By Cathy Yang
HONG KONG, Feb 26 (Reuters) - David Laris, who made a name for himself at the iconic Mezzo in London, is now bent on making his mark in Hong Kong by convincing the city's discerning diners that they can do fine cuisine without pretensions and a stiff upper lip.
The Australian-born Laris, who has opened restaurants in Beijing and Shanghai, is best known for LARIS at Three on the Bund, which has picked up top ratings in local food guides such as the Miele Guide.
Reuters spoke with Laris on how his ethnic influences shaped his cooking style, and why he thinks Hong Kong is fertile ground for nurturing his own culinary philosophy with his new restaurant, LARIS Contemporary Dining in Hong Kong.
Q: You've spent much of your childhood in Greece and took on a classic French apprenticeship in Sydney. How did these early influences shape your life as a chef?
A: I lived in a small village in Greece from the age of six till ten so it was an age when a boy is taking in a lot of the world around him in. It definitely gave me a love of adventure. I liken it to a Greek version of Huckleberry Finn, I joke to myself, running around the country village, and spending summers by the sea with my extended Greek family ... Being part of the olive harvest, fishing with my grandfather, uncle and father in the Mediterranean with our little boat, growing watermelons, seeing the tomatoes drying on the side of the road that would be later turned into tomato paste, seeing all the ladies in the family gather for full days of cooking, the killing of the lamb for Easter in the farmhouse courtyard, stomping grapes for wine, tenderising giant octopus on the side of the road with a stick and water and whole days that seemed to be surrounded by eating, drinking and family are memories that will stay with me and become part of my life's story.
Perhaps with such strong imagery, taste and smell connecting me to these early years, it was destined that I would develop a long love affair with food and cooking. I believe everything we do and see in life somehow influences and shapes our perception of the world. Then stumbling into a French apprenticeship began to further shape and define all those influences into a solid approach to cooking.
Q: How did you come up with the concept of LARIS in Hong Kong, cuisine described as "modern dining with an Australian flair and global approach"?
A: It is an evolution of a lifetime of cooking and styling plates in fashion and approach that is my own. Many of the dishes are from the original Laris or new dishes I have been working on over the last year or so. What I constantly do is evaluate and evolve them to be relevant in today's approach to cooking or at least as I see it. This is a simple way of saying let's not box in or define what can and can't be used in the Laris kitchen. I like to keep my menu vibrant and fresh. I like to surprise and delight, have moments of playfulness while still being grounded in solid cooking techniques and I also like to use the most up to date approaches that are out there while continually creating new ideas.
Q: You've mentioned of a "long love affair" with "elegant unpretentious dining". How does that all come together at Laris?
A: It is about the way I hope you feel when dining in Laris, I want the food to feel elegant, the service to feel elegant and set the diner at ease so we can be there to create an experience for them, it should always be about the guest and not about our ego. I hope people get that there is refinement without the need to be arrogant or pretentious.
Q: What have you learned about the Chinese palate for fine cuisine from LARIS at Three on the Bund in Shanghai? And how are you seeing their taste evolve with LARIS in Hong Kong?
A: I really don't look at it that way, so it is a hard question to answer. To be honest, perhaps if apart from what I have already have said I can add the following, I think mainland customers have become increasingly adventurous in their desire to try new global as well as innovative cuisine. I have never written my Laris menu for one market or another; otherwise it would not be possible to be honest in the creative process. You have to be first true to the food and the nature of the food in the concept and if you are truly honest then this will come through to the palate.
Q: You've traveled extensively, such as Macau, Hong Kong and Hanoi. How did these travels influence your way of cooking?
A: Very much so. Everywhere I have been, travelled, eaten and seen influences my own evolution as a chef, how could it not? Asia is a such a vibrant, rich and diverse set of cultures and flavours, once you have opened the door to the flavors in this part of the world it is impossible to go back, and who would want to? ... We are the sum of our parts after all and a big part of me is my time in Asia with the food, the culture and the people playing into everything I do, as with my earlier influences, these are important and continue to shape me. I still discover new dishes and ingredients all the time and think of how I can interpret or use them in my own style.
Ocean Trout Tataki
400 g ocean trout filet, skin off
10 g (2 t) sake
30 g (2 T) Japanese vinegar
5 g (1 t) sea salt
2 each eggs
40 g (2.7 T) XO sauce
40 g (1.4 oz) Keta (Russian) caviar
1. Boil the eggs for eight minutes to get a soft-boiled yolk.
2. Peel and separate the yolks from the whites. Discard the whites and mix the yolks together and reserve.
3. Marinate the trout in sake, Japanese vinegar and sea salt for 20 minutes.
4. Cut the trout into four portions and lightly season with sea salt.
5. With a blow torch, sear the outside of the fish until you have a nice crust and the centre is raw but still warm. (If you don't have access to a blow torch, the fish can be seared very quickly on all sides in a very hot pan with some cooking oil.)
6. Cut each portion into 4 pieces and place on the plate. Garnish with XO sauce and the caviar. Pipe the egg around the fish.
(Reporting by Cathy Yang, editing by Elaine Lies)