CIAK – Lights, Camera, Action!
Valentino Ugolini, Executive Chef at CIAK In The Kitchen, is a very well esteemed Chef both in his native Italy, where he started his career very young, and in Hong Kong, where he arrived years ago.
The restaurant was opened five years ago by the three-Micheline starred Chef Umberto Bombana; decidedly more low-key than 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo BOMBANA, both restaurants pay tribute to the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini having Chef Umberto Bombana as its culinary director.
We sat down with Chef Valentino to discuss the importance of identity and authenticity in the kitchen, the main difference between a Chef and a cook, working for different types of customers and more.
How come that an Italian from a small town ended up in HK, one of the most crowded places in the world?
I took my first flight when I was nineteen years old, I went working to Tenerife, Spain. I felt the need of trying something new, challenging myself with a new reality, a new language and a new culture.
I left, alone. It was great, and I will be always grateful to that part of me who decided to do it.
My adventure here started 8 years ago, I arrived with a cooking project from a Chef I was already working for in Italy. After a year, I met Chef Umberto Bombana and the Lai Sun Dining group: that was the turning point of my career. I started working for them, and as things go fast, five years ago, we opened CIAK - In The Kitchen and I became its Chef de Cuisine. It was a very exciting project and a fresh start for me since I did fine dining for many years and I wanted to cook a type of food closer to the home cooking, with few and simple ingredients for a genuine taste.
The word Chef actually means “chief” in French and in every industry the managerial role is really respected, although in the food industry every cook becomes suddenly a Chef. What do you think?
I call myself cook and not Chef. Why? Because cooking is what I do.
However, between Italy and in HK , it is a completely different situation: in Asia, the Chef is the one creating the dish and the cook is seen as a helper; if you call somebody cook here, people think you are cleaning dishes, that’s it.
So, you think that Asia and Italy are really different?
Well yes, they are. In Asia, the title is very important, not everybody can be called a Chef. In Italy, a lot of cooks like to name themselves Chefs but they are not.
You know that Hong Kong is one of the cities with the biggest and most competitive food industry?
Considering this, how would you state the difference between an average cook and a good cook?
To be an outstanding one, it is all about the experience: the more experience you have, the more you grow and learn, especially from your mistakes and from people around you.
Practice and listen.
What do you think is a characteristic to be called a Chef?
There are no rules to become a Chef, in fact every Chef is different from one another; it’s like between artists, you can’t list their most important characteristics, you can just judge their results.
And cooking is a form of art: it’s either something you have or not.
Regarding myself, I waited for someone to call me Chef when I was ready to be one; despite the fact that you never know you are ready until you try.
Most important aspect to create a unique experience for your guests when they come here?
First of all, you need to give an identity to your restaurant; for us, it is making authentic food, by letting people experience Italy through food and wine, hospitality and conviviality. The difference is in the details.
What’s the identity of CIAK – In The Kitchen?
Definitely pasta, like the fresh one you can have in Italy on a Sunday lunch with your family.
No additional decoration but the feeling of real taste.
What I do here is cooking honest, comforting yet top-quality food in a vibrant and homely environment to make people experience what I feel when I am back home.
How do you get ingredients and fresh food in Hong Kong in order to keep the Italian taste to your food?
60% of ingredients comes from Italy like cheese, ham, eggs; the local market has fresh and BIO stuff too; then USA and Australia for meat, France and Japan. It depends on which country offers the best ingredients in the range and we get them.
Since you started your career in Italy then moved to Hong Kong, what is the difference between the customers in these two countries? How do you find cooking for a different audience?
Honestly, when I worked in Italy, I was working for fine dining restaurants; now I am working in Hong Kong, for a casual one. So, not only different countries and cultures, but also different range of clients with different expectations and different understanding of gourmet food.
Do you find the requests more difficult here or in Italy?
Here in Hong Kong with no doubts.
Because people here come with their idea and knowledge of Italian food, made up by the food they have tasted all over the world. Our job it is to share with them the authentic Italian experience, making them curious and understand that even if what they eat is different from what they had before, we keep it real and make it in the traditional way.
The challenge is handling the thin line between meeting client’s requests and keeping your originality.
When you arrived here, did people have a clue about Italian food?
From what we were doing in the beginning, people weren’t ready for fine dining, they couldn’t understand the experience.
Now most of the restaurants, like CIAK - In The Kitchen, have to be affordable and easy, especially because the cooking culture here is not as strong as in Italy; Hong Kong is a fast city, people don’t have time to cook so they really often go out for eating, and they look for comforting and easy food.
Most curious combination you have ever made in a dish to accomplish a customer?
In a friend’s restaurant, some customers asked for Bolognese with clams. Also, they happened to ask pink sauce pasta, penne alfredo or pineapple pizza, just to list some.
Did they make it?
Oh well, they did, yes. You always have to make your customers happy in order to have them coming back, right?
I also try to please every customer, even if the requests sometimes are far from our idea of tradition Italian food. You have to be openminded and understand that taste is different in every part of the world; you have to adapt, always within certain limits, by driving people gently to understand your idea when they are ready.
You know the Italian proverb
“the shoemaker goes barefoot”
I am very curious because I always imagine Chefs cooking amazing dishes for other people and, when it comes to themselves, not eating.
Do you find cooking for yourself enjoyable?
I love it! I usually don’t cook now though; you know, when I have two hours off from work, I just want to enjoy my free time, without seeing any pan flying around me.
When there is a friend’s party, of course I am the one in charge, everyone has a role.
Even if they wouldn’t ask, I would do it myself, I am scared food is not made how I want it to be.
Are you picky?
Not at all, I just like food made the proper way.
What's your motto?
"Go hard or go home", if I do something I do it properly otherwise I don’t do it.
It’s a kind of lifestyle.
Maybe I need more time, but I go ahead with my idea and I work hard to achieve my goals.
Stick around, we will post more #kitchenstories next week.