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Q & A: Philippe Leveille

The Frenchman, whose Central restaurant, L'altro, earned a Michelin star just four months after it opened last year, talks to Vanessa Yung about the benefits of working with his mother-in-law


Why did you become a chef? "My father used to be an oyster farmer in Brittany [France] and I would have been a skipper on a sailboat if I hadn't become a chef. But I had constant contact with restaurants and I was fascinated by the people working in the kitchens, so I went to study at a culinary high school. I was fascinated by [legendary French chef] Paul Bocuse when I was a kid - I wanted to reach his level and it pushed me to try very hard."

How did you come to settle in Italy? "I fell in love. I started working at Miramonti L'altro [L'altro's Michelin two-star sister restaurant in Brescia, Italy] - it is my wife's family's business and she works there. It was very hard for me to settle down in Italy. At the beginning there were a lot of problems with journalists because they were saying a French chef cooking Italian is not workable. But then [after a few] years I earned the stars."

What was it like working with your mother-in-law? "The kitchens in France that I worked in were usually managed by men. So going into a restaurant where the kitchen was managed by an old, traditional lady was the strangest part. She has a lot of capacity and taste but a very different technique and way of organising the kitchen. With her, I really understood what Italian cuisine is. I created my own style [with] the knowledge she passed to me."

How would you describe your cuisine? "I can't say if it's more French or Italian. It's simply my own. I'm not trying to be pretentious but the two cuisines are both part of me. So I do my dishes without thinking whether they're French or Italian. My signature dish is the one-side-grilled pigeon. [It comes with] chorizo, squid and a foie gras and bisque reduction sauce."

What do you make of the Hong Kong wet markets? "My chef de cuisine, Antimo Maria Merone, and I have been to the markets many times. We enjoy discovering new products; the markets really represent how Hong Kong people treat their food. It must be very alive, very fresh. It has given me a lot of inspiration to create dishes by introducing some elements but not cutting off the food from the past. We've found a soy sauce from a shop in Kowloon which has a very different taste and flavour, and we've been using it so much. On the new menu, we've got a spaghetti with tea sauce and red prawn tartare. So it's the mixing of Hong Kong elements with Italian cooking. We also make dishes with ginger and lemongrass. I knew those ingredients before but didn't use them much. Now I'm trying to use more of them. It's because I like them, not because I have to adapt to the market."

What are some of your favourite food discoveries in Hong Kong? "I try whatever I come across. I've had some really good char siu, but what I like most is xiao long bao. The only problem is that I'm still not very good at using chopsticks. But I'm practising."



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Q & A: Philippe Leveille

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