HONG KONG: If Angelo Agliano’s parents had their way, he would not be cooking today. For five years, while he was at school he would go to work in a restaurant in the weekends and also during the evenings. “They were against me working in a restaurant but I finally won my battle because that is what I really wanted to do.”
It was not his perseverance when he was young that marked his career. For that, you need to fast forward some years when at the age of 26 he was asked to cook for French legendary chef Joël Robuchon’s 60th birthday.
It is an evening he still remembers very vividly and not because he had to change four times such was the stress. ‘I remember that evening when Philippe Gobert, who was director for the Robuchon group told me he was giving me this present of bringing 13 chefs who worked for Robuchon to the restaurant for a private dinner. At table, I was cooking for chefs that were responsible for around 30 Michelin stars. I thought to myself this was not a present but a nightmare,” the Sicilian chef said.
That evening he changed his chef jacket four times. “But at one point, I thought to myself that it was useless to overthink. You have to realise that if front of such genius you cannot do much. You just need to do what you know best in the best possible way.”
They gave me a standing ovation and I cried.
He still remembers what he cooked that evening as if it was yesterday. For starters he made calamari with a puree of chickpeas and sautéed chickpeas. Then he made a risotto with myrtle and taleggio which was followed by a classic lamb dish. The dessert that evening was a pannacotta with hazelnuts.
“After the dinner, they called me to the room. It was like a scene from the last supper. He was like the boss with his 12 apostles around the table. He asked me if I had prepared the risotto. He stood up and started clapping and then all the chefs started to clap. They gave me a standing ovation and I cried,” he says still feeling emotional to this day about that moment which has been a turning point for his career.
That evening, they gave Robuchon a Bernardaud dish with the word “If we dream alone we remain alone, if we dream together we start an adventure. Each chef took a plate with him and they also gave me one which I guard with pride till this very day,” Angelo told Food and Wine Gazette.
Today, Angelo is chef of Tosca di Angelo, an Italian restaurant at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Hong Kong. The highest hotel in the world, the restaurant has stunning views over Hong Kong island and Angelo is on top of the world.
Over the past months, he has embarked on a journey to invite some of Italy’s best female chefs to his restaurant in Hong Kong. This series of dinners is called Gems and Pearl. The first chef to visit the restaurant in Hong Kong was Valeria Piccini, the charismatic chef of Da Caino in Tuscany. We were present for this event. A few days ago, Antonia Klugmann, chef of L’Argine a Venco was in Hong Kong for the second event.
Angelo has deliberately selected five female chefs to cook with in Hong Kong. He wants to learn first hand from them. Speaking on his first experience with Valeria he said it was very exciting and touching. “I’ve never had such an experience of finding a personality that symbolises a mother in a kitchen. The more I got to know her, the more I discovered a person that is to be protected, that is like a friend and a sister. It is incredible how a few days managed to seal a bond as if we had been friends for a very long time.”
Truth be said, that is also thanks to Angelo’s hospitality in Hong Kong. He literally left his home to be able to spend more time with Valeria, her team and us while we were in Hong Kong. And he also left his restaurant to take us around, to show us a side of Hong Kong that as tourists it would have been impossible to discover.
When I go to a restaurant that is run by a female chef I have the feeling that I want to stay there for ever. The details in the restaurant, in the kitchen and in the flavours are something that only women can achieve
When he sat down to discuss the line-up of chefs with Andrea Petrini who is curating the event together with Florent Bonnefoy, he deliberately wanted something original. “The female figure is a bit hidden in the kitchen especially in countries like France and Italy where the kitchen can be very macho. But for me the female figure in a restaurant constitutes an eye for elegance, detail, sensibility and tact. When I go to a restaurant that is run by a female chef, I have the feeling that I want to stay there for ever. The details in the restaurant, in the kitchen and in the flavours are something that only women can achieve,” he said.
Why aren’t they recognised then I ask him. “I think that history is a part of this. In France and in Italy, historically the chef has been a male figure. There has not been a female ‘Escoffier’. Maybe it is also a lack of communication,” he said.
Angelo Agliano has been at the helm of Tosca, a Michelin star restaurant in Hong Kong since 2019.
He hails from Siracusa, Sicily and it is there that he started cooking and learning the ropes. He went to Milan, Germany, Munich, Dusseldorf. “My first high level experience was in Milan and it was another world. Then I went to London and that experience changed everything for me. He learned that if he had to grow he needed to grow a thick skin.”
After Switzerland and Spain, he finally landed in Paris at the world renowned Le Royal Monceau. In Paris he believes he started like a fish out of the water but slowly started to learn the ropes and within six months had learned how the system worked. “I loved it and thanks to the newspaper Le Figaro we were recognised as the best Italian restaurant in France and the one which made the best risotto.”
It was that risotto that ultimately landed him an offer from Joël Robuchon, an offer he could not refuse. That was the start of a career within the Robuchon group of restaurants. First he was recruited at the Metropole in Monaco under the executive chef Christophe Cussac. His task was to run a Japanese restaurant as well as the swimming pool dining restaurant.
From there came the offer to go to work in Hong Kong at the most famous Atelier by Joel Robuchon in 2010. Robuchon told Angelo to take a touch of Mediterranean sunshine to the grey weather and fog of Hong Kong. He was chef de cuisine with Michel del Burgo and Eric Bouchenoire and they managed to achieve three Michelin stars. In 2013, he was asked to go to the Atelier in Taipei where he stayed till 2016.
Despite the importance of Joel Robuchon for his career it was not always plain sailing for Angelo. “I arrived and it was very difficult. The executive chef had been working with Robuchon for 25 years and he was not easy at all. Today, I will do my best to defend my workers but at the time, working for Robuchon you were exposed. Everything had to be perfect. Once I made a rice with white truffle and it was the only time that I got praise while I worked for Robuchon,” he said.
One of the marks of Robuchon is standardisation. “In every restaurant, whether it was Paris, Singapore or Hong Kong, the dish always tasted the same. But to achieve that there needed to be a certain discipline.”
In Taiwan, he was offered the position of executive chef which he took but after three years he decided it was time to leave. “I asked for his permission to do something on my own and he told me that at 36 years he would not have expected me to stay so long. He told me he had opened his first restaurant at 36 and told me to be careful. I was really happy,” he said.
He found Chinese investors and opened a restaurant in Taiwan but it did not work out so he decided to close it after three years. He returned to Hong Kong and opened a restaurant after 3 months called Locanda dell’Angelo. The restaurant is still open and he goes there and cooks every Sunday when Tosca is closed. “We have 28 covers there and the boys that work are great. The restaurant is in Happy Valley.”
Angelo was happy with his work there but he wanted to also be able to shout that he was in Hong Kong. He fixed a meeting with Florent Bonnefoy, a former executive of the Michelin guide. Instead of helping me, he offered me the possibility to go to work at the Ritz Carlton.
Despite that he never wanted to be an executive chef at a hotel because he prefers to cook at the restaurant. “When they came to try my restaurant I did not realise they were from the Ritz. I thought it was a Michelin inspector eating at the restaurant. When they proposed to me to take over the Tosca, I accepted because this gave me the platform to be able to shout. Ultimately it will depend on me. It is not easy because the hotel is nine years old and there are other chefs but the satisfaction for me has been the team that has been phenomenal so far. This is the biggest motivation. If the results come, then it will be great,” he said.
Angelo goes to Sicily only once every year for Christmas but he is starting to miss it more and more. “ The more time passes, the more I miss it. Whenever I go, I see my parents getting older so I will try to go twice a year from now onwards,” he said,
We speak about what it means to be an Italian chef abroad. “I think an Italian abroad takes with him tradition, culture and sincerity. The main expression is sincerity. Food has to come from the heart. Then through each and everyone’s journey you can apply technique to traditions. What I tell my team is to put your heart into cooking, taste and don’t copy.”
And how does he see Italy since he’s left many years ago. “Not much has changed in Sicily particularly in a certain category of restaurants. At the same time, I am starting to see a lot more respect for ingredients and a lot of innovation. Emerging chefs are departing from tradition and that is a good thing,” he said.