It’s a nod to Italy, Spain, Japan, and more.
Looking for a fresh start? Pack up and move to a different country. 😊
It sounds extreme, I know, but it’ll all be worth it in the end… you’ll see. (I do know, because I’ve luckily been able to live in three.)
Chef Agustin Ferrando Balbi agrees. He’s worked at restaurants in Buenos Aires and New Orleans, and he could’ve chosen to cook in European kitchens. Instead, he took a risk and headed to Japan to challenge himself and do more.
It was a risk because he’d never been to Japan before and did not speak the language, for starters. (Yikes.)
He recommends moving to another country for professional and/or personal reasons to anyone who’s thinking of the possibility. “In my case, it was because I was looking to learn something different from the usual route for chefs that is Europe,” relates the Argentinian chef, who is of Italian and Spanish descent.
“I felt that even though it would be an amazing experience, it was a path that had been explored already. I wanted something different, another point of view, and Japan was the right place for me.
“I would recommend to any young chef to travel outside their country and explore any different culture they like," he continues. "It will open your mind and widen your understanding of the cuisine as part of the culture of a certain place.
“The bigger the difference, the better the impact,” he also adds. “Discovering the unknown will benefit your cooking in immense ways. Learning new cultures, new ways of thinking, new languages is very important. You need to be willing to overcome the difficult moments, and without a doubt there will be many, but the rewards are very big as well.”
The move paid off
While in Tokyo, Chef Balbi worked at 2-Michelin-starred Zurriola, 3-Michelin-starred Nihonryori Ryugin, and 2-Michelin-starred Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros. He also made it to the Top 10 Japan San Pellegrino Young Chefs (Under 30) in 2015.
“I went to Japan willing not only to learn about cooking – I wanted to learn everything I could, starting from the language, the cuisine, and the whole world that surrounded the act of dining. They have been doing this for many, many years, and it is beautiful to learn a different view from the one I had before going there as well.
“I learnt about the importance of attention to detail with the goal of making the guest feel special and valued,” he affirms. “The commitment needed to achieve this goal may sound simple, but it requires an immense amount of work to achieve.
“The gratitude in understanding that people always have a choice to dine, and if they choose your place, they deserve nothing than your very best. The team spirit, almost like a family, we’re all the individuals that come together as a group with a very strong camaraderie.”
Those lessons and his efforts paid off too
Because in 2016, Chef Balbi moved to Hong Kong and cooked for award-winning Japanese restaurant Haku. He was named La Liste’s Best Young Talent of the World 2019 and entered Best Chefs of the World 2019 at number 87.
“I came to Hong Kong with the same idea, willing to learn and immerse myself in the culture as much as possible to be able to understand the cuisine and how people understand cuisine here,” he explains.
“I learnt about the big love Hong Kong has for food. It’s like almost everything revolves around food. For a chef, this is almost like a dreamland. I learnt a lot about flavour combinations and balance in taste.
“While I am still learning, I feel very grateful to be here and excited, as there are so many things to learn here regarding cuisine, ingredients and culture.”
That’s all good to hear, as Chef Balbi has embarked on yet another adventure – and his approach is once again proving useful. For the past six months, he’s been running his first solo restaurant venture in Hong Kong, Andō, as its executive chef and co-founder, partnering with Hong Kong-based hospitality firm, JIA Group.
But he’s quick to point out that it’s not a one-man show. “Yes, it is my first ‘solo’ restaurant. Even the word ‘solo’ doesn’t bring justice to the team,” he maintains.
“For me, it is fantastic as a chef because you get the freedom to do anything you want, and for that I am very grateful to the JIA family and (CEO) Yenn Wong, who have been extremely supportive and are always pushing us forward.
“I must say I couldn’t be prouder of the team I recruited,” he further states. “Everyone is so passionate about Andō, from the general manager to the dishwasher. Everyone works at the best of their abilities because the word ‘solo’ means nothing in a restaurant like ours. We are more than a team, we are a family.”
Andō’s tasting menus have been described as “modern”, with unique “flavour combinations” that showcase the influences of Chef Balbi’s Italian and Spanish heritage, and of Japan. In fact, they’ve just earned one Michelin star in the 2021 Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau.
When Chef Balbi looks at his menus, though, they’re much more than that. “The first thing that comes to mind is happiness, and the feeling of being proud to be able to tell stories of my journey and have this kind of dialogue with my guests,” he admits. “We do not categorise the food with a location, but with a more personal message, and I see people understanding what we want to do.
“We are neither a Spanish nor a Japanese restaurant. We are Andō, and the way we want to tell our journey is by using flavours from my childhood with techniques I learnt in Japan,” he emphasises.
“It is something new here, and I am very happy people understand it. That was as well one of the concerns we had.”
So which ingredient was Chef Balbi happy to experiment with so far?
“Lately I had been experimenting with mushrooms from Yunnan – they are delicious and impart a depth to the dishes that is amazing – as well as some baby peppers that we pickle and turn into a beautiful flavour,” he reveals.
“The most recent thing that I am starting to use is an ingredient from the west of China that is spicy, sweet and savoury all at the same time. I am still struggling to pronounce the name, but I am thinking of what to do with it because I think it is an umami bomb.”
While Chef Balbi is trying to remember what it is, we glean a few tips from his favourite experiences in creating his menus at Andō, so we can feel the same sense of satisfaction and fulfillment when we “design” our own version of a tasting menu for friends and family. (It’s part of the reason why I wanted to write this post.)
“How well the ideas flow at Andō. The team is very connected and we work together extremely well. That makes things much easier, and I am very proud of it.”
#2 Be flexible
“How the team was super responsive and able to adapt during difficult times. For example, when the dinner ban kicked in, the team and I got together and developed a delivery/takeaway menu super quickly with the same mentality that we use at the restaurant.”
(For our part: I guess if a dish in our menu didn’t or doesn’t work well, or if we encounter a hiccup in cooking and serving, we always have the option to remake it or replace it. Or maybe just buy it. 😊 )
#3 Run tests
“How we involve the front of the house in our menu creation. Because for us a dish isn’t finished even if it tastes and looks good. We follow the process until the dish goes to the table, so how it is presented and explained is also super important to us.”
#4 Your feedback is valued
“How we have become one big family. At Andō there are no two teams (kitchen and front-of-house). We are only one, we are Andō. We are also super proud of this and we treasure it a lot.”
#5 It’s supposed to be fun
“How we all share the same vision and how we take care of each other. There is no screaming or bad behaviour. We use care and positive affirmation to make our team grow, while ensuring they feel happy to be here working and growing as professionals.”
It looks like Chef Balbi is doing well. But even if he’s busy, it doesn’t stop him from making time and discovering new foods in Hong Kong.
“I love all aspects of it. Of course, its cuisine is something that attracts me very much and I am doing my best to learn about it, even though the road is very long given that the cuisine was perfected after many centuries, and in a language totally foreign to me. But I want to break that wall and explore as much as I can.”
Where will we likely find him then? “Of course at a restaurant. Eating is a form of studying for me. I love going with my family and exploring restaurants that are interesting and have something new to offer,” he discloses.
“Also, I love visiting farms. For example, this Sunday, you can find me in one as we are going with my family to volunteer at a farm in Kowloon.”
It sounds like Chef Balbi’s settled in too. But he does miss a few things in Argentina (a drawback of packing up and moving to a different country). “I miss my family and childhood friends, those moments of sharing the same jokes or the passion for football that we have, its music, its lovely people,” he muses.
“And of course, nothing can be compared to an Argentinian asado. It’s almost like a divine experience.” 👍