The former executive chef of Mandarin Oriental talks creativity, El Bulli, and getting back to simplicity
Earlier in September 2017, we announced the opening of Restaurant Uwe, the eponymous restaurant of former Mandarin Oriental executive chef and the Krug Room front man Uwe Opocensky. As soon as the new restaurant soft opened, it was immediately fully booked for the next six weeks. Opocensky spent a candid morning with us at his new restaurant, showing us first hand what he has got up his sleeve at this new establishment.
The new Restaurant Uwe is small, considerably smaller than Beef and Liberty, which Opocensky also manages for the same group. “We first looked at the space, and thought this could be a spot for a pop-up for three to six months just to see how well the responses could be,” explained Opocensky. “I felt more in love with the intimate space, small but still holds four seats more than the Krug Room. The high ceiling caught me.” The petite dining space formerly housed Mediterranean restaurant Bayta, seats 16 guests. “We put together the restaurant within a month’s time, including having a birch tree installed at the centre of the restaurant. It is like having a piece of nature in the living room, which is the feel I hope to get in this new establishment.”
Uwe Opocensky is no stranger to fine dining. He was born and raised in Germany and started his first apprenticeship in a small village he grew up in. By age 30 he has made executive chef and moved to Asia, landed at the Aberdeen Marina Club before earning his placement at Ferran Adria’s El Bulli. “I was really lucky to be one of 25 successful placements for my year, out of 5,000 applications Adria’s restaurant,” recalled Opocensky. “I spent six full months at the restaurant, unlearning everything I ever learned and built new knowledge in the process. “ Opocensky moved on to head up the Mandarin Oriental flagship in Hong Kong, and for nine years spearheaded dining promotions with masters such as Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, and Daniel Humm. He moved on to lead Beef and Liberty, building the brand and expanding the burger shop in Hong Kong and the greater China region until now.
Despite taking up more managerial roles within the Beef and Liberty restaurant group, Opocensky still got it in the kitchen, as he splits his time between developing recipes and cooking at Restaurant Uwe. “I am never going to allow myself out of practice in the kitchen, especially with familiarizing on seasonal items. I have suppliers who can contact me on the latest available product, and I also work with a local forager who can help me pick out rare small edible leaves and flowers, “Opocensky explains while putting together his new signature Autumn Landscape before us: A garden set up with bone marrow candle burning beside cep tartlets of duck egg and girolles, a small glass of foie gras mousse with pickled blackberries, grilled sourdough bread, pickled breakfast radishes, and venison tartar with cep mushrooms. The picturesque display reflect on the chef’s knack to embrace the seasons, as reflected on creating the restaurant’s offerings as well.
“People often ask if I can describe my cuisine, to be honest, I’d like to not be put in a shoebox like that. Being at El Bulli taught me to create not only food, but also experience for the guests. You can see that in the Autumn Landscape, it’s something we start assembling in front of the guests to increase interaction between the chef and the guests, “detailed Opocensky. “But I must categorize my cuisine in three words, I’d say ‘seasonal’ and ‘hopefully delicious’ food.”
As a reputable practitioner of fine-dining at the Mandarin Grill and Krug Room and more casual counterpart at Beef and Liberty, the German chef has a lot to say about the evolution of fine dining. “It’s an evolution. There will always be a place for old-style fine dining, but this is the time when I would like to get simpler with my cuisine, breaking away from only doing sous-vide for the sake of it. At Uwe you will see me getting back to basics, I would even hand-crank my ice cream at the end,” explained Uwe. “The dining experience at Uwe should be about what I feel fine dining should feature high-quality products, beautiful serving, but in a more relaxed environment like this one.”
Opocensky sourced some of his exclusive produce locally, from wasabi flowers to baby spinach leaves, but certain products can be so rare their availability varies. “The langoustines we have here are from Faroe Islands. They are huge, and alive when they arrived. I served them simply seared, alongside fermented langoustine head coral. It has a sweet and savoury umami to the sauce, almost like shrimp paste, or oyster sauce, only sweeter and rounder.” The chef placed the simple langoustine and a dab of the sauce on an antique plate, one authentically dated back to Ming Dynasty. The 350-year old plate adds a luxurious touch, but it is the dish itself that should garner the attention and acclaim.
Getting back to simplicity is key for Uwe, as he demonstrated what he considered to be a ‘simple roast’, sourcing salt marsh lamb from Rhug Estate. The lamb shoulder is carefully slow-roasted for at least five hours, served alongside Brussels sprouts, carrots, lamb jus and garlic aioli, a personal touch.
The chef took out an old bucket, a hand-cranking ice cream device, in which cream was churned by hand in the past to make ice cream. Uwe Opocensky presented his signature dessert: Pineapple with rum raisin ice cream. “The pineapple has been hung over an open flame for two and a half hours, caramelising. We peeled and sliced the fruit, juicing the skin bit and adding bourbon and vanilla to the pineapple to make a sauce. Then we make a rum and raisin ice cream with Japanese cream, creating a richer, smooth frozen dessert,” described Uwe, demonstrating every detail on his dishes. “It is more about simplicity from what I do now. You can tell it’s still very complex at the back, but this restaurant, and everything to go with it, is also a change for me, than anything else.” From the overwhelming response since its soft opening, we have a feeling the chef’s fans know it too.