The Mandarin Grill + Bar has long reigned as the people's favourite for its consistently impressive modern European dishes under the decade-long reign of lauded chef Uwe Opocensky, retaining its Michelin star for six years running (but surprising many that it has never been awarded a second star).
Change tack completely and you have Beef & Liberty, the burger-obsessed fun house known for its cheekily named menu items (with none that reach higher than $125), oozing with deliciousness and strategically springing up outlets around the city. The newest location, in California Tower in LKF, opened two weeks ago, and it was unveiled that Uwe Opocensky would be taking on the executive chef role.
Uwe Opocensky's previous domain, the Krug Room at the Mandarin Oriental
The Lambo, Uwe's first creation at the helm of Beef & Liberty
Gaining Uwe Opocensky, a one-time elBulli stagiaire who has learned his craft cooking with the likes of the renowned Ferran Adrià, is quite the coup, and we were very eager to find out just why he swapped the Mandarin Grill for another grill, in a very different sort of kitchen:
Why the huge change after a decade as executive chef at the Mandarin? Was it the burgers calling to you? The people? The concept?
It is a mixture of all of them. I've known the main guys from Beef & Liberty for the last 12 years. One of them is a very good friend of mine, and we were always talking, jokingly, about one day we should do something together. Around about last year, they had the idea to come up with another concept and asked if I could help them, but I was full time employed with Mandarin, so I couldn’t. I always kept on talking to them, and then basically by the end of the year they asked why don’t I join them full time. I think what the group actually does resonates a lot for me with sustainability, being a little bit different, having fun and everything else, so it made a lot of sense for me. And burgers are like the golden food for chefs, so it’s the ultimate thing.
How will your skills gained at the Mandarin transfer here day to day?
I don’t think there is a big difference. The biggest difference is I don’t have them all under one roof. [Beef & Liberty has locations in LKF, Wanchai, Stanley and also one in Shanghai.] I think overall it’s a bit more complicated to run outlets in different locations because under one roof you can easily go up and down and everything gets delivered to the same spot, but apart from that, in terms of what we do, I don’t think there is a big difference.
Beef & Liberty's new California Tower restaurant
It’s easier. There’s less levels, but I think the Mandarin has always been quite forward thinking. If you think of the Mandarin, it’s a tanker; this is a speedboat – you turn left and right, and it goes much faster. There’s not such a big preconception about what people think we should be because we are a humble burger joint. With the Mandarin, you have five-star luxury, and a lot of this doesn’t really fit in. We are going to do a food truck, which I have always wanted to do. With Mandarin I kept asking, asking, asking, but there was no chance of doing it, and now we can do it. Anything I really want to do in my heart, I can do now. Whereas there were a lot of things we could do with the big financial muscle behind the Mandarin, but one of the questions they were always asking was, ‘Does it really fit in?' Now, there’s no preconception like with five star. It makes it much easier and also what attracted me do what I’m doing now. I’ve done five star. I love it and I think it’s great, but I’m really tired of saying, 'This isn’t really five-star style.' For me, those days have gone. I think people want to have relaxed dining; they want to have fun. Of course there will always be a formal part, but it's also a little bit more edgy. There’s no red tape, which I really love. It’s like a breath of fresh air.
On Mandarin Grill being the 'people’s favourite':
I’m always disappointed as everybody always says that, but we never got that recognition, and I don’t know why that is. The biggest dream was always to get a Michelin star, and after I got it, I wanted two stars, so I pushed for that for a long time. But I had a great time there. They always say if the Grill is not busy, the economy is not busy. But I love this stuff, and I’m having lots of fun. It’s a learning curve for me, being in a free-standing restaurant and trying to understand the dynamics.
Was it a big surprise for the Mandarin?
I think it was a bit of a surprise because the CEO just changed and our GM changed and then I changed. It just worked that way. I looked at it: I was at the Mandarin for nine and a half years, where could I go from there? I’m in the best hotel they’ve got – I would say I’m in one of the top five hotels in the world, I love Hong Kong – where can I go? I can either do this job for another 16 years before I retire. I don’t want to wear a suit, that’s not me, so I don’t want to move up the ranks that way. I was really stuck. Or I could jump and see what happens when I jump. And then I spoke to Justin (co-founder of Beef & Liberty), and there was this great opportunity. I either do it now or I could never do it. So that’s the reason why.
Was your wife supportive of you making such a drastic change?
I’ve been approached a lot of times for different things. Macau has knocked on my door for the last three/four years now, and Macau is great for another big hotel job, but do I want to do that? My wife was always very sceptical, but when I mentioned to her that Justin [Kennedy, co-founder of Beef & Liberty] had asked me, she didn’t even think – she said yes. It’s nice people; I don’t have to worry that I’ll get done over. It’s all about common goals. We talked a lot, over a year, and they took a bigger risk than me. They pulled me out of a five-star environment to do this, so it could have gone horribly wrong, but hopefully they have done their homework and it will work.
I don’t think of myself as a fine-dining chef because I had ten outlets and I did banqueting. It’s very versatile what I’ve done over my whole career. I loved being the chef of the Grill, but I also loved to be part of Café Causette, and I’ve got bigger diversity. If you’re a fine-dining chef and only ever cooked at the one-, two-, three-Michelin-starred level and then go down, it may become difficult. But I don’t have that gap, I don't think, or I hope not.
Vegetable crudités at Beef & Liberty
Of the above seasonal vegetables, Uwe says, 'One of my signatures was the flowerpot, and so this is a rustic version of that. I just toned everything down, but it still keeps my playful elements, which I’m known for.'
Tell us about the sustainability initiatives at Beef & Liberty. Will you try to add more?
They are already doing a lot. The meat will be only grass fed, not grain fed, all the stuff we use will be biodynamic, organic and all the materials – the straws, for example – are biodegradable, all of that. I want to bring in the knowledge of certain farmers that I have gathered over the ten years plus I’ve been in Hong Kong. I will bring in local foraging, and I will be really looking into local farming. I don’t think anyone has done it to the extent that I want to go to, but we are just at the beginning of discussing it. There are a lot of things, a lot of positive things, that we can look at and discuss.
B&L are known for their tongue-in-cheek burger names. What cheeky burgers will we be seeing next on the menu?
Everything that we do is a joint thing. The Notorious P.I.G. was before I joined, but all the names go onto a chat and everybody comments. [For the lamb burger] we had names like Lamborghini, Baabara or the Black Sheep. Lambo Part II is good because we had a lamb burger before, and there was a big request for it.
On keeping it real:
All the restaurants are very different. We really want to keep it not too cookie cutter. It has to be relevant to the location, what you’re offering. We’ve introduced brunch in the Stanley location. Stanley will be very much more weekend, kids, brunch. We are going to bring a big lunch menu into Wing Fung [Wanchai location]. They have a rooftop, so we are going to do barbecue nights. It will happen, but I don’t want to do everything and then fail at everything, so it's step by step.
The most important thing remains that we do everything homemade. We get our bread from Bread Elements; it’s a very good relationship. We change recipes with him all the time to get the right thing. It’s all about collaboration. We are going to work with the ladies from Raiz The Bar for their chocolate, because, again, I’m a big organic fan. I like homegrown or local businesses. For me, you can run very fast by yourself but can walk a very long way as a team. We have lots of great people to support us and who are going to push us a long, long way. Hong Kong needs more of that. That’s the reason we want to go more and more into that direction.
The bar area at Beef & Liberty LKF
Is the plan to open a more fine-dining restaurant within the group?
Don’t worry, it will come back but in a different form. By next year, I will go back into that field. For sure. Because the whole idea of what we want to do, we want to spread ourselves across, and I need to have a creative, fine-dining element. To create delicious go-to food, we want to have a whole spectrum.
When is your fine dining/not fine dining coming?
I promised my wife after March. I need to have some weekends off, apparently. Also, we need to give it time as we’ve got so many requests to open new branches, and we’ve got to get that ready. I only want to start my thing when I’ve got a few more things running. I already feel a bit on the back foot, so I want to push a little bit more forward. We’ve looked already at some spaces. We found an amazing place, but the timing was wrong because they wanted to give it to me now, but I don’t have time now. I would say end of March, beginning of April I should be there. I don’t want to be too long out of the game, but six to eight months is okay.
On reasonable pricing:
That’s another thing I really like. People are fed up of getting ripped off. We are very, very fair in what we do. We are going to do something also quite shocking to the industry at one point about our wine policies, which is very close to my heart. I would rather have you having three bottles of wine and say, 'I had a good night. I’d do that again' than saying, 'That was steep. I’ll do it again in two months' time.' Even when I’m going to do my fine dining, which isn’t even really going to be fine dining, the price point will be very reasonable because I want you to be able to come two or three times a month.
What can we expect to see next at B&L?
I’m trying very hard to create the ultimate burger. The problem is, I don’t have enough time. I can’t complain about that, but that should be ready by mid-November.
I think the food truck will be a big thing. [B&L were one of the 16 chosen to operate food trucks under the government's new scheme.] We’ve got all the licensing and everything, and every six weeks we have to move locations. We are looking at the locations of the food trucks to see if it is worth having more on [the menu].
And we are going to build a private dining room, how can I describe it, modelled around the Krug Room but not the Krug Room, in here. It’s going to be a stripped-down version of what I did before, a little bit more funky, a little bit more raw. So we’ll do like steak tartare on the table, directly, you get the whole animal on the butcher’s block, no plates, only cutlery. Instead of doing champagne pairings, we’re going to do beer pairings. So it’s going to be a very fun experience.
I am happy. I’m excited. But there’s so much to do, so it’s buzzing all day long. We’ve had great feedback so far, and you never know, as a chef you’ve got an idea, but you never know what the perception is, and I never expected this huge thing, but it’s really taken off.
3/F, California Tower, 30–32 D'Aguilar Street, LKF, 2450 5778