What are your childhood memories of food? “I’m from Innsbruck, Austria, and I liked eating home-style food. When I was young we didn’t eat much fish and meat because they were expensive. We had bread with onion and vegetables, sometimes cold cuts – very balanced. We only ate fish and meat on Sundays.”
How did you get into cooking? “When I was 15 years old I started to learn cooking. I discovered it was very interesting. I liked that each country had different styles of food and tastes so it inspired me to travel. I first learned how to cook in Italy and then worked in restaurants there and in France and Germany, and on private yachts in Greece. I always like to travel around.”
When did you come to Hong Kong? “I first came here five years before Sars, and worked at Alfred’s Deli before opening Chez Roland and Roland’s Terrace [in the late 1990s] for Richard Li, who was my investor. He asked if I was interested in opening a place in his building in Wan Chai. He was a nice boss. He only liked top products like organic vegetables, seafood, sometimes abalone. But he also liked simple food, like steamed vegetables – not necessarily gourmet food all the time.
“I left in 2001 and went to Lugano, Switzerland, and then to Don Alfonso 1890, in Naples. Working for Alfonso Iaccarino was relaxing. There is a lemon orchard and a beach nearby. The food there is simple and they use very fresh produce. Iaccarino is a very nice boss who treats you as a father would.”
What was it like working on the yacht Christina O? “Iaccarino asked me to go there to raise the standard of cooking. Working on a private yacht is not easy because you have to satisfy the customers and your space is minimised – it’s not like a restaurant. The kitchen is downstairs, but you have a 140-metre-long walk-in fridge, and a stove. So you have to be very smart and know what the guests want to eat. Usually they tell you beforehand, or they ask you what you have and then choose. You get to know their preferences. The kitchen could serve 30 guests for dinner. Sometimes we experienced high seas. I didn’t get seasick because I got used to it. I spent about 18 months on the Christina O, mostly in the Mediterranean, one time the Caribbean. I came back to Hong Kong in 2006, first to Gaia for a promotion, then as chef of Aspasia. I also worked at The Drawing Room, Ammo and Kee Club.”
How has Hong Kong’s dining scene changed over the years? “When I arrived it was very high fine dining, nowadays the trend is more casual and simple. People eat more healthy food now – less meat and fish, small portions of pasta, and more fresh salad. It’s foreigners who are eating steaks and foie gras. Western chefs are using more Asian ingredients. Japanese with Western food is very popular now. Hong Kong is fun for young people, who like to try something new. In Europe, there are more traditional restaurants.
“Before, the chefs were all Italian. Now almost everything is street food. Local Western-trained chefs are better now than gweilo chefs. Hong Kong chefs are very open-minded and have a European touch. They are willing to learn and support you and take care of you. Now I’m starting to see Hong Kong chefs opening their own restaurants. They do a fantastic job.”
Why are you moving to Peru? “I like the food products, like potatoes, vegetables and artichokes. It’s inexpensive to do something there.”
What will you miss about Hong Kong? “All my friends, the culture and, of course, Cantonese food – how they cook the vegetables, their techniques. The Victoria City restaurant, in the Sun Hung Kai Centre, used to have such good dim sum that tycoons and people like Leon Lai would go there but now the originality of dim sum has disappeared. Before, the chefs would choose the ingredients but now they’re delivered to them … it doesn’t taste as good anymore.”
What do you like to do when you’re not cooking? “I love reading books on history, like Chinese culture, Romans, Russians. It makes me relaxed. I like travelling but I hate touristy places. Two years ago I went to the Gobi Desert with a driver. Another time, I went to Bhutan where they live simply and are happy. They eat lots of vegetables and fruits that you can pick yourself. They steam vegetables, similar to Chinese food. Their culture and lifestyle is very simple, very old, but now they have modern things like televisions.”