Entering Hong Kong’s food scene this March, Clarence took no more than a month to sweep foodies off their feet with what is known as a “Yakifrenchy” concept for its food. This week, The Loop HK is honored to have Clarence’s chef Olivier Elzer, whom you may know from L’Envol at The St Regis Hong Kong, speak with us.
How did you get into food and cooking?
Cooking is in my blood. I come from a family of culinary experts who instilled a love for food and cooking in me from a young age. My great-grandfather was a chef for the last Russian Czars and my grandfather ran three restaurants in Geneva. One of my earliest memories is of some fresh noodles and a beautiful veal he cooked for me, it was simple but so delicious. The passion he infused in the whole process from choosing the ingredients to cooking the food really made a mark on me.
I spent weekends helping out at my mom’s restaurant in Marseille, waiting tables and learning about Front of House operations. The first time I stepped into the kitchen was when I was only 12 years old. The sous chef called out sick one day so I volunteered to take his place without any training at all. It was a baptism by fire — I still remember that first service with him, as he showed me all the steps for everything I needed to do.
What training did you do to become a chef?
My stepfather introduced me to chef Christian Métral when I was 14, and I began my culinary education at the one Michelin starred L’Auberge du Jarrier. Back when I started working, you would work in a restaurant for a year to a year and a half, then move on to another Michelin-starred restaurant to learn something else. From L’Auberge du Jarrier I went on to learn from Pierre Gagnaire at his 3 Michelin-starred restaurant Pierre Gagnaire, and La Palme D’or at the Hôtel Martinez in Cannes under Chef Christian Willer, which had 2 stars. I also worked for Chef Eric Briffard at the two-Michelin-starred Les Elysees at Hôtel Vernet, as well as working as sous chef at Fouquet’s Barriere for one of my mentors Jean Yves Leuranguer.
What do you think are the most important attributes for a chef?
My traditional culinary education at so many prestigious restaurants gave me a strong foundation in techniques, skills and ingredients sourcing. I believe this should be the foundation for all chefs, along with a drive to evolve, willingness to try new things, and creativity.
What is your process for creating a dish?
As I mentioned, I have a strong foundation in sourcing ingredients thanks to my culinary education, so my dish creation process begins there. When I’m working with seasonal and high-quality ingredients, my dishes are always fresh and the flavors of what I’m using aren’t hidden under excessive seasoning. Though I put my creative twist on French cuisine, everything is about balance, and I’m familiar with what works and what doesn’t. At the end of the day, I want to keep surprising my guests with something new every time.
What are your favorite ingredients to work with?
As shown by the Raw & Wine Bar menu at Clarence, my favorite ingredients to work with are citrus fruits, particularly French citruses like Citron de Menton. I also love working with fresh seafood and I visit the local seafood markets with my wife every weekend to discover new oceanic ingredients to use in my dishes. Simplicity is key with the raw preparations and the citrus fruits bring out different flavors of the seafood that guests may not have tasted before.
What do you consider to be the standout moments of your career?
My first Michelin star. By the time I was 27, I had worked for a lot of Michelin star restaurants and I decided to do my own thing. Although I was working in Paris at the time, I decided to leave Paris and go to the countryside in Burgundy to open a restaurant in an abbey (with monks). The place was in the middle of nowhere, the nearest city was Dijon, which is 40 minutes away. There, I had time to digest my 13 years of learning from different masters and chefs and to develop my own style without the pressures of being in a Parisian kitchen. Because I was somewhere remote, I was able to try different things and after 11 months, I managed to pique the interest of Michelin with Abbaye De La Bussière and won my first star, even in such a remote location. This is something I’m very proud of.
Plus: Joining my mentor Joel Robuchon at L’Atelier in Hong Kong, where we were honored with 3 Michelin stars together. This was a dream come true as I was the one cooking in the restaurant every day and the hard work paid off.
Also, getting my second star at L’Envol in two years, and maintaining the two-star rating this year. To get these stars, I had to rethink everything to create a new experience for my guests
Finally, opening Clarence, as it’s a combination of my inspirations and culinary education in Asia so far with my French heritage. I’m presenting my creative new format of French cuisine to a wider audience.
What makes Clarence unique in the Hong Kong dining scene?
There are a lot of interesting restaurants in Hong Kong that do fusion cuisine or a medley of ingredients and techniques. Though we may use Asian cooking methods, Clarence is not a fusion restaurant. It’s a French restaurant at heart, with traditional recipes, flavors and ingredients. By using cooking methods like steaming, robata and teppan, we are offering a new format of French cuisine that is much lighter.
Clarence also offers diners a chance to choose their own dining experience, as the restaurant is separated into three different areas: Raw & Wine Bar, Sommelier Room, and the Main Dining Room. The menu is available throughout all areas, and can satisfy all cravings from happy hour drinks and raw dishes at the bar to a full family meal of fish and meat cooked on the bone in the main dining room. My patented Yakifrenchy concept is unique to Clarence and Hong Kong as well, where we prepare French classics on the robata grill. We also encourage diners to “Trust the Sommelier”, with our Sommelier Room housing a curated collection of rare and exquisite wines from lesser-known vineyards as well as hidden gems. Our sommelier will guide the wine pairings according to what guests order and what they like to drink: this is something that’s crucial to the Clarence experience.
How has your culinary vision changed throughout your career?
It takes time to build legitimacy. I’ve been in Hong Kong for 13 years now and have cooked for a lot of people. With this time, I’ve grown to understand local palates and their constant appetite for something new. I think learning is a lifelong process, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more mature with my culinary choices and philosophy. I want to evolve with my audience and my knowledge, but still keep the soul and traditions of French cuisine at the heart of what I create. By bringing together Asian cooking methods that I’ve learnt here with my French culinary identity, I can broaden the culinary horizons of diners in Asia and beyond with my creative French cuisine, and constantly surprise my guests, whether it’s from casual or fine dining experiences.
How do you see the food scene changing in Hong Kong?
French gastronomy in Hong Kong has aged like a nice red wine. When I arrived 13 years ago, I was pleased to see a strong French dining culture here, but as diners’ palates have evolved, so has the culinary landscape. Diners in Hong Kong are becoming more open-minded and curious about new concepts and flavors. For example, 13 years ago we would hear that our sauces and oysters were too salty, but now they’re not salty enough. In a similar vein, Hong Kong’s wine lovers were previously only familiar with popular or mainstream winemakers, but now people want to learn more about the smaller, under-represented winemakers who create smaller batches of artisanal wines.
There is so much diversity in Hong Kong’s dining scene, so we’ve had to mature and evolve alongside the market. I’ve been able to gain a deep understanding of the needs of the local market, but when you’re up against such intense competition and as customers become more knowledgeable and curious, we can’t let ourselves plateau. The world has opened up in a way that we can source the best ingredients, which is important as customers care a lot more about provenance now. We have to keep surprising them, which is what I strive to do at L’Envol and what I’m doing with this new format of French cuisine at Clarence.
What’s next at Clarence?
For the first six months after opening, our team will be working to put in place the standards and structures needed for Clarence as a concept to work anywhere in the world, even when I’m not present. Once we hit our stride we will begin to plan for the second Clarence so watch this space.
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