Hong Kong diners are extremely knowledgeable about food, and the fast pace of the city means it's a constant race to keep up with everything. This is a challenge he's keen to take on.