Mandarin Grill + Bar at Hong Kong’s oldest luxury hotel was where we first encountered the precise and dazzling dishes of Chef Uwe Opocensky. He then surprised us all by moving from fine dining into the burger business, with Beef & Liberty crafting beautiful and affordable burgers for the masses. He spearheaded Impossible Foods’ Hong Kong launch of meat-free burgers onto the B&L menu and into the hearts of Hong Kongers as well as returned to his love of haute cuisine with the opening of his eponymous restaurant, Uwe.
In May last year, he garnered a flood of votes from our Foodie readers to take home the prize of Chef of the Year, a clear sign that his disruptive changes and initiatives have won him plenty of love from the dining public. In the run-up to this year’s Foodie Forks – vote here – Chef Opocensky has given us a rundown of what he’s been up to and what’s coming up next:
How are things at both Uwe and Beef & Liberty?
Things are great – I can’t complain at all! At Uwe, I’m working hard on the next menu change, which I’m particularly excited about because it’s a vegetable-driven menu. Meat takes a side role on this menu, so it’ll be interesting to see how guests will respond. Not only is it the right season for local vegetables, but what I’m really thrilled about is that they all come from the farm I work with, Yi O in Tai O on Lantau. I’ve been going back and forth for a few weeks now, and it never ceases to amaze me what grows on Hong Kong soil, from vegetables to exotic fruits and from all sorts of edible flowers to herbs – it’s incredible, really. I can’t wait to share this story with our diners.
At Beef & Liberty, I’m also working on a bit of menu development, enhancing our Leaves & Liberty offering (our vegetarian, plant-based sustainable sister brand of Beef & Liberty), due to the demand and success of Leaves & Liberty at Deliveroo Food Market in Sai Ying Pun and now Wanchai, as we are very passionate about sustainability and doing our part where we can.
These are two very different concepts. What do you enjoy about working on each of them?
Yes it’s very different, but I love the dynamics of it. At Beef & Liberty, I love the creative freedom and being able to reach a wider audience through a top-quality hamburger. A no-fuss kind of menu with an offer that is accessible and sells in high volume, so operationally this is very different. At Uwe, I get to work with some very rare and high-end ingredients through relationships I have built with suppliers locally and overseas; some of them supply exclusively to me. As it’s a small, intimate dining space, I get to interact with guests every night and love sharing my inspiration and stories behind each dish. I get to really tell my story, and I love that.
How have the restaurants evolved in the past year?
I strongly feel that in F&B you always have to be evolving, especially in the competitive Hong Kong market. As mentioned for Beef & Liberty, we are working on evolving the Leaves & Liberty offering – there’s such a demand for it, and people in Hong Kong are so much more environmentally and health conscious now. Stay tuned for vegan milkshakes, by the way! But, also, with a few burger joints/chains popping up, it’s important we stay on top and constantly review our menu offering, pricing and ingredients, hence some exciting specials are being introduced later this year. At Uwe as well, we have evolved quite a bit since opening – not just in terms of the menu development, but we have built a bit of a community with our neighbours in Sheung Wan and on Hollywood Road. My ceramics and plateware come from local artists, and then of course there’s the relationship with the farmers. I think it’s important to show and build a sense of community.
Why do you love the restaurant scene in Hong Kong?
It’s dynamic and diverse, a foodie city – almost on par with London and New York, I’d say. It’s a city full of well-travelled people with high expectations, people who look for variety and actually know a thing or two about food and ingredients. For a chef, or for me anyway, it makes it challenging and therefore keeps me on my toes, and I strongly believe that building a good, solid concept will create business. As a diner, I love it – from cheap local eats to some of the best restaurants in Asia, if not the world, they are all here on our doorstep. I love Hong Kong and see myself here for quite some time.
What current projects are you working on?
Well, I can’t say too much about it at this stage, but there are two new openings happening this year, so keep an eye out!
What do you hope will happen in the years to come within the industry?
This isn’t just me, but I think many will agree that it would be nice to see lower rents in Hong Kong to help young, aspiring chefs. We all know how it works in this city, and it’s definitely not in favour of an independent chef looking to open his/her own place. I would love nothing more than seeing independent chefs and restaurants rise above; diversity will help this city to grow. I also often see guests acting surprised and shocked when I tell them some of the ingredients come from a local farm, so I’d love to see organic farming become more accessible to help to support local farmers.
What do the Foodie Forks mean to you?
It’s always a very good feeling being recognised and acknowledged. We chefs work long, hard, unsocial hours. We don’t spend a lot of time with our families, and it’s tough, so receiving the Foodie Forks award last year meant a lot to me and my team as well – after all, behind every chef there’s a team!