The Argentinian chef’s first restaurant Ando offers a cuisine that tells a story.
Located on the lower end (before the slope gets quite serious) of Central’s Wellington Street, Ando is the highly-anticipated restaurant by Chef Agustin Ferrando Balbi, formerly of Tsim Sha Tsui’s Japanese restaurant Haku. A partnership project with Yenn Wong’s Hong Kong-based hospitality firm, JIA Group, the new restaurant represents something rather personal to Balbi. Its name, derived from his Latin surname Ferrando, naturally reflects his heritage and roots in Argentina, but at the same time takes inspiration from Balbi’s journey and experiences in Japan and more.
The question is, what exactly does this cuisine entail? During a lunch, we sampled one of Ando’s tasting menus which showcased his immense skill and knowledge in flavour combination and technique. Stemming from a multitude of cuisines, the dishes blend extremely well and very naturally. Highlights included the sashimi course (named Depatir), which represents his departure from home to Japan, with a gamba roja (or red prawn) seasoned with an intensely-flavoured ebi oil made from roasted heads roasted and topped with sudachi zest. Another is the fragrantly spiced and smoky Caldoso rice with abalone and chorizo, named Sin Lola (without Lola) as a tribute to Balbi’s late grandmother.
Set in a light and airy space clad in stone and graphite tones, the restaurant plays a texturised, but neural backdrop, to allow the colourful cuisine to shine. After lunch, we sat down with Balbi to discuss his food in more detail, and found out how Ando came to be.
In short, it’s the bridge between my memories and my experiences. That’s it. But to go into more detail, we cook a lot of Spanish and Japanese, because my Grandmother was from Majorca [one of Spain’s Balearic Islands], so that’s the main source of inspiration for my cooking. And then most of my training was in Japan, so it makes sense for me to put them together. Not only does it make sense, but it feels very natural. I don’t do it for the concept.
We have been talking about it for a long time — even before I moved to Haku actually. But there was always something else I was in the middle of. I didn’t feel I was ready, or it was just not the right moment. Then one day I felt I was ready and I had my own style, and I said, let’s go.
This was actually the first venue that we visited out of a few. I really like the space because the location is amazing and I really like the high ceilings, which in Hong Kong is difficult to find, and it has natural light coming in from both sides. In fact, this space looked ugly before, so I didn’t think much of it. Yenn [Wong of JIA Group] was the visionary and saw its potential.
As we were doing all the planning, that was when all the coronavirus cases were popping up. So, I was worried that maybe we won’t open. But then that turned into surprise, as we carried on. And I’m very grateful and happy, as there was never any second of doubt from Yenn, she said we are going to do this, end of story. So I am very thankful too.
Like any Argentinian kid, I wanted to a football player. It’s in our blood. Then after that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I wanted to study that as I love animals. I’ve always loved and had dogs. But once I went into my mother’s friend’s restaurant to help out — where I didn’t get paid and didn’t care because I was really enjoying it — that was it. I felt adrenaline and there was this romantic idea that you can travel with your work. You can travel the world while using your skills. Since then, this is what I wanted to do and I never looked back.
In any new world country, there is a mix of cultures. In Argentina, for example, you may know [Diego] Maradona, [Lionel] Messi — they are Italian names so that’s the amount of influence we have in our culture. It’s part of who we are. We are Argentinian, we have a very characteristic way of being, but at the same time we cannot say we are half Italian, or Spanish. It’s just part of me.
And that’s the most difficult part to explain. People think if you’re from Argentina, you need to wear a cowboy hat and cook meat. But that’s very archaic thinking; it’s old thinking. That’s why I say, it comes very naturally to me as I grew up with it. But for me, my cuisine is not Japanese, it’s not Spanish, it’s just my cooking. This is what I like to cook.
New Orleans was the first time I left Argentina and it was such a long distance away. It was very different to what I was used to. I saw ingredients that I’d never seen before. There was a lot of discovering and new things to see and experience. It was my first step into world-class cooking — my very first encounter and I really loved it. There were a lot of Japanese ingredients then too, people were using uni [or sea urchin] and seaweed that I had never seen before. Then I thought, ‘wow, why not go to Japan and learn about this!’
The idea was to learn everything, take all the positives and the negatives. So some things that I do today are from my time in New Orleans, how I set up the kitchen for example. And then there are things that I learnt from Japan and Argentina. It’s a little bit of all those things put together.
It was crazy, because you don’t know anyone and you’re all alone. You don’t know the language, you know nothing. The only thing you know is to work. And that was the best thing too, so you are 100% immersed into it. It’s a bit like a boot camp. Very intense, but it’s a good way to train.
I had to learn Japanese, so I’m about 80% fluent now I would say. Day-to-day conversation, and in the kitchen, I am 100%. My wife is Japanese too, and we sometimes communicate in Japanese, like when she’s angry!
You need to learn by watching in Japan, which is similar to Chinese cooking I think. They will not teach you everything, you have to learn by yourself. Of course, when you learn the language you will know more. So the more you know, the more you absorb. It takes time to learn. At the time, it was very difficult, so you have to have a strong mind to do that.
When I was in Japan, I never had a vacation, no holidays or anything. So, there comes a time when you become more Japanese than the Japanese, which was a little weird for me. And my own culture is so different, so I had moments of realisation where I was like: wait, I need to get out a bit.
Then, everyone I met in Japan who was from Hong Kong was super friendly. They were curious about things and wanted to talk and were open. Their mentality was a little bit more western, I guess, so I felt it was easier to adapt. I didn’t know anything about Hong Kong, just that people were nice and cool, so I decided to come.
When people come to this type of restaurant — to Ando — they aren’t just coming to eat the food. It’s almost like going to a theatre. You need to have something else to offer that is stimulating, not just eating.
My idea is that food is also a memory. Sometimes you smell something and you travel through time. And since this is my restaurant, I wanted to tell my story. So all the stories that I tell through my food, are from my experiences, they are things that I remember and that are important to me.
The Medio mundo [Kinmedai] dish, for example, is one that stems from a memory of fishing with my father. A moment of bonding. The words medio mundo (or half world in English), is the name of the fishing nets that resemble a halved globe.
In Argentina, there is a very macho culture. So fathers do not usually show much love. So this moment for me was really special. He was teaching me something that men should know. It’s not just about the fish; it’s a more sentimental connection.
I have two kids, so that’s another job I have… and passion! So I spend time with them on Sundays. The other one is football. But I cannot play now [he laughs heartily and indicates his belly].
We are doing events at home [At Home with Ando] because we have a lot of regular guests. People who really like the food and cannot come, or booked dinner and now have to cancel. We will go to their homes to cook exactly the same food as the restaurant would normally for them. We bring everything over and try to keep it as similar to restaurant as possible and give our guests the same attention and focus.