The rustic exterior of 208 may be the standout in the charming neighbourhood in Sheung Wan, but the real treasure of this famous Italian restaurant is the heart the team pours into serving the amazing Italian fare. We talked to 208 Head Chef Zeno Bevilacqua, the young and brilliant tastemaker, about his culinary secrets, the new 208 menu and his view on food photography in this episode of Behind the Dish.
1.Can you tell us about your culinary background ? How did you arrive at 208?
I started working in the kitchen when I was 15. It was a family-style restaurant run by four nonne (grandmothers) in the kitchen. They taught me how to “free-style” – the way of cooking that has no rules but to cook with your heart. Later, I moved to work in some upscale restaurants in Italy, London and France, where I spent 4 years in a seafood restaurant until the Michelin star chef in the group needed someone in his new venture in Hong Kong. That’s how I came here. After some time, I left for 208, working as a second chef to Chef Michael Bolam, and eventually I took the position of head chef when he left.
2. What are some of the best bits and the challenges of working with a diverse team?
It’s difficult for me because I came here with a European mentality. That is, we are generally loyal to a workplace as jobs are not always available in Europe. If you work in a kitchen in Italy, you work there for at least 3 years. Here, people come and go. I am lucky to finally have a team that I can trust and share culinary experiences with. Most of them followed me from my previous teams, so I really appreciate them, especially my second chef, Justin.
I enjoy sharing and exchanging ideas with the team. To me, there’s always room for improvement. We bring our knowledge and experiences to the table, trying to push dishes to the next level. I actually combine Chinese cooking techniques in a few of my dishes to develop a richer flavour profile, and our customers like them a lot.
3. How would you describe the 208 dining experience amidst other Italian restaurants in HK?
We want our guests to feel like home at 208. We offer both casual and formal dining experiences in our bi-level restaurant. If you just want to relax or catch up with friends, we have one of the nicest bars in HK on the ground floor. We have an open area so our guests can choose to sit outside to enjoy the nice weather as well. If you are on a date or other formal arrangements, our space upstairs is perfect for that. On Sunday, we welcome families with a family brunch menu. This is crucial because the food we offer has to register the same concept, to make sure everyone enjoys spending time here.
4. Pizza is one of the signatures at 208 and we love it! Can you share with us your secret?
It’s all about love, patience and following what you do. Pizza isn’t difficult to make, but you have to understand the weather because the yeast is alive. I teach everyone in the team how it works so that we can always serve high-quality pizza.
5. We know that you have included more vegetarian dishes in the new menu. How do you balance the traditional, authentic Italian flavours while using alternative ingredients?
It’s a trend but not exactly a new trend. My grandma used to eat vegetables all day long because meat was expensive and fish was difficult to come by in central Italy. Therefore, vegetables and fruits have long been part of our tradition in the Mediterranean diet. Unlike meat, vegetables require less treatment, so the best way to prepare vegetarian dishes is to keep it simple, like the raw cauliflower on the new menu.
6. What’s your favourite dish from the new 208 menu?
It would be the Vegan Amatriciana. When I first came here, many people asked for a vegan pasta, so I made vegan amatriciana with ingredients I like: bell pepper, onion, garlic, caper and some tomato to give a touch of colour. Surely you cannot compare it to the original dish but it is still exceptional.
7. Speaking of the new menu, is food presentation a key factor in the creation of a dish? And what do you think of social media’s food photography trend and how does it affect your work?
Absolutely. Plating is always very important. However, I don’t put garnish. I do it the way it should be done. When you take a photo of my dish, you have to catch the essence, and that should be the same as what you get on the table. With professional food photography, I get to spread my culinary concept – simple, easy and realistic. With social media, the restaurant gets free marketing effort, so it makes positive impacts in my opinion.