How does Hong Kong differ from Tokyo? “The energy here – it is different from Tokyo, which feels more like a town, very organised, not noisy or crazy busy. In Hong Kong, people are always in a hurry, and talk to each other more with expressions, like Italians. I like to eat the Peking duck, dumplings, fried rice, barbecue pork, tapioca pudding with mango.”
What are your childhood memories of food? “My grandma and mom cooked at home and as a family we ate together every day. My hometown, Treviso [in northern Italy], is in the countryside, and we had a farm where we ate chicken, rabbit, vegetables – very healthy food. My grandma was a very good cook and made traditional Italian food. Once a week we would have baccalà, Vicentina style – salt-dried cod fish marinated in milk and cooked with onions until it becomes creamy.”
How did you become a chef? “When I was 13, I washed dishes in a pizzeria for the summer. A year later I worked as a waiter in a trattoria but I was too shy to talk to customers. The owner suggested I go into the kitchen, so I started peeling potatoes. When I was 15, I started a five-year culinary programme – three years in, I decided to become a chef.
“At 18, they sent me to Michelin two-star Al Bersagliere, in Mantua, for an internship. I didn’t know what Michelin was – I only knew about the hotel star ratings so I wondered why I was sent to a two-star hotel. I had worked for a three-star hotel and the restaurant was terrible. But here it was a different world and I fell in love with this place.
“I realised I needed to improve myself in fine dining. I didn’t have money to buy culinary books so I had to save up. To me they were fascinating because there was perfection and elegance behind each plate, explaining why you need to cook this way or cut this way. No one had explained that to me before.”
What did you learn from working for Heinz Beck, of the three-Michelin-starred La Pergola, in Rome? “He would always say, ‘Are you cooking for the customer or the chef? The customers come to your restaurant again and again. With chefs you want to impress them with a new technique or concept. This restaurant is for customers, not chefs.’”
Why did you go to Japan? “In 2009, I went to work at Nihonryori RyuGin [a Michelin three-star restaurant run by chef Seiji Yamamoto], in Tokyo, for three months. In Italy, there are no techniques for fish; we just do carpaccio and drizzle it with olive oil. I wanted to learn more. I was shocked because I didn’t know anything about Japanese culture, not even how to use chopsticks. It was a lot of information for me to process every day. RyuGin was only open for dinner, but we worked from 12pm to 5am. There was a lot of preparation and, afterwards, Yamamoto would go to Tsukiji market. He never sleeps – he’s like a vampire!
“The three months were intense but he showed me his techniques in making marinades, cutting fish, making consommé, soup, cured fish. RyuGin is the No 1 restaurant when it comes to techniques.”
In 2011, two years after Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin opened at the Bulgari Hotel in Tokyo, the restaurant got its first Michelin star. How did you feel? “I didn’t expect it – it was like a Christmas present. I was very emotional. Since then I have tried to improve to achieve the second star.
“In the first two years, I used ingredients from Italy, France and Spain. Then I had dinner with Yamamoto and he was opening RyuGin in Hong Kong. I asked what ingredients he would use, and he said he would use many local ingredients, like local chicken, green peas, duck and river fish. It made me think I needed to change my mindset.”
What did you do? “From that point, I travelled every month to a different region – Kyushu, Fukuoka, Kyoto – and talked to local farmers and fishermen. A new world opened up to me. Before, I had only four suppliers for meat, fish, dairy and dry ingredients; now I have over 50 of them, especially small producers who grow only onions or carrots, or only catch fish or scallops. I now have a lot of knowledge about the place and I bring it to my cuisine.
“I don’t use ingredients that don’t exist in Italian cuisine, like soy sauce or wasabi. Many local ingredients have different flavours so you need to adjust the sweetness or bitterness but, overall, the flavours are lighter. I use Japanese olive oil, salt, basil and tomatoes, and when I eat the dressed tomatoes, I feel like I’m in Italy. They have Italian flavour.”
What do you do on your days off? “I have a four-year-old boy and two girls, aged two and one. I cook them Italian food. With my son, I make cookies, risotto and pasta. They like to eat a lot of vegetables and fish. We try to eat together on Sundays. If they see everyone eat together, they start to become curious about what we are eating and want to try it. Their palate is like a blank piece of paper.”
Luca Fantin, who also runs the Il Ristorante – Luca Fantin in Bali, Indonesia, was recently a guest chef at Amber, at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, in Central.