UMBERTO Bombana is the owner and executive chef of the first Italian restaurant outside of Italy to earn three Michelin stars.
For two consecutive years, Bombana has been at the helm of 8? Otto e Mezzo Bombana in Hong Kong, which has held the top rating for two years, according to the 2013 Michelin Guide published this month.
Bombana runs a restaurant of the same name, with the same concept, in Shanghai near the Bund.
"Although Italian food has become one of the most popular worldwide, it's difficult to receive high recognition overseas due to its family-style dining experience, much more casual than the exquisite French food," the 49-year-old Italian chef tells Shanghai Daily at his Shanghai establishment.
Still, the chef attributes his three Michelin stars to his insistence on Italian family style, which arose from his own experience of being nurtured by his mother. And he attributes his success to his team.
"I care about the stars. If one day I lose one, I will cry. If I lose two, I will kill myself. Keeping three stars is quite tough. For each dish coming out of the kitchen, I ask myself, 'Is this three stars or not'?" the chef says.
"Two stars mean 'excellent cooking, worth a detour,' and three stars represent 'exceptional cuisine, worth a journey'," says the Michelin Guide.
"For me, three stars expresses a beautiful experience fulfilling your heart when you're eating. It's not just about creating food but making customers happy though satisfying their expectations and anticipating their requirements," the chef says.
Bombana has a direct, down-to-earth way of measuring success.
"Every night I will check the reservation book, seeing how many first-time customers make their second booking before leaving," the chef says.
He is rigorous about the excellence of ingredients. "Produce is the king. It's my cooking philosophy," he says.
In Hong Kong, many food suppliers use "Bombana buys our products" as a marketing slogan and assurance of quality.
Bombana sources the best produce at all costs, from olive oil and flour to tomatoes and herbs.
He is one of the first Italian chefs using Japanese seafood instead of seafood from Northern Europe and the Mediterranean. That happened after he was impressed by fresh sashimi served in a Japanese restaurant.
Every day, the first thing he does is checking his e-mail, filled with pictures of daily fresh ingredients sent to him by suppliers from all over the world.
Tuna with fennel seeds and lobster with roast artichoke highlight the natural flavor of seafood and are among the most popular in his restaurants.
Next year, Bombana plans to open a third restaurant in Beijing, with a new concept featuring Italian home baking.
"Although the Michelin guide hasn't come to the Chinese mainland, the level of the Hong Kong and Shanghai restaurants, in food style and consistency, is the same. The only gap in quality is ingredients. In Hong Kong, I have more freedom sourcing the produce. However, the quality of local ingredients has been getting better recently," the chef says.
King of truffles
He believes that the Michelin Guide, which will evaluate Singapore and Bangkok next year, will soon come to Shanghai.
"There isn't any city in the world as vibrant as Shanghai with its ability to attracting the top chefs from all over the world," he says. "If they come to Shanghai, the city's dining scene will definitely improve because, objectively, Michelin stars attract more customers, hence the business, and more talented chefs. It's a motivation."
Bombana was in Shanghai recently to hold a white truffle banquet, demonstrating why he is called the "King of White Truffle."
His efforts to promote white truffle culture, notably in Asia, earned him the title Worldwide Ambassador of the White Truffle by the Piedmontese Regional Enoteca Cavour in 2006.
He believes truffle will become more popular in China and throughout Asia because Asian palates are familiar with the taste of mushrooms.
"I fell in love with white truffles when I was young," says Bombana, who was born in Bergamo in northern Italy, a truffle-growing area.
"It's a unique and prestigious ingredient available for only a short season, one or two months. Its intense aroma and flavor brings your taste buds a shock. No one can resist the temptation from white truffle, even pigs and dogs," he explains.
The chef slices and shaves truffle in front of customers on top of food with creamy flavors such as eggs, cheese, pasta and risotto, so the truffle is not overwhelmed and its "personality" is fully exploited.
His classic interpretation of truffle is egg yolk pasta topped with truffle. This shows his personal culinary style, which he describes as "making traditional Italian dishes in a contemporary way."
The recipe was created 50 years ago by a celebrity chef for the last king of Italy. Bombana reduced the proportions of butter and cheese, sourced the best flour, boiled it precisely for firm but moist texture and created a sauce with balanced flavor.
He is famous for his risotto and says that if the platter is jiggled slightly, the creamy rice will move like a sea wave. Not too dry, not too moist, but creamy.
"I become a chef naturally," he recalls." "As a child I liked spending time at the fresh market, seeing the colorful and aromatic ingredients."
Breaded veal chop Milanese style
Veal chop (bone-in) 280g; bread crumbs 120g; Parmesan cheese (grated) 100g; 4 eggs (slightly beaten for dipping); all-purpose flour 50g; olive oil 250g; clarified butter 250g; salt and pepper (to taste)
1. Mix grated Parmesan cheese and flour. Set aside.
2. Pound veal chop until very thin, then season with salt and pepper.
3. Dust veal chop with mixture of flour and grated Parmesan cheese. Quickly shake off excess flour. Dip into the egg wash until entirely coated.
4. Place veal chops on bread crumbs and press so bread crumbs adhere.
5. Heat olive oil and clarified butter to medium heat. Place veal chop in the oil, deep fry until both sides are crispy and golden in color.