What Next, Rolando?

Roland Schuller has fed guests on the Christina O, and given Happy Valley its best restaurant. Richard Li is a huge fan. What’s Rolando doing now?

Roland Schuller, one of Hong Kong's most exciting chefs, abandoned the city suddenly about five years ago, citing what he felt was the overwhelming pressure of trying to keep two top-ranked restaurants operating at the level of quality he demanded. 

Now he’s back, running what he considers to be a far more satisfying business, and having radically transformed his culinary philosophy.

After leaving Chez Roland in Causeway Bay and Roland's Terrace in Wan Chai, Schuller decompressed in Lugano, Switzerland for a while and then took over as executive chef at the Michelin-starred Don Alfonso 1890 near Naples, working under Alfonso and Ernesto Iaccarino as executive chef. He went on to become executive chef aboard the Christina O, the yacht named for the oil-steeped Greek princess Christina Onassis.

In January, Schuller gave Hong Kong's high-end diners a new chance to see what he is up to as guest chef at at Gaia, the Roman restaurant operated by the Va Bene Group in the Grand Millennium Plaza on Queen's Road, Central.

Schuller first came to Hong Kong to run a tiny Happy Valley restaurant called Alfred's Deli, where he delivered up dishes that captivated a growing audience that included such customers as Richard Li.

His dishes could be wondrously simple: an appetizer of New Zealand deep-sea scampi, for instance, shelled and dunked in ice water, then dredged with flour to give them a crunchy exterior, sautéed in olive oil with garlic and reinserted back into the shells to appear on the plate almost as if they were alive. Other dishes included light duck- filled ravioli with gorgonzola. A specialist in desserts, Schuller produced a wondrous chocolate flan as well.

The tiny restaurant was perpetually besieged by Porsches and Ferraris outside. His popularity spread so fast among Hong Kong's high-flying financiers and corporate buccaneers that he was encouraged to take on partners and operate the two new restaurants at once. Exhaustion and the pressure made him give them up, he says, and he simply left town.

During his overseas sojourn, however, the Austrian-born Schuller seems to have transformed his dishes into new shapes and appearances. Where previously at Chez Roland and Roland's Terrace the menu was classic Tuscan, he has veered off in new directions.

Visual puns abound: a cappuccino with a single biscotti, for instance, is actually a soup that includes emulsified beans, pine nuts and ricotta cheese, topped with a ricotta foam to imitate the whipped cream atop a cappuccino, then dotted with chocolate. The biscotti is actually an Italian panzarella pastry filled with smoked mozzarella cheese. What looks like salmon caviar atop a lavender ice-cream dessert is actually a strawberry puree mixed with agar-agar and other substances, then extruded through a syringe, drop by drop.

After his stint on the Christina O, the Iaccarino family offered Schuller the chance to open a new branch of the Don Alfonso in Macau's Lisboa Hotel next year, competing with Robuchon a Galera, the spectacular restaurant in Stanley Ho's gambling mecca that is operated by Joel Robuchon, Gault-Millau's "chef of the (last) century.''

He turned it down. "I wanted to stay small,'' he says. "The restaurant business is getting more difficult. Say your restaurant is full, you can't satisfy every customer 100 percent. If it isn't full, you can't make money.''

Accordingly, in January 2006 he opened small catering service in Ap Lei Chau, preparing dinners for the well-heeled. So far, he says, his clients are mainly foreigners, although some top Hong Kong businessmen have been among them.

"I want to give good quality,'' he says, adding that in Hong Kong partners expect an immediate return. "In Europe, partners recognize that for the first two or three years, you're not going to make money. In Hong Kong, they expect immediate profit.''

Rather than sacrifice the quality of his cuisine, he says, he would rather run a catering service that allows him to pay individual attention to customers, usually numbering 15 to 25.

For anybody wanting to sample his wares before putting out feelers, the menu he prepared for Gaia, where he will be from Wednesday through Sunday, gives an example.

It starts off with a tiny amuse-bouche in a shot glass of pureed white asparagus with egg white and cream, which is then turned into a foam using carbon dioxide gas. Suspended in the foam are shards of slightly sugared parma ham crisped in the oven.

That is followed by the ``cappuccino'' described above, then by a braised Roman artichoke stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic, anchovies and mint and topped by a single sautéed scampi, surrounded by a feather-light liquefied mozzarella cream.

The striking seafood pasta that follows was developed out of a classic recipe found, Schuller says, in the ancient Jewish quarter of Rome. It includes squid, prawns and other shellfish.

The final main course is two lamb riblets crusted with bread crumbs, pecorino cheese, basil and orange and lemon zest. On the side, instead of a usual sauce strong enough to match the taste of the lamb, is light and graceful ricotta gelatine in which appear tiny peeled and braised white asparagus stalks whose flavors are doubly enhanced with a light stock made partly of the asparagus peels, and sautéed with Parma ham and olive oil.

Accompanying the lamb are paper- thin crisps made of eggplant and pumpkin brushed with olive oil and baked.

Then the dessert: the lavender ice- cream and strawberry caviar. Gaia provides a good venue for Schuller's experiments, which may deviate next week from what we found on our recent visit.

Paolo Monti, Gaia's own executive chef, acts as foil and sous-chef for Schuller. The restaurant throngs with service staff, who appear at the table when summoned and stay away when they aren't.

It is always dangerous to be unrelentingly positive. But the four days Schuller spent at Gaia are a rare opportunity to see a reinvented and reinvigorated chef in action.

My Cooking: Unit 211, Oceanic Industrial Centre, 2 Lee Lok Street, Ap Lei Chau. Tel: 9090 1935. email: mycookinghk@gmail.com


This is a classic Reese Deveaux column first published in the Weekend Standard

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