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Why Hong Kong is perfect for chef Mario Carbone

What are your childhood memo­ries of food? “Vito [Sanna] was my mom’s dad and probably my biggest culi­nary inspiration. We spent a lot of time together in the kitchen and he always cooked – not professionally, but that was his biggest passion in life. He was a mechanic for a restaurant equipment company. As I got older and showed an interest, he started to show me a few things, but he passed too young for me to learn particular recipes. I only remember him with an apron on.”

Carbone brings the hearty red-sauce dishes of Italian-American cuisine to Hong Kong

How did your career begin? “At 15 I started cooking in a restaurant after school and on weekends. At that time it wasn’t cool to tell your friends and, when they found out, I said I was saving up for a car. I wasn’t scholastic, so I went to culinary school. When I started at the Culinary Institute of America, I was a really rough cook – there were other people far more experienced and polished than I was, so getting instruction was great. I interned at [Mario Batali’s] Babbo, then after gradua­tion I worked at Lupa [another Batali restaurant], and from there I left home for the first time to go to Italy, aged 20.”

Why Italy? “I packed a big bag of clothes and no return ticket and went to a small town in northwest Tuscany for about a year and a half. No one spoke English but I knew some Italian so it didn’t take me long to pick up, but it was a learning curve. I wanted to know where [my family] was from but also immerse myself in the food and culture. It was one of the best experiences of my life. [Food writer] Faith Willinger recommended the Ristorante La Dogana, and I just blindly went there. The chef and owner was also called Vito. He knew everyone who produced, grew or raised anything. It was literally farm to table. I have been back many times and I still send my cooks there for short stints. They stay in my old room and live my life experience. I try to give them a cultural experience so the recipes make more sense.”

Restaurant review: Carbone, Lan Kwai Fong – New York Italian

What was it like to work for chefs Daniel Boulud and Wylie Dufresne? “When I returned [to the United States], I wanted to learn serious French techniques. At 22, I started working for Boulud. It was amazing and intense, one of the most difficult jobs I ever had. I learn­ed discipline, technique and I rekindled my friendship with Rich Torrisi [Carbone’s business partner]. It took me out of my comfort zone, which was scary. Wylie also took me out of my comfort zone. He’s one of the foremost authorities on thinking prog­ressively in the US. After two years I thought I had good skills and went back to my mentor Mario and to Italian food. He was about to open Del Posto and made me sous chef when I was 26 years old. It was the grandest Italian restaurant I’d ever seen.”

Was opening a restaurant one of your goals? “I was always the sort of person thinking of one day opening my own place. When we opened Torrisi Italian Specialties, in 2009, I don’t think either of us thought it would look like that, but we embraced it. We loved that place, and put everything we had in it. It was a sandwich shop that became a small restaurant and had a life of its own. It’s important that all our restaurants are fun, and moving the needle – there’s a purpose for it. Restaur­ants are similar to theatre – we put on the same performance every night for a different audience.”

Why did you choose Hong Kong? “There are a lot of parallels between Hong Kong and New York. This city is the perfect destination for Carbone. The only time we considered opening in Hong Kong was when we met Asim and Chris [of Black Sheep Restaurants] and we saw a lot of ourselves in them. When I came for the opening I was here for a few months. We did movie nights and cultural training about who we are and where we come from. Those are important conversations to have with your staff.”

How do you relax here? “I like to sing karaoke here after many a drink. I have a large repertoire. I can go into the 50s, 60s, Sinatra and can do the 80s hair bands, hip hop. For restaurants, I always go to China Tang, I think it’s one of the best restaurants in the world.”