Steak, truffles and wild mushrooms, served at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong’s Mandarin Grill + Bar
Just as the regular diners were getting used to the light new decor in the esteemed Mandarin Grill + Bar, along came a pioneering chef with even more radical changes, offering dazzlingly innovative dishes as an alternative to the classic steak, chops and roast beef. The two events at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong – the fresh design by Sir Terence Conran, the pioneering food by Uwe Opocensky – changed for ever the style, tone and fare of a room that had, for most of its 50 years, been a bastion of traditional dining: the place to come for a hearty lunch or dinner, rounded off with a selection from the cheese board, a glass of port and a Cuban cigar.
The risk-taking inherent in such a major revamp was subsequently vindicated in a major way: it was given unqualified approval by the most vital people of all, the regular clients of Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. And in 2009, the demanding inspectors of the famed Michelin Guide awarded the Mandarin Grill + Bar one of its coveted stars.
Executive chef Uwe Opocensky
It was 1963 when Mandarin Oriental, located in a 27-storey building that dwarfed its near neighbours, made its debut as the first five-star hotel in the Central District. The Mandarin Grill + Bar, on the first floor, was then called the Saddle and Sirloin, and its discreet design, like a private members’ club, provided a quiet bolt-hole, where the city’s movers and shakers, dressed in three-piece suits even in the 35-degree heat of summer, could discuss multimillion-dollar business deals over a juicy steak and a bottle of claret. It was something of a culinary national treasure that offered solidity and predictability in a city where the only real constant is massive change.
It was as the hotel began to inch towards the half-century mark, that its landmark restaurant experienced change itself. Six years ago, the renowned British innovator Sir Terence Conran was given free rein to reinterpret the design of the restaurant. He set about opening up the window space, allowing a spectacular view of the soaring Hong Kong skyline. He also banished the dim lighting and muted decor, and introduced an open, glass-fronted kitchen. The die had
been cast, but the most radical changes of all were still to come.
At Mandarin Oriental, they don’t restrict you as a chef
Executive chef Uwe Opocensky (who wasn’t even born when the restaurant first opened its doors) undertook an overhaul of the entire menu, introducing dishes that were breathtakingly inventive. Signatures included an organic salad served in a flower pot with edible soil, a steak served in a custom-made book, and mussels wrapped in faux shells that could be chewed and swallowed. Diners walking into the room effectively signed themselves up for a culinary ride to Planet Opocensky, an other-worldly sensation emphasised by an idiosyncratic dessert in which the moon and stars were fixed points in a glorious table array of chocolate, ice cream, sponge, strawberries and blueberries.
The Mandarin Grill + Bar’s open kitchen allows guests to view the chefs at work
Entering this culinary realm, where ice cream is cooked in liquid nitrogen and a ‘tea bag’ is made of gelatin to dissolve into a consommé, is thought-provoking, entertaining and, above all, palate pleasing. It stops short of being outright zany by the quality of the ingredients, the exquisite flavours of the food and the artistic presentation.
‘You have to do something different to stand out, but it is a fine line,’ says Opocensky. ‘If it is gimmicky, I am doing something wrong; it has to have a purpose. We are living in a world where everyone is busy and stressed, so I see my job as taking people away from everyday life, especially in Hong Kong, which is fast, furious and hectic. I want them to come here and unwind and relax.
‘The desserts, in particular, bring out the child in you. People forget what they were talking about when the dishes arrive on the table. At the end of the meal, the diner takes away a memory with them instead of just thinking, “I feel full but can’t remember what I had.”’
Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry miniature ‘bananas'
Opocensky’s penchant for radical experimentation came relatively late in a career that, for the most part, was in regular kitchens preparing food in conventional ways, albeit to impeccably high gourmet standards. After an apprenticeship in his native Germany, including spells at a butcher’s shop and a fish restaurant, Opocensky headed to London armed with a smattering of English, an innate confidence in his ability and a passion to learn from the maestros of the trade.
Within a few years, Opocensky was head chef at Mosimann’s, legendary chef and restaurateur Anton Mosimann’s private club in London. Subsequently, he was in charge of a high-end outside catering business, organising private dinners and banquets for a stellar list of clients, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, rock star Elton John and supermodel Kate Moss. But challenging though the job was, it inhibited Opocensky’s goal of becoming top toque-wearer at a Michelin-starred restaurant: private clubs, no matter how scrumptious the food, are not eligible for consideration.
The chef decided to leave in search of pastures new. A stint at a hotel in Cyprus broadened his expertise – organising a breakfast menu was something of a novelty for him – and eventually led to the offer of another job, in Hong Kong. Although it was, once more, at a members’ club, Opocensky figured that Asian experience was a beneficial addition to any top-notch chef’s portfolio: working side by side with Cantonese-food chefs would, inevitably, add a few new tricks to his already extensive repertoire.
At the same time, without any high expectations, he applied for a position at El Bulli, then considered to be the best and most exclusive dining venue in the world, run by the revered chef Ferran Adrià. Out of the 10,000 chefs who applied, he was one of those hand-picked by Adrià to join a team of international chefs for masterclasses at his ‘restaurant-laboratory’ in north-eastern Spain.
It was the kitchen-world equivalent of earning a place at Oxford or Harvard, a chance to learn from Adrià and experiment wildly, without the constraints of a conventional city restaurant. Customers who put their names on the long El Bulli waiting list knew full well that they were in for a rollercoaster gastronomic ride. They would sample unlikely marriages of ingredients and experience a totally new style of food preparation, known as molecular gastronomy, which employed scientific methods to achieve stunning flavours and visual effects.
Working at El Bulli reinvigorated Opocensky’s career and, in time, the Mandarin Grill + Bar menu. El Bulli has since closed its doors, but its legacy is huge: the small and exclusive coterie of Adrià graduates is treated with massive respect in the industry.
‘Ferran is the key to where I am today,’ says Opocensky. ‘I always wanted to do something different and this opened the door for me. I was there when I was 36 and a lot of the young kids thought, when they left, they would do foams and bubbles, but Ferran is much more than that: he teaches you not to take no for an answer and that there are no boundaries apart from the ones that you impose. Go with your instinct, not what people tell you, question everything and become a child again – relearn everything you know.’
The first manifestation of the restaurant’s new-mindset menu came with – of all things – a simple salad, prepared for a vegetarian guest at a property in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Opocensky worked briefly after El Bulli. It consisted of an actual flowerpot filled with a base that – although it looked like soil – was a concoction of beer, Earl Grey tea, pumpernickel bread and black olives. Sprouting up from this edible base was a prettily arranged selection of organic vegetables, cresses, herbs and flowers.
Inside the kitchen
Word of Opocensky’s talent quickly spread along the Asian hotel grapevine and before long, in 2007, he was offered the post of executive chef at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, supervising a team of 170 staff. Wisely, the new recruit took a softly-softly approach to begin with, learning the workings of the hotel and the likely outer limits of guests’ culinary tastes. With this in mind, he used the restaurant’s small private dining space, The Krug Room, as a kind of laboratory, where a willing queue of adventurous diners were happy to lend their palates to his ‘experiments’. Opocensky began dabbling with unusual ingredient pairing, preparation and presentation, always with an eye on creating dishes that might make it onto the Mandarin Grill + Bar menu. In fact, almost all of the star dishes of today began their life in The Krug Room.
At the end of the meal, the diner takes a memory away with them
‘It was a way to test the market,’ says Opocensky. ‘Hong Kong was a little conservative five years ago, and that was my laboratory to see what worked the best. That is where we played and created and then tweaked. We started with a few events a month and worked our way up; now, there is a three-month waiting list.
‘This is a large hotel with a big reputation and a lot of history. When I came I didn’t touch the Grill at all, the menu was very classical, with smoked salmon, cuts of beef and vegetables on the side. But they needed to move with the times and that is what Mandarin is so brilliant at, having the vision. They don’t restrict you as a chef as to what you can or can’t do – it is unique in the modern world.’
Among the signature dishes on the current menu is an organic sirloin steak, which seeks to invoke the mood of a forest: the American beef is served with mushrooms made to look like tree bark, along with a selection of truffles. Another menu favourite is a different take on the traditional banana split, in which a miniature version of the fruit is created in the kitchen using vanilla, chocolate and strawberry – and a sprinkling of Opocensky magic.
Diners with more traditional tastes, however, will still find plenty of appetising options. The Crustacean Bar offers oysters from six different countries, the beef trolley still trundles along, and requests for old favourites like beef Wellington are fulfilled with pleasure. Generally speaking, the regular clientele graduated seamlessly to the new menu, appreciating the emphasis on freshly sourced organic ingredients and the exquisite way food is arranged on the plate.
Among those longer-term Mandarin Grill + Bar aficionados is a woman who first visited the restaurant as a child and has celebrated every birthday there, from age 16 to 56. Another woman, a loyal diner in her seventies, comes every six weeks, orders a glass of champagne, peruses the menu and settles in for a leisurely lunch. And they are almost certain to have met Opocensky: personable, with a dry sense of humour, he enjoys chatting to guests, explaining the constituent parts of the dishes and the technical expertise it took to create them. A lamb dish, for example, is braised on the bone for 32 hours; a chicken breast is accompanied by bones that are, in fact, carefully sculpted pieces of foie gras.
Says Opocensky, ‘It’s an intense job with long hours, but if you didn’t love it you couldn’t do it. We have freedom and flexibility here, which gets you excited. I got a Michelin star here, I fulfilled my dream; in my heart, from the first day I started work, I always dreamed about it. I would love to work on getting a second star, but the priority is looking after our customers.’
When not catering to the needs of the hundreds of people who dine daily in the various Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong restaurants, Opocensky’s time is spent in the company of his wife, Candice, whom he met while working at Mosimann’s, and five-year-old daughter Isabella. The youngest member of the Opocensky household prefers her dad to tone down the fancy cooking at home and focus on flipping hamburgers on the barbecue or help school her in the art of making muffins, pancakes and boiled eggs with toast soldiers.
Opocensky’s mother, likewise, is hugely proud of her son’s Michelin star, but not in the least bit overawed or intimidated. When the big-city chef makes trips back to his small-village home near Bremen, there is only one chef in charge of the family kitchen – and she most certainly does not dabble in anything as remotely new-fangled as molecular gastronomy.
‘My mother cooks what has to be my favourite meal in the whole world: roasted goose with dumplings, which is a traditional Christmas dish in Germany,’ says the chef. ‘The dumplings are light and fluffy – I got the recipe from her last year and was able to put it on the menu for Christmas. When it is served with braised sauerkraut and a wheat beer, it is a divine meal.
‘She does all the cooking at home, she won’t listen to me. I will never be allowed in that kitchen, it is her pride and joy. One time, she had four Michelin-starred chefs sitting around the table when she was cooking, but she just carried on as usual.’