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Gastronomic Globetrotter: Agustin Balbi on His Journey to Andō

Gastronomic Globetrotter: Agustin Balbi on His Journey to Andō

By celebrating the culinary journey of its chef and co-founder, Agustin Balbi, Andō restaurant in Central has held a Michelin star for three years. But his sights are now set higher than ever.

Opening a fine-dining restaurant at the height of the pandemic must seem like an insurmountable challenge, but to not only thrive but earn a Michelin star just six months later – and to retain that accolade for three consecutive years – are achievements few can boast of. Yet that’s exactly what Andō’s co-founder, executive chef and Prestige 40 Under 40 honouree Agustin Balbi has accomplished.

“I opened the restaurant in July 2020, and it was very tough, because we didn’t know what to expect,” reflects Balbi. “But I was determined to make it work and I had the mental fortitude to do it, because of my previous training in Japan. Every day was a struggle there, so I thought to myself: ‘It can’t be more difficult than that.’”

With one Michelin star in his pocket for from 2020 to 2023, it seems natural that Balbi would want even more – but for him it’s not so much about the number of stars but the quality of his food and the mastery of his art.

“Of course, I think about the second or third star, and any chef at this level who tells you they don’t think about it isn’t being honest,” he admits. “But whether your target is three stars or whatever else, the ultimate goal for any chef really is to elevate their craft and develop their skills to a level that can be considered artistry. I always have this pressure, but it’s what I like, because it pushes you to the next level. I think it’s a very beautiful platform for you to keep improving.”

Given Balbi’s upbringing, cultural heritage and culinary journey, it’s clear to see why the chef prioritises perfecting his craft over simply accumulating more stars and awards. Born to an Argentinian family of Spanish and Italian heritage, food was something deeply embedded in his make up, and the person most responsible for his relationship to the culinary arts was his grandmother.

“I’ve been very lucky to have a great grandmother who cooks amazing food, he says. “It was basically her job: every day she’d wake up and ask me what I’d like to eat, and then she’d spend the entire day preparing the meals. I realise it’s something very special, because not every child has this sort of privilege. I think the way she used food was the way she translated care and love to me.
It sounds like a cliché, but for me it’s very real.”

Nonetheless, Balbi tells me it didn’t really inspire him to become a chef. In fact, it was almost by chance that he became what he is today. It was one summer, when every other kid and their family left town for the beach, that Balbi was stuck at home because of his father’s work obligations. Tired of him wasting his time, his mother suggested he went to work at the restaurant across the street, which was where he discovered his love for gastronomy. From there, he went on to study at culinary school in Argentina, then worked multiple establishments in the US before moving to Japan, a country he’d never planned to go to, but which shaped him beyond his own imagination.

“Because most people in Argentina are either Italian or Spanish or a mix of both, every single chef wanted to go to Spain or Italy or France,” Balbi explains. “But that was the easy way out to me, and I didn’t want that. So I took a very different, out-of-the-box route. I really wanted to learn how to cook seafood, because in Argentina we have no seafood industry at all. All we eat is beef. We only eat fish at Easter. They don’t know how to cook seafood properly, so I decided the two best places to learn this were Spain or Japan. The former wasn’t an option for me personally, so I chose the latter.”

As he’d been in the industry since he was 14, it wasn’t as he was a wide-eyed ingenue when he set off for Asia, but his experiences after landing in Japan were like nothing he’d expected.

“The country has changed me in so many ways,” he says. “The most obvious was the culture shock: I was literally from the opposite side of the world. The distance in kilometres reflected the distance in culture. I spoke zero Japanese, and not many people speak English there, so that made life very difficult. But soon I realised that I’d committed, so now I was there I had to work. That need of survival makes you learn things very quickly.”

He tells me of his inability to defend himself in the kitchen when something went wrong, because Japanese was foreign to him, so instead he’d strive to make as few mistakes as possible, focusing intensely on perfect execution. “In that kind of environment, everything was crazy. The first year I was there, I wanted to cry every day. But looking back, it was a complicated but very rewarding time. You either break or you become strong. I chose the latter, because otherwise you couldn’t make it, and that wasn’t something I’d accept.”

After years of long days and little time off, the Argentine chef decided he’d learned what he’d arrived in Japan to learn, and that it was time to move on. This time, he decided Hong Kong was where his destiny lay. Arriving in 2016, he joined Hideaki Matsuo’s team at Haku – and still looks back on his time there fondly. But by 2020, after almost two decades in other people’s kitchens, Balbi decided it was time to follow his own path. The result was Andō.

“I just felt I was ready to do my own thing,” he says. “Yes, at Haku I had a lot of freedom and I can’t deny I could do a lot of the things I wanted, but it was still inside of a frame. It wouldn’t make sense to stray too far from Haku’s concept, but that gradually made me frustrated. So I started to develop my own cooking and my own style, which eventually led to Andō.”

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At the helm of his own Wellington Street restaurant, Balbi now celebrates what he deems most important: his own cultural journey. Combining the Spanish cuisine of his grandmother and the Japanese gastronomy he so painstakingly mastered, he offers a true reflection of his own experiences through menus that change regularly.

“It’s about the seasons and respecting what’s available,” he explains of his philosophy. “I believe being a chef is just being a bridge between our patrons and what nature has to offer. If you want to know the difference between Western and Asian cooking, I see it through their fountains. In the western world, you’ll see these ornate fountains with angels spurting water from the bottom up, and it’s very unnatural, but it’s made to show the skills of the artist. ‘Look, I’m the artist, look what I can do.’

“But in the east, you see more natural elements like wood and stone, and the water comes from top to bottom. It’s not about what the artist can do or their ego, but how beautiful nature is. It’s about making it look as close as possible to reality and simply admiring that. Cooking is the same, and the latter approach is what we use here.”

Given his fondness for Japan’s cuisine, it might seem surprising that Balbi, whose wife is Japanese, decided to move here, even if he did feel he’d learned all he could there. But for the first Argentine in Asia to receive a Michelin star, Hong Kong is the Mecca of gastronomy.

“To be honest, Hong Kong is the best place to be if you want to be a chef,” he says. “When the pandemic hit, we could do lunch from 12 to 6pm, but I thought to myself: ‘Who’d come eat lunch at 4pm? We’d only have business from 12 to 3pm, and we’d have no dinner service, so we’d have no money. It will be a disaster.’ But then we started seeing 4pm bookings. Fully booked. It wasn’t just Andō – other restaurants were seeing the same thing. People would come dressed well and buy bottles of wine and really enjoy themselves. And after 6pm people would hire you for catering at their homes because they were having dinner with their friends.

“In Europe or the US everything shut down – and even in good times, if you’re a foodie or gourmand you might go out for dinner two to three times a week. But here, it goes from Monday to Monday. Every day, people go out to eat. I always joke with my friends: in Argentina, our national sport is football. And in Hong Kong, the national sport is eating.”

Source: Prestige Online

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