French-born chef Olivier Elzer is best known in Hong Kong for his work at the Mandarin Oriental’s French fine-dine, Pierre, and his own venture, the more casual Seasons by Olivier E. Now, Elzer is once again back in the world of fine-dining with the recent opening of L’Envol at The St. Regis Hong Kong. Gayatri Bhaumik talks to the chef about his influences, his take on Hong Kong diners, and what he hopes to achieve at L’Envol.
How did you get into cooking?
I always say I was born a chef, and I will die a chef. I think what I’m most happy about is that I found my career very fast – I was very young. My mum is a very good chef, but more casual, and I used to work at my mum’s restaurant at the weekends to help her out.
One day, the sous chef called in sick. I was cleaning glasses at the bar; we had a full house and it was a Saturday night, so I told my mum I’d help in the kitchen. When I went in, I was told to do the starter and the salad, and I realised that this was what I wanted to do. I was lucky that I found my career very easily and never quit.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career?
Joel Robuchon was definitely one. For me, he was a mentor but also a close friend. He was always very generous with me, he was like my second dad in the kitchen.
Another one is less popular, Jean Yves Leuranguer. He helped me a lot because I met him at a young age, when I was very green. Because of him, I met all the big chefs, and never had to send out resumes for work. When I wanted to work at two or three Michelin star restaurants, he was the one calling them up and putting my name forward.
So these were two key people. There are a lot of others, of course, but these were the two main ones. I’m very thankful for both of them.
You’ve collected quite a few Michelin stars over the years. What do you think it takes to get to this level?
People think you only need a couple months of training and then you can be a Michelin star chef. It’s not true. It’s a really difficult job.
I don’t feel the pressure [anymore]because I’ve been doing this for so long. I’ve already had the pressure of the chef screaming at me in the kitchen every morning and pushing me to find the best vegetables and fish – it’s become my pattern. So now, my default is that if I don’t like something, I send it back and give my team a hard time.
Of course, there are criteria to making a fine-dining setup. It’s not just about kitchen skills. Yes, that’s important, but what’s also important is the restaurant [ambiance], the plates, the tablecloths, the staff. It’s a whole setup.
What brought you to Hong Kong?
It was my taste to travel. I was very young at the time and had a dream of going to work in America. I had two opportunities, but I decided not to pursue either of them. I was working in Burgundy, France, when Pierre Gagnaire contacted me and asked me to take over Pierre at the Mandarin Oriental [in Hong Kong]. He had one Michelin star, but he wanted to get two stars otherwise his contract there would finish; so he asked me to come help him.
I remember when I got the email I thought it was a joke. I didn’t know anything about Hong Kong! But my ex-wife told me to just go and have a look, so I did and when I arrived, I fell in love right away. I used to love New York, and I really feel the same energy in Hong Kong.
How has Hong Kong changed your approach to food?
People here are very accurate – they know what they want. When they go to a French restaurant, they want a beautiful place, they want good service, and they want seasonal items that keep changing. So we follow the seasons and refresh the menu very often to give them the best ingredients handled with attention.
Obviously, France is a huge country and there are many regions with lots of dishes, but if you choose a dish that’s too French, it won’t work in Hong Kong. So it’s up to the chef to be smart enough to select the right seasonings or a nice way to put ingredients together that works here.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced with running a restaurant in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has a real economic dilemma. We all know the rents are the most expensive in the world, so you know when you’re putting a business plan together you will definitely be impacted.
As a French restaurant, we’re bringing in products from 10,000kms away and have to pay a 40% increase on the price in France, but we still have to be as competitive as restaurants who source ingredients more locally. It makes it tough.
How did L’Envol come to be?
In August 2017, the St. Regis guys came to my restaurant [Seasons]. They had dinner, and I thought they were Michelin [reviewers]because they were very formal, businessmen types. They asked me for a private word so I thought they were definitely from the Michelin Guide, but it was actually the St. Regis people.
They asked me to take over here and they showed me the plan for The St. Regis Hong Kong and L’Envol’s kitchen. Of course, I wanted to put my personal touch, so I said if we wanted to do fine-dining we had to make some changes. It took a year and a half, but I had the chance to be involved in the kitchen and layout of everything. Coming back to fine-dining after four years, I had high expectations for myself and The St. Regis Hong Kong was a unique chance to take.
What are you most excited about with L’Envol?
I think for me, it’s coming back to fine-dining. Because that was where I was getting frustrated [at Seasons]. When we opened Seasons, it was a casual restaurant. We didn’t expect any stars, but we got one four months after opening. But when people came, they were like, “oh, this is it?”
Here at L’Envol, I can do better things in the kitchen, so I’m really excited about it. We’ve got great staff, a great kitchen, and all the right ingredients. I think it’ll be cool to look back after a year and see how far we’ve come.
So are you shooting for a Michelin star at L’Envol?
Yeah, of course. Absolutely!
Your menus at L’Envol change very frequently. Why is this?
I have a loyal clientele, many of whom have known me for a long time. They have high expectations of me. I think it’s important to refresh the menu because Hongkongers are sharp – they’ll come once and eat a dish, but if they come twice and eat the same thing, they won’t come back for another six months.
For me, it’s a painful process to change the menu so often because it means my team has to change a lot of ingredients and learn to do new dishes all the time, but we have to do it. Look around – it’s a Wednesday night and we’re full. We’re full every day for lunch and dinner because people know I change the menu all the time. People here go to restaurants all the time and if they get bored, they won’t come back, they’ll just go to another restaurant.
And how are you building these menus?
Seasonality. The lucky thing we have in France is that the seasons keep moving. The cocoa beans we have tonight are only available three weeks of the year, so we’ll have them on the menu for those weeks, then we have to find something else. Figs are starting soon, and peaches, and we’ve got beautiful mushrooms coming. So I’m already working on new dishes and menus for these.
Chefs are becoming celebrities in their own right thanks to Instagram and popular TV shows. How do you feel about this?
Okay so, to say it’s not nice would be stupid because 40 years ago, nobody wanted to be a chef because it was tough and required long hours. I think this new exposure inspires a lot of passionate people and it’s had a good impact, so I’m very happy with that. What I’m less happy about is that it can be too much. I think we sometimes give too much importance to chefs. I don’t want people to think the kitchen is easy. It’s a lot of hard work and it’s a long process. You don’t become a good chef easily.
So would you ever do a TV show?
Yeah absolutely. I have some options actually but I want to wait a bit. I’m really focused here. But yeah why not. I’ve actually always thought it would be interesting to do a TV show where I speak a little Cantonese! Can you imagine?!
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