Today, the descriptor “passionate chef” can refer to one of a number of different types. We’ve met the serious but socially awkward chef; the angry, aggressive, maybe even somewhat alcoholic chef; and then there’s the narcissistic chef who basks in the celebrity limelight. But sometimes, thank goodness for sometimes, we come across a chef who’s sincere, genuine and fuelled simply by a deep love of food. For me, these chefs are like culinary gold dust and I recently met one in the form of Venezuelan chef Ricardo Chaneton.
Explaining energetically and elaborating expansively with his hands, Chaneton is, to say the least, expressive. He’s every bit the South American; confident, but also uncompromisingly honest. This is reflected in the food he serves at his new contemporary French restaurant Mono, a co-venture with JIA Group’s Yenn Wong, which officially opened in Central in December.
“My approach to contemporary French cuisine is different,” says Chaneton. “It comes with a South American background. It’s unique.” The reason for the focus on French cuisine is found in Chaneton’s culinary background. He was most recently executive chef for Petrus at Island Shangri-La, Hong Kong, where he spent almost four years showcasing his creative French cuisine. Prior to that, he was at the three-Michelin-star Mirazur in Menton, France (which bagged the number one slot on the S.Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2019). This is where he spent seven years training and working with acclaimed chef-owner Mauro Colagreco, considered one of the most influential chefs on the planet. “Mauro taught me not to be scared of my feelings,” Chaneton says. “I remember seeing him cry in an interview. When he talks about something that touches his heart, he will show it. This is something I want to bring here.”
Chaneton has a lot to say of his cuisine and one immediately gets a sense of his eagerness to show people what he’s about. “My cuisine is all about feelings. It’s about how you feel, and how the people in front of you feel. It’s full of emotions.” This is his rationale for an open kitchen too. It allows people to see faces, creating a sense of open-mindedness and honesty between a chef and his guests.
I ask about the name Mono, and if the restaurant really is inspired by the Japanese and Korean art movement Mono-ha. “Yes, the art at the front [of the restaurant] is Mono-ha,” he says, referring to the oil-paint and wood-panel installation Inside and Outside of Lattice created by Kishio Suga, one of the movement’s founding members. The work explores interdependency between natural and industrial materials, and is echoed in the restaurant’s design with elements of stainless steel against wood and concrete alongside marble.
Over and above this, Chaneton explains that “mono” is universal and a word or term that most will understand as a prefix that signifies one single thing. “That’s why we have one menu, one counter, one message to convey.”
The concise tasting menu has four sections that encapsulate Chaneton’s cuisine: Origins, which represents his background; Traditions, those he honours and respects; Savoir Faire, a showcase of his skills; and finally, Heritage, his memories, in particular of his late grandfather.
Chaneton also defines his menu as seasonal, “but just to be clear, when I say seasonal, I mean to say that my cuisine follows the French seasons. So for instance, there are no tomatoes from France in winter. So in this restaurant, you will never see a tomato right now.”
“We misuse the words fresh and seasonal. It isn’t always. But I can tell you straight away that my cuisine is definitely seasonal and 100 percent fresh, because I don’t like to use freezers in my kitchen. Only for the pastry and ice cream. which makes it all the more challenging.”
Some items are sourced from Spain and Italy, as they share the same seasonal timings – but more importantly, connect with his own background. Chaneton grew up with a mixture of European and South American influences. As a result, he speaks five languages: Spanish, Italian, English, Portuguese and French. “But if you count music and food, then I speak seven languages.” He’s also attempting to learn Cantonese and makes the effort with his kitchen team. “They understand me,” he says, and provides some examples of his orders to his local team, displaying fairly accurate pronunciation. “I’m trying. It’s a beginning, but I don’t want to stop there. I want to be able to explain my dishes to a guest in Cantonese. That’s my dream.”
One of the highlight dishes on Chaneton’s menu is the Miéral pigeon/mole. “The flavours in this come from my childhood and my roots,” he explains. In an homage to the traditions of French cuisine, he takes a whole Miéral pigeon from Bresse in France, ages it in-house for five days, and roasts it on the bone in the classic manner before serving it medium-rare with a confit pigeon leg inside a liver-mousse bon bon. Meanwhile, the homemade mole sauce is created with 26 spices and, as he puts it, “is like a good wine”, with the mole continually developing on the palate. All the individual spices and ingredients reveal themselves as you keep tasting. It’s a stunning dish, both interesting and exciting, flawlessly combining French and South American flavours.
We talk about his other passion, music, and Chaneton’s eyes light up. “I play cuatro, guitar, drums and piano. I also recently purchased a saxophone – a small practice one. One that doesn’t make too much noise, so I don’t get thrown out of my building,” he says, laughing.
“For me, art is food, food is art. Music is art too. And it’s also a language. When you speak music and you speak food, you can communicate better. This is how you open doors. It’s the key to culture, and it’s a beautiful thing to communicate with others.”
It suddenly becomes clear. We’ve been talking about Chaneton’s many different passions, but they are all connected – one and the same. It’s one passion that encompasses and embraces them all. A mono passion. And one definitely worth getting to know.