Carbone founder Mario Carbone gives Hong Kong a taste of New York
Successful chef takes time-honoured approach, giving people the food they enjoy most, in generous portions, and in an atmosphere reassuringly reminiscent of a bygone era
The opening of Italian-American eatery, Carbone, in Hong Kong two years ago heralded New York restaurateur Mario Carbone’s first eatery outside the United States. The 36-year-old already has 11 restaurants within his six brands across New York City, with one in Las Vegas. He’s also opening more restaurant brands at the famed Four Season’s site in Manhattan later this year and early next with his partners Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick.
With so much expansion and such a concentration of his restaurants within the New York City area, why would he come to Hong Kong? “I felt that Hong Kong chose us,” says Carbone, who partners with Black Sheep Restaurants Group in the city. “We were here on a bit of an eating tour, me and my business partners, and I had known a couple of Black Sheep employees who had previously lived in New York. So I messaged them about where to go eat in Hong Kong and that led me to [Black Sheep co-founders] Chris [Mark] and Asim [Syed Asim Hussain]. We really liked each other. I think our companies mirror each other’s well as we are similar in age and ambition. We are both centrally located in our indigenous cities. So not long after we got back to New York, Asim sent me a message asking me if I was interested in a space that they were looking at and doing a partnership with them in Hong Kong.”
Dining at Carbone is the same in New York and Las Vegas as it is in Hong Kong. The ambience transports you to another era, with white-clothed tables, impeccable service, Sinatra crooning in the background and traditional Italian-American fare with generous portions.
“The plan is, we are making food that is very familiar to you,” Carbone says. “I am not trying to wow you or impress you with something that you’ve never had before. Our job here is to give you something that you’re very familiar with, that you have had many times before and try to give you the very best version of that.
“At times we will be using modern techniques; I am a young chef and I have had versatile training background so I will use whatever technique I think is smart to produce that result, but the result is, familiarity.”
The restaurant has fast become a favourite go-to dining spot for family celebrations and fun nights out with Hong Kong diners.
“Carbone is the style of restaurant that I went to when I was young and still to this day, for a fine dining meal to celebrate something, these are the style of restaurants that I went to,” the restaurateur says. “They’re dying off a little bit in New York, but this style of restaurant was very important to me to build and preserve and to make as great as I could, so this nostalgic restaurant does mean a lot to me in my upbringing.”
Born and raised in Queens, New York, his interest in cooking came from his grandfather.
“As a little boy, my grandfather, my mum’s dad, was a huge food inspiration for me. I used to spend my time with him in the kitchen. He was always cooking. He always had an apron on. He wasn’t a professional chef but he had a tremendous passion for it. He was my first exposure to food and inspiration for sure.”
At 15 years old, Carbone was cooking fried calamari and red sauce in neighbourhood restaurants and foie gras in Manhattan.
“At 18, I went to culinary school and you are asked to get your own internship. That’s a tricky thing to do in Manhattan. There are a lot of students and not a lot of great jobs,” Carbone says. “But I was very lucky to land a great job with Mario Batali. He only had two restaurants and I was just 18. That was an interesting thing for me to watch. I watched him grow. I was a real bright-eyed, bushy- tailed kid who was soaking it all in, watching this happen. I’ve been blessed to have amazing mentors. Mark Ladnor, Daniel Boulud. I worked in Italy for a year and a half in the middle of nowhere, and where English was not even an option. So, though third-generation Italian American, I speak Italian, it’s a little rusty right now, but I do.”
Carbone partnered with Torrisi in 2009 and opened Torrisi Italian Specialties, a deli that served their own take on classic Italian-American sandwiches. The restaurant quickly evolved and they started serving prix-fixe dinner in the evenings. The restaurant was nominated for several awards. The partners teamed up with Zalaznick in 2010 and the three formed their restaurant group Major Food Group, and they have not looked back.
Besides three Carbone outlets, they also have ZZ’s Clam Bar in Greenwich Village; Dirty French - a classic bistro in the Lower East Side; three Parm Italian American restaurants on the Upper West Side, Battery Park and Soho, and a smaller one at Yankee Stadium; Santina, a coastal Italian restaurant created by Carbone situated on what used to be the coast of Manhattan, where some of the city’s first farmers’ markets once stood. And Sadelle’s, a bakery and restaurant in the heart of SoHo, famed for its bagels.
“I don’t have plans for further expansion in Hong Kong,” Carbone says.
“I am happy where Carbone is right now. I am happy with the cities that we’re in. We are actively working on a very big project in Manhattan right now.
“We are taking over the Four Season’s Restaurant in Manhattan and that’s an enormous undertaking. We are opening three restaurants in one building - three completely different concepts - and when that’s done, I may retire,” he jokes.
“It’s a big undertaking when you are creating something new. It’s easier if you are replicating something you’ve already done. When you’re doing something new, to keep it at a high level takes absolutely everything out of you. And to keep going to that well, eventually it will dry up. And you will not be as successful as you used to be. None of the new restaurants will be Italian.”