“What didn’t you like about the meal?” That was the first thing Executive Chef Andrea Zamboni asked me when we sat down to chat after a lavish meal at Aria. A bit taken aback, I asked if he meant what I did like.
He said, “No, what you like is easy. What didn’t you like?” I don’t think I’ve ever had a chef ask me what I didn’t like about a meal or, quite frankly, be so open to criticism. Chef Zamboni is very open to critique, and his willingness to adapt is reflected in his ever-changing menu. I responded that, while he used a beautiful sea urchin, I was a bit tired of the flavour after multiple dishes containing the ingredient. He took this comment in good stride and admitted that he did go a bit uni-crazy after receiving a beautiful, fresh batch. As it’s an ingredient he doesn’t have access to all the time, he decided to go all out.
Aria is a stunning restaurant. Taking over the spot in California Tower where CÉ LA VIE once stood, the bright eatery offers panoramic city views, an outdoor terrace and an open kitchen. The menu is distinctly modern Italian, serving up some pastas and pizzas but veering away from tradition through its use of ingredients.
Sea urchin, wild strawberries, Amalfi lemon (off-menu special)
Chef Zamboni is incredibly passionate about ingredients. He speaks about herbs and vegetables with the same excitement and enthusiasm of a child describing his favourite toy. The chef’s positive energy is infectious, and I immediately wanted to know everything I could about the ingredients he loves so much. Anytime I mentioned that I liked a particular item, he rushed to the kitchen to show it to me in its raw form. He even gave me a box of fresh Italian lemons and limequats (a cross between a lime and kumquat) to take home.
Focus on global ingredients
Aria’s menu is incredibly ingredient driven. This is true of all Italian food, however, Chef Zamboni is one of the few Italian chefs around town who does not only use Italian produce – quite the opposite. In fact, his ingredients span the globe, ranging from Peruvian tamarillo to fermented lime from Qatar.
Seasonal salad and tart of fruits (including 6–8 types of tomato) and vegetables, Sicilian red prawn tartare and stracciatella
Chef Zamboni is so excited to be in Hong Kong, where sourcing ingredients is easy and accessible. Previously, the chef worked in China and now speaks fluent Mandarin as a result.
Working in China, finding ingredients was really challenging. Sometimes I felt like a drug dealer! [For example] truffle is illegal. Some importers say, “This is the price. I’m the only one who has it. You want it? RMB45,000 per kilo.”
This high price point is usually only reserved for famed Alba truffles, not just your average truffle. However, Chef Zamboni advises us not to always believe the hype surrounding these prized fungi.
The label doesn’t mean [the truffle] is from Alba. It doesn’t even tell you if the truffle is good or bad, just that the truffle is white. Travelling in Italy is not like travelling in China, where you get to Beijing from Shanghai in three hours. In Italy, we just finished a highway last year! Imagine a truck full of truffle, suffering a lot, for maybe 500km, 5–6 hours and only every two, three days. So the only guarantee I have for Alba truffles is that the truffles have already been picked up at least a week before they arrive. Anyway, I choose them one by one. I’m very picky. With my supplier, I’m super picky.
L’uovo: a tribute to Chicco Cerea, one of Zamboni’s mentors. An indulgent dish of scrambled egg, Livornese egg from Tuscany, poached quail egg, potato mousseline, Baeri caviar and ikura topped with white or black truffle (depending on the season)
Despite his difficulties in China, I asked Chef Zamboni if there were any ingredients he discovered there that he hadn’t known of before. He immediately mentioned celtuce, or wō sun (莴笋), which will be featured on Aria’s Valentine’s Day menu, as well as tropical (pink) guava.
I hate guava. There it is. Sorry, I hate guava. To me, it is a useless fruit. Like the dragon fruit, the only thing good about the dragon fruit is that on Fruit Ninja it’s 1,000 points!
One day, he saw his kitchen team eating a tropical guava, and after much resistance, they encouraged him to try it.
I said, “Wow. Order five kilos for tomorrow! We need to find a way to use it.” It looks like a passion fruit, tastes like Sauvignon Blanc. Very floral, very acidic. It’s unbelievable. Very different from a normal guava.
Look out for this unique ingredient on Aria’s spring menu!
Is it Italian?
Spring onion pasta made with raw spring onion and spring onion molasses (off-menu special)
This was the question asked by one Tripadvisor reviewer about Aria. The succinct reviewer simply asked that question and did not elaborate, but his rating was not actually bad. While many Italian chefs are stubborn in their belief that Italian food should be done a certain way and that tradition is not something one should veer from, Chef Zamboni’s views are more progressive.
What is tradition? It that simply something stuck in time? It’s a stereotype. At Aria, we see tradition as something dynamic and evolving. What was tradition for me will probably not be tradition for my grandkids. That is the fun part, sharing ideas, sharing ingredients, developing, evolving. Even when you do traditional food, it can be evolving. The carbonara I did 10 years ago is not the carbonara on the menu. We are trying not to be another Italian restaurant.
Sea urchin chittara
The current carbonara in question is the sea urchin chittara. Chef Zamboni uses diver-caught sea urchin from both Galicia and Brittany as a replacement for egg and aged pata negra ham in place of guanciale. The pasta is made fresh and in-house by Chef Zamboni’s team.
Turbot “xiao long bao” made with beetroot and squid-ink ravioli (the colours of AC Milan, the chef’s favourite football team) filled with French turbot tartare, crayfish and citrus
One of Aria’s signature dishes is Chef Zamboni’s take on his favourite Chinese dish, xiao long bao. His version is beetroot ravioli filled with turbot.
It’s ravioli, which is not Asian. We’re not doing dim sum; we’re just trying to make it a bit more fun. I’m silly – if we are what we eat, then I plate what I am.
While Chef Zamboni’s culinary style is definitely more on the playful side, his food is certainly not frivolous. Everything he creates is incredibly thoughtful, and a lot of love goes into each dish.
Homing pigeon done three ways: French (medium rare with butter and herbs, pan- and oven-roasted), Italian (à la Milanese) and Chinese (a tiny pigeon spring roll)
They say, “Ah, you’re Italian – you need to have pizza!” I say, “You’re Chinese – you must have spring rolls!” I like to tease people.
Seared scampi and foie gras, fluffy celeriac and black truffle
Chef Zamboni grew up in a small town in Bergamo, Italy. His first job, at age 14, was at a restaurant, after seeing his brother work as a waiter at Michelin-starred restaurants and high-end hotels.
When I was working as a waiter, I found myself watching the kitchen and saying, “Wow, that’s cool.” Watching the chef call the order, everyone saying, “Yes, chef!”, I started to have this romantic view of the kitchen. My brother said, “Why don’t you try?” So I started, almost as a joke. I’ve had one job in my life – it was this one. I fell in love, and I’m fascinated by the fact that through food, you can make people feel emotions, good or bad.
Chef Zamboni’s family have had a massive impact on his life and career. He comes from a farming family and remembers the toil of working on his uncle’s farm when growing up, getting goosebumps as he recalls just how tough it was. Because of his hard work on the farm in his childhood and especially now having so much experience in the kitchen, he believes strongly in sustainability and having respect for every single ingredient. He gleefully showed me pictures and videos of his cheese supplier in Italy, where the cheese is made by hand and cows frolic happily against the backdrop of lush green mountains.
Even a tomato – somebody planted this tomato, somebody planted fertiliser to make the plants grow. Even a single tomato needs to be respected when eaten. I believe in sustainability. I also use local producers, not just from Europe. I take a lot from Hong Kong, and I developed [as a chef] in China. I believe it’s fair to give back to the community.
Vanilla ice cream with caviar creates a salted caramel-esque flavour (off-menu special)
The chef speaks of his former mentors and fellow chefs with great respect and fondness. He first came to Hong Kong in 2009 at the age of 24. He began working as the sous-chef for Chef Roland Schuller of Octavium for a year and was part of the opening team of the now three-Michelin-starred 8½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana.
I believe Chef Roland is one of the most underrated chefs in town. He’s amazing. This guy can talk about a leaf of a lemon – not a lemon, just the leaf – for three hours. How you use it, where you use it, if you use it in this way, you have this flavour – everything!
My Italian lemon gift from Chef Zamboni
Another huge influence throughout Chef Zamboni’s life and career is his mother. His mother, who will soon be 76, has come to visit the chef in Asia at least once a year.
My mom is very cool. She’s a gorgeous cook. When I was in Guangzhou, she came for Mother’s Day. We did a promotion with six other chefs, and we cooked with our moms.
He showed me a picture of him and his mother in the middle of a heated discussion while cooking lasagne.
Here, I’m saying, “Mom, stop it. I’m the chef.” She says, “No! Stop it. I’m the chef.” She’s crazy.
His mother is also an adventurous eater and enjoys trying Asian food when she comes to visit.
[In Italy] my mom always goes to the same place to buy vegetables in the market. She goes to the 70-year-old lady who always sells the veggies. Now, my mom sends me a picture of pak choi! And she says, “How do you cook this one? It’s Chinese, right?” So, again, what is tradition? In 50 years, pak choi will probably be tradition in Italy.
Mr White: fennel, yoghurt, white chocolate, white truffle, burrata
Chef Zamboni also takes great inspiration from his father, who gave him this excellent piece of wisdom:
My father always said, “Andrea, you need to be exhausted.” You know, your back is in pain, your body is in pain, but you are not tired. If you are tired, you wake tomorrow and don’t want to go to work. But if you are exhausted, you get a nice sleep, [and] the day after you are a lion, ready to jump inside the kitchen!
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