It’s recently come full circle for German-born chef Uwe Opocensky and his 15 years in Hong Kong. His stellar reputation at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong for more than nine years saw him overseeing all culinary operations at the hotel, where he made a deep impact with his menus at Mandarin Grill + Bar, and as the launch chef of The Krug Room – with his super-imaginative take on fine dining.
After his Mandarin stint, Opocensky became executive chef of Beef & Liberty restaurants, redefining the gourmet burger purveyor’s menus in Hong Kong and mainland China; while in this position he also launched his own cosy Sheung Wan restaurant called Uwe. Then, in September, he returned to the hotel world, to become executive chef at the Island Shangri-La.
But it’s not only been a return to the hotel industry, Opocensky explains at the Admiralty hotel. “I started my career in Hong Kong at the Aberdeen Marina Club, which is managed by Shangri-La, so from that point of view it’s a full circle – as the group owner [Robert Kuok] said when he saw me here, ‘Welcome back home!’
“In life, I think you figure out things you’re good at and what you prefer to do – and hotels is more my field,” says Opocensky. “It’s a field I know pretty well and I feel comfortable to be back in it. There are obviously a lot of challenges in the market at the moment, but the hotel group is embarking on an evolution towards where they see hospitality heading and I’m very excited to be part of this.”
Although Opocensky visits each of the Island Shangri-La’s eight food operations – including the coffee shop (Café Too), Japanese (Nadaman), Cantonese (Summer Palace) and western (Lobster Bar & Grill) restaurants – once or twice a day, since coming on board in September, a significant focus has been on honing one of Hong Kong’s grand dames of classic French dining: Restaurant Petrus.
So what exactly is Opocensky’s vision for the restaurant with him now at its helm? “Petrus has a classical approach and I want to take this further, with a commitment to quality,” he says. “We’ll always be steeped in French cuisine, which is in the restaurant’s nature; focus will remain on seasonality – and I want to bring in really unique ingredients and experiences, but in as simple a manner as possible, so that people don’t see how much work we’ve put into dishes but let the ingredients shine.
“A plate of food is an expression of what you are as a restaurant. I’ve introduced a lot of new cooking techniques – fermentation and others – to the restaurant, so I’m glad and lucky that the kitchen team here adapted to these very well.” Opocensky’s 33 years of experience have exposed him to some innovative styles that he can draw from in a way that best befits Petrus; the most edgy he was involved in was kitchen time at both Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in the UK and Ferran Adria’s El Bulli in Spain: two the world’s most influential contemporary nerve centres in recent culinary history.
At the time of writing, lunch menus presented options of two to four courses, with two selections in each course; dinner comprises three to five courses, with three listings to select from in each. Each course option also has at least three meticulously prepared components. Menu descriptions are brief, allowing the notably warm waiting staff to elucidate more fully. and with most courses served tableside from a serving trolley, it’s often Opocensky himself or Chef de Cuisine Bjoern Panek (who previously also worked at Uwe) who add not only a touch of culinary theatre to the proceedings but also elaborate on the dish ideas and sources of the often very special ingredients.
Take the dish simply called Beetroot, for example. The vegetable itself is grown in Hong Kong and is the second harvest of seeds from a producer called Row 7, the brainchild of US chef Dan Barber, multi-awarded for his two Blue Hill restaurants, who collaborated with vegetable breeding and seed specialists. Opocensky serves it three ways: first as a northern- Italian-inspired sliced, cured, smoked and air-dried bresaola, with slices arranged so that it appears like a rose, atop a thin layer of soft goat’s cheese; accompanying this are charred wild pepper leaves (foraged in Hong Kong) suggested as small wraps in which to contain the beetroot, as well as melba toast with beetroot purée, salad leaves and herbs, and a side salad smattered with freeze-dried beetroot powder.
On the dinner menu is the dish known as Prawn – of course, there’s so much more to it. “We have a beautiful red prawn from Spain,” the chef explains. “We grill the heads and keep the rest raw. On the side we serve a [prawn] garum, which is an old way of fermenting – it was invented by the Romans; we do this in-house in a whisky barrel and it takes about six weeks at 58.6 degrees [Celsius] – we have to be very precise.
“Another ingredient that’s all about simplicity is in our Potato dish. It’s a Hokkaido potato, which took me seven years of knocking on a farmer’s door with a bottle of sake to get it into Hong Kong. I got it for the first time last year – in Japan, it can take a really long time to secure ingredients; I’m going back soon to see him, to make sure we have a supply for next year.
“It’s all about relationships. I’ve got an organic farmer in the UK who went to Japan to get a special kind of deer – sika deer – and brought it back to organically rear it in the UK; and we take all six that he produces each year.” I try this and the meat is sweet – neither as dense in texture nor as robust in gamey flavour as some venison; Opocensky serves it with tart red cabbage based on his grandmother’s recipe (“though she might not like what I’ve done with it,” he says with a laugh), and a creamy savoy cabbage.
While Opocensky may be known for modern ingredient-led cuisine, via some whimsical experimentation at The Krug Room, his foundations were in a very traditional domestic repertoire. “I got into cooking through my grandmother and mother,” he recalls. “In Germany it’s a very big family tradition at Christmas time to bake cookies – kids would often be around while this went on at home to get a few sweet tastes during the process, but my family had other ideas for me – they thought I should help to make them, and from that point really I’ve never looked back. Since then my life has always been around the kitchen. And from when I was about 12 or 13, after learning more cooking from my mother, I was crystal clear that that’s where my future would lie.”
We live in an age where chefs are expected to come out of the kitchen and interact with the diners, which Opocensky embraces, but we’re also accustomed to seeing critical comments appear on social media. “There’s a lot of debate about how chefs should act towards criticism and anything else,” says the chef. “I think it’s better to hear criticism – or that someone’s really enjoyed something – face to face, rather than read it on social media when it’s already too late to react to praise or negative feedback.
“In life, nothing is perfect. In the kitchen and in service, we get a one- time chance to get it right. But sometimes, we can slip – a customer and chefs or waiters have to accept that. If something isn’t perfect in the kitchen I won’t let it go out and that might mean someone needs to wait; we’ll say, “Sorry, we just need a little more finishing on your dish, you’ll just have to wait another 10 minutes please …” and we’ll have immediate feedback from the table – which is better than, say, a diner waiting with no explanation who might post about this on social media. It’s all part of hospitality – dealing with people’s emotions at the time.”
While it may be early days for Opocensky, one very strong vote of confidence already secured for his morphing Petrus was the awarding of a Michelin star in December’s new Hong Kong and Macau guide for 2020. Expect more such accolades to follow.