Marc Benkoe is Head Chef at Hong Kong’s well-known and much-loved Italian steakhouse, Bistecca
Marc Benkoe is Head Chef at Hong Kong’s well-known and much-loved Italian steakhouse, Bistecca. The restaurant, on storied Lan Kwai Fong in Central, is known for its house-aged steaks.
We chat to Chef Marc about living and working in Hong Kong, a very special T-Bone steak, and how working previously in the Cayman Islands gave him a whole new understanding of what fresh means.
So, Marc, your father owned a restaurant, and you had your first role in a restaurant when you were 15 years old – what’s the allure of the kitchen for you?
I was already in my young years fascinated by the energy and the buzz that comes out of a busy kitchen. I loved seeing people doing something perfectly under loads of pressure, crazy working hours and sweat, and still enjoying themselves and being proud of what they do. This was big for me.
That’s when I decided I want to be part of this – this profession that’s so different from your typical 9-to-5 job.
You worked at Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna as a young chef – what did you learn from this experience? How did it shape you as a chef?
The Palais was a great and unique experience for me, basically my first big gig in the kitchen scene. The restaurant was very well known at that time and rated 2 hats (the same as in the Australian rating system).
I guess the biggest thing I learned was that the TEAM is everything. The head chef, Mr Ernst Bader, took really good care of all of us. He treated everyone like his own kid, although obviously he also gave us a very hard time when we deserved it (more his sous chefs, though). But he created a very strong team connection, almost like family, and with that you can achieve almost anything.
So that’s what I try to re-establish in any restaurant I work in.
You then worked for 8 years in the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean – how different was it cooking there compared to in Europe?
Well, I started off in an newly opened Italian restaurant, so I was definitely in my comfort zone for the style of cooking. The only difference was the incredible fresh and always wild-caught fish and seafood. I hadn’t experienced that before.
There is no commercial fishing on the island so a local fisherman would call up and say, “Hey, I got a 90lbs yellow fin tuna, do you want it?”, and about 2 hours later you had an incredible piece of fish on the table. The fish had been fighting for his life while I was on the phone with the guy! That really changed my understanding of what fresh fish and seafood really means.
It was then that I started falling in love with ceviche and all sorts of raw marinated seafood dishes. So yes, definitely different from cooking in Europe.
Did all this change your understanding of what it means to be a chef?
Yes, I realised that there’s no “this is the right way to do certain things”, or better said: there is no wrong way! In these 8 years I learned a lot about different cuisines, techniques and flavours. so I am really grateful for that experience.
Besides fish and seafood, could you access all ingredients you needed there?
Ingredients-wise, everything you could think of was available, plus the extra local things.
Good to hear. You then moved to Hong Kong taking a role at Gordon Ramsay’s Bread Street Kitchen – did working in a restaurant that’s part of a global brand affect the way you approached cooking?
To be honest, I wasn’t working there for very long as it was more of a help-out situation. But I realised that it’s not really something for me; you can’t really be yourself, show your style of cooking and your creativity as there are always boundaries that you kind of have to follow.
Now you’re at Bistecca. Please tell us about the menu and your cooking style here.
Bistecca is a great Italian steakhouse in my opinion. It’s unique, it’s really rustic and very relaxed and casual.
The menu greets you with what I consider to be some of the best cuts of meat in Hong Kong, plus a nice variety of starters and salads. Of course there are also homemade pasta dishes, some classic Italian and some a bit more modern. Overall a very balanced menu.
What are your signature dishes, or a dish you’re most proud of?
That is a tricky question. I’d say all the steaks, but if I had to pick one it would be a six-week, beef fat-aged T-Bone steak. The T-Bone is covered in a thick layer of beef kidney fat and left to age for 6 weeks. I haven’t seen anything like it in Hong Kong.
What’s the Hong Kong dining scene like? How do you feel about working and living in Hong Kong? Are there any particular challenges or things that are easier here than elsewhere?
To me the Hong Kong dining scene is very vibrant, fast changing and extremely diverse.
I do enjoy working and living in this city, it’s the complete opposite of where I was before, but I have to say it won’t be the place I grow old. But as for now I really feel very positive about it. There are nice people, it’s a good environment, and, most importantly, there is so much good food from different countries to explore.
There are different challenges anywhere you go, but one in particular here is to locate things – I was running round in circles on my first day at Bistecca just to find the restaurant!
For chefs looking to work in Hong Kong, any tips?
As for every chef I always suggest the same: hard work and dedication, plus you have to believe in yourself. If you have to walk the extra mile, you should walk it; nothing comes from nothing.
For foreign chefs in particular, I suggest forgetting about everything you believe is right and instead be open to new things and learn to adapt.
Marc Benkoe, Head Chef at Italian steakhouse, Bistecca, in Hong Kong, shares his recipe for aji panca spiced pan-seared octopus and kalamata olives. Aji panca is a mild, berry-flavoured chilli grown mainly in Peru. You can find it here.
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