“(Chef Umberto) Bombana taught me to keep things simple and let the ingredients shine,” said Chef Armanni. “That’s the essence of Italian cuisine.” The 35-year-old Italian-born chef – whose creativity and understanding of top quality ingredients won Michelin recognition just 16 months after opening his first restaurant – helms the one-starred Octavium.
We were delighted to sit down with Chef Armanni to talk about his culinary journey, the delicate dishes on the Octavium Experience tasting menu, and his view on social media food photography.
1. Can you tell us about your culinary background? What drew you to the kitchen? And how did your journey bring you to Hong Kong?
I grew up in a small mountain village in Bergamo, where I used to make fresh pasta with my grandma in the kitchen. That’s how I started cooking. Then I took a summer job in a trattoria near my home at 15 and moved to Milan for an apprenticeship. I then moved to Switzerland for 3 years, became a private chef on a yacht for another couple years, before then going to back to Italy to work in a traditional restaurant to learn more about Italian cuisine.
Through traveling and working with people from many different cultures, I picked up English, and I felt like I could go anywhere. I called Chef Bombana’s restaurant in Hong Kong to see if there was any opportunity to work alongside him. I didn’t actually know him (!) but he is from the same area where I am from, so I decided to try my luck if I could gain some experience. After a while he sent me to Shanghai for the opening of the second Otto e Mezzo restaurant, and then we actually went separate ways as I wanted to go and work in Japan.
After a few years in Tokyo I came back to Hong Kong because of Bombana. He was preparing to open Octavium and he offered me the chance to be the head chef, to cook my own ideas. This was a big step for me after being in the kitchen for 15 years. I wanted to take the chance and see if I can handle it, and it all worked out in the end.
2. What is the most valuable lesson you learned from Chef Bombana?
What I am cooking now is a mix of all the experience I gained from all the chefs I have worked with. Bombana taught me to keep things simple and let the ingredients shine. If you have good ingredients and cook them perfectly, the dishes speak for themselves. This is the essence of Italian cuisine.
3. Octavium is a restaurant that focuses on product. Where do you source ingredients and what’s your process?
Our menu is seasonal. Our suppliers are similar to the other restaurant of Chef Bombana and also some of other chefs I know. I have an Italian supplier who helps us source the best vegetables and maintain the highest quality of ingredients we serve at Octavium. We also use fish from France, lamb from New Zealand, and truffle from Australia. To be honest I have never seen so much white truffle before I came to HK, not even in Italy. But that makes HK an interesting place to be a chef, where you get the best produce from around the world. For example, we mix Japanese clams, from which we get the nice and meaty texture, and Italian clams, from which we get the salty sea flavour, to achieve the perfect balance for our Spaghetti alle Vongole.
My work experience in Japan really helped me to recognise top quality ingredients. Even before that, I learned as a kid in my father’s orto (garden), where we grew a lot of fresh vegetables.
4. What brought you to pair duck breast, cherries and Australian winter truffle in the “Challans Duck Breast” dish?
I have never done it before and I thought it’s a good dish. It wasn’t too difficult as I had the duck on the menu with a different garnish already, so we tried with the cherries and truffles, tasted it and fixed it. This is what you can only do in Hong Kong – to be experimental with dishes.
5. Has the social sharing trend affected your work / the way you plate your dishes?
I do like the idea of professional food photography, which gives us the respect we deserve. But no, social media hasn’t affected me at all. Of course I have social media to show people what I do as a chef. But I am not very good at it. Nonetheless, I have always considered plating the last step of the dish. We source the best ingredients, then we give them flavours, and then we present it in an intriguing way. So I think plating is equally important as other parts of what we do. With or without social media.
6. What’s next for Octavium?
At the beginning Octavium was opened as a private kitchen, and Chef Bombana and I were not too sure what I can make of it as it’s my first time being an executive chef. We are very honoured to get the Michelin star 15-16 months after opening, which is an honour for me and the team. Right now we are focussed on getting the restaurant popular, so I am not sure what the next step is either haha.