Has anything changed since Ultraviolet received its third Michelin star last year? “It hasn’t changed at all – at least commercially. It’s a very small place [10 seats at one table], so it has always been full. And it’s not as if I was unknown [before Michelin] – I’m on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list [No 24, and No 8 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants].
“The only thing is personal – kids dream of having three stars. But I’ve been realising my dream with Ultraviolet. I knew when I did this that nothing would supersede it – even the third Michelin star. But I was nicely surprised that Michelin was finally able to rate us at the ultimate level – we’re a difficult case because we are a different restaurant [Ultraviolet guests meet at Mr & Mrs Bund before being bused to the restaurant’s undisclosed location for an immersive dining experience featuring multi-sensory technology].
“It would have been easy for them to say, ‘It’s very good food but because of the context, it’s difficult to put you inside the traditional rating.’ I’m happy that Michelin did that – it’s one of the most daring statements because it contradicts the opinion that Michelin is historically extremely traditional.”
Is it hard coming up with ideas for dishes? “I have a book full of things – a collection of leftover ideas that just didn’t fit into the menu. To make dishes is not complicated, but to make a menu is. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not just the food, it’s the whole experience. Each dish defines a main idea – it’s extremely basic. If you do a dish with truffles, of course you need to evoke the feeling of something very earthy, some wood. We try to be primitive, but even with that, it’s difficult to fit everything together, the right music, the right context, etc.”
How often do you change the menu? “We’ve created only three menus since 2012. But that’s about 66 dishes. You have some chefs who have gone their whole career with just 40 dishes. I can do a lot of dishes for The Chop Chop Club, but in the context of Ultraviolet, they have to be meaningful to me. Ultraviolet is an egocentric restaurant – it’s very much the communication of myself.”
Why did you open in Shanghai? “It was circumstantial. I had wanted to do this project since 1996, in Australia [but he could not secure the funding there]. I wanted to open a very little restaurant, getting rid of all the constraints of à la carte. That’s the advantage – we know what time people will eat, because we impose the time [guests eat simultaneously], and we know what they will eat because we impose the choice [only one menu is offered per night].
“It’s like cooking at home – you know exactly what you are going to do and when you are going to do it. At other restaurants you have four guests sit down at a certain time and they order four different starters. That’s something you take for granted but that’s not the naturality of cooking. It means that most of the things have been pre-prepared, to be able to serve them at the same time. The conditions we have at Ultraviolet are the best conditions for every chef in the world. Anyone who can enforce the time and the menu will perform at their best.
“You know, normally, I never do interviews with someone who’s never been to Ultraviolet? [N.B. this writer has never been.] It’s because what I say is stupid, it’s meaningless if you cannot put an image to what I’m saying. It sounds pretentious. The more I explain the more I will entrench myself in something that is meaningless.”
What do you eat for comfort food? “I’m the easiest person in the world – but I hate mediocrity. Mediocrity is the lack of honesty. Even for a pizza – I don’t need it to be the best pizza in the world. I need to understand that the place where I went is in tune with what they propose, what they serve and what they say. What matters is the sync between what you have on the plate and what you were expecting.
I can eat fast food – I can even go to McDonald’s. I always talk about the taste before the taste – the preconceived notion of the taste, and it works everywhere. Even when I go to McDonald’s, it’s working. I’ll order a cheeseburger and before I eat it I taste the cheeseburger because I’ve eaten it before and I have the expectation. And the good thing about McDonald’s is that it’s consistent.
For me, taste is this – it’s the differential between your expectation and the reality of the physiological taste when you ingest the first bite. So depending on how much you’ve been building it up before, you might be disappointed or you might be surprised and have a fantastic memory.”