Umberto Bombana, Chef & owner of the only Michelin three-starred Italian restaurant outside Italy, 8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Hong Kong & Shanghai shares his passion in truffle and his special truffle dish pair with Champagne.
Why did you decide to become a chef?
My grandmother used to cook for an aristocratic family; my town, Bergamo, is a resort with a cooking school, hotel school, and the traditions of hospitality. So for me, it was a natural step to become a chef. After finishing hotel school, I went to train at one of the best Italian restaurants at that time, Antica Osteria del Ponte, with Michelin-starred chef Ezio Santin. Then I moved to Los Angelesin in 1983 to work with one of the most respected Italian restaurants, Mauro Vincenti. In the 1990s I came to Hong Kong to open Toscana at Ritz-Carlton and I’ve been here since then. Why did I come here? I really don’t know! When you are in this job, you get opportunities all over the world, and I knew I wanted to come to Asia. I was young, I wanted the experience even though I loved California. In 2008 the Ritz-Carlton closed down to redevelop the building and two years later I opened Otto e Mezzo. The name is a tribute to Fellini’s great film of the same name.
You are informally known as the “King of Truffles” and more officially, as “Worldwide Ambassador of the White Truffle” since 2006. How did you get that reputation?
Because of the charity auctions for truffles that I started doing I was appointed this title by Piedmontese Regional Enoteca Cavour. It is not that I want to be the “King of Truffles” but they’ve given me this nomination for what I do with truffles. Maybe I’m not really a “King”! Maybe just a good representative for the tuber magnatum pico, the white truffle. I look forward to the truffle season because it is a wonderful moment of the year but there is nostalgia too – oh my god, another year has gone by. Autumn heralds not only truffles but also mushrooms, game, chestnuts… I like that cuisine can be divided by seasons. You want slightly richer food when the weather turns cooler.
Otto e Mezzo has been awarded three Michelin stars in just two years time. What does it mean to you?
That’s the best that can happen to you as a chef. I am amazed. I am fulfilled. Any chef who is passionate about this job would be as there is nothing like the Michelin star. I’m the first three-star outside Italy, and to represent Italian food at a high level is a very honourable thing. To be recognised is a dream come true. For a chef, owning your own restaurant is the best: it is like driving a Ferrari.
What is your signature truffle dish?
Ah, scrambled eggs with truffles. Whipped potatoes and truffles. Artichockes and truffles. Topinambours [Jerusalem artichoke] and truffles. But for me, the best balance is with eggs. For example, egg en cocotte with truffles. It is light, creamy and the flavour doesn’t overwhelm the truffles. So when I pair truffles and eggs, the full personality of the truffles just explodes. Of course, I do all the classic dishes as well: there is the homemade pasta with white truffle, risotto with truffle, beef tenderloin “Rossini” style with a little foie gras…but simplicity is best. When you consider the cost of truffles – sometimes I’m ashamed that they are so expensive – but once a year, the cost can be justified if you want to experience them.
Have you created a special dish to pair with Krug?
Yes, I have my own creation for Krug. It is a lightly breaded Colorado lamb that is dipped into a light cheese fondue from Piedmont that has sliced truffles in it. I think cheese goes so well with truffles: think about it, the sweetness of cheese, pasta, and eggs – they balance beautifully the flavours of truffles – anything acidic cannot work. Why breaded lam? I’ll do it with toasted bread because I think that truffles have a flavour of toasted bread with garlicky, intense aromas like rosemary, thyme. With Krug, this is perfection. Krug’s champagne has such an intense flavor. It matches the truffles. When you eat something rich, like cheese or lamb, you want something that cleanses the palate. Krug can do this. Krug is a special champagne because it is so rich, so intense, so refined, so powerful. It is not like some light white wine. So its intensity is as great as a big Barolo or a big Bordeaux – but of course the taste is different. That makes it perfect with my truffle dish.
Interviewed by Sooni Shroff-Gander
Colorado Lamb Tenderloin with Cheese Fondue & Alba White Truffle
Created by Chef & owner, 81/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana, Hong Kong
Makes 4 portions
400g Lamb tenderloin cubed
1 bunch Fresh thyme
1 bunch Fresh oregano
2 Organic eggs
20ml Olive oil
120g Chanterelle mushrooms
40g Fontina cheese
40g Testun al Barolo cheese
40g Bra Duro cheese
1 Egg yolk
White Alba truffle
For Colorado lamb tenderloin
Reprinted with permission from Financial Times.