HONG KONG (Reuters) - At the top of Hong Kong's Ritz-Carlton, one of the highest hotels in the world, two-star Michelin chef Pino Lavarra busily toils inside the kitchen of Tosca, whipping up Italian dishes that marry tradition with innovation.
But the 44-year-old chef from Putignano, Italy, admits he has yet to create the perfect east-meets-west dish as he prepares to open the Ritz's fine-dining Italian restaurant this month.
Reuters spoke with Lavarra, former executive chef of Rossellini's restaurant in Ravello, Italy, and sous chef of Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons in Oxford, England, about dining in Hong Kong, how one year in Malaysia influenced him, and why his mother is "the most brilliant home cooking chef".
Q: What has changed in the city dining landscape since your first visit in 2002?
A: I was very impressed at my first visit to Hong Kong. I experienced a high standard of cuisine. Since then I've been here a few more times and I've seen there is an increasing level of professionalism, culinary knowledge on best products from around the globe. This city attracts more and more great chefs to come here and share their knowledge and experience. So the changes are evident and in a positive way.
Q: How is Hong Kong inspiring you with your new creations? You are known to present classical ingredients in contemporary and innovative ways.
A: Hong Kong is a dynamic city, a global metropolis at the crossroads of East and West, and at the same time rich in local flavor. My creation is inspired by everyday life, through research and preparation. It is not difficult to have new ideas.
Q: How would you define the "gastronomic memory" you wish to imprint on your diners' minds?
A: My creations look complex but they are of the most original taste that will take you back to some memorable moments of your past. I'm not a magician, I'm just a cook, but I have passion and love in my work. I try my best with my knowledge and experience to craft a gastronomic memory for my guests.
Q: You are introducing diners to southern Italian food they may have never seen before. What are some of these dishes?
A: All of my dishes are an experience. From the Buffalo mozzarella golden sphere, fennel seed bread crumble, crispy anchovies and Martini cocktail, roasted gnocchi, calamari and stew potato, to the baked Mediterranean blue lobster, basil bread crust, mashed peas and summer truffle ... The finale petit fours the guests will experience is the Cloud, made of cotton candy sugar filled with cookies and chocolates.
Q: You want to integrate Asian elements that marry well with classical Italian cuisine. Which dishes highlight this fusion of East and West?
A: I'm still working on the East meets West concept. The dish representing the best of this theory is the Sea Tiramisu -- Italian name and product, Japanese precision, light infusion of prawn oil with ginger and lemongrass.
Q. Your mother was your mentor. She was your school's cook. How has she influenced you through the years?
A: She shared with me all of her experience, her good sense of taste and her culinary knowledge. To me, my mum is the most brilliant home cooking chef. She has always been able to feed a family of eight with joy and passion for food.
Q: After working in various countries in Europe including Germany and Britain, your career took you to Asia in 1996. How did your brief stint in Malaysia influence your cooking since?
A: I spent one year working in Malaysia. During that time, I was able to gain more knowledge about Asian cultures that really attracted me and taught me how to make good use of different spices.
100 ml mozzarella liquid
5 ml vodka
20 grams tuna tartare
20 green olives
10 grams sun-dried tomatoes
10 grams breadcrumbs
5 basil leaves
150 ml olive brine
3 sheets of gelatin
Touch of green dye
Chop the first five ingredients and garnish with green olives. Glaze with a gel made from the last three ingredients. Dip the olive into the martini as desired.
(Editing by Elaine Lies and Patricia Reaney)