Seven years after venturing into Hong Kong, Olivier Elzer, founder of Seasons by Olivier Elzer, at Causeway Bay, is shaping a modern version of the Gallic classics in town.
Seven years after venturing into Hong Kong, Olivier Elzer, founder of Seasons by Olivier Elzer, at Causeway Bay, is shaping a modern version of the Gallic classics in town
It is 9:30 in the morning, two and a half hours before the restaurant opens, and Olivier Elzer is already shuffling around in his kitchen, looking casual and confident in a chef’s jacket and sneakers.
Elzer, the culinary star who gained recognition while working as an executive chef at three-starred French restaurant L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Hong Kong, started his own venture – Seasons by Olivier Elzer – two years ago supported by Hysan Development at Lee Garden in Causeway Bay.
Elzer, the half-German, half-French chef who puts his name on his restaurant, is surprisingly cheerful, energetic and humorous. He doesn’t have the stiffness of German, nor the pride of French, despite his prominent family background from the culinary arena and impressive resume working across a long list of top Michelin-starred restaurants in France.
He is born into the profession – a mum who owns a couple of restaurants in France and a grandfather who served as a royal chef to the last Tsar of Russia – but the only thing he has inherited is the passion for Gallic gastronomy.
“I like the kitchen in many ways,” says the 37-year-old at his open kitchen bar.
“I have to say I’m lucky because many young people are facing issues figuring out what they’re going to do in their life. But I found my passion 21 years ago.”
In benefit from the reputation and fame from his family, his cooking career in France looked all promising; yet, he took a detour to Hong Kong seven years ago for an interview at Mandarin Oriental’s Pierre restaurant, and was “shocked” by how high-tech and sophisticated Hong Kong was to a young adventure who had little knowledge about Asia.
“Sometimes French newspapers fail to give the real idea of what Hong Kong is really like. We didn’t know much about Asia at that time, seven years ago.
“Arriving in Hong Kong, I was instantly impressed by the quality of the ingredients and how modernised Hong Kong was.”
He walked into the job straight away before moving to L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon as head chef.
Seven years on, he has totally blended in, and Seasons by Olivier Elzer is a testimony to his love of Hong Kong.
Located on the third floor of Lee Gardens, Seasons is a departure from the usual French cuisine with a vision to make refined French cuisine affordable by providing all kinds of Gallic classics with a modern spin.
“I’ve found that Hongkongers like to enjoy fine food without making it too complicated. We don’t want our customers to feel uncomfortable by our approach of serving.”
He admits competition is fierce in business districts such as Causeway Bay, but he has found a way for his brainchild to stand a chance.
“Causeway Bay has a lot of western restaurants, but their qualities vary. Not so many French restaurants are budget-friendly in this area. So Seasons is envisioned to be a modern French restaurant where patrons can enjoy fine French cuisine in a more causal way.
“In our dishes, we try to bring to the tables the best French ingredients with the simplest way of cooking and table servicing. We keep in mind to approach our customers without being too fussy.”
A fine-dining chef, he is fond of frugal meals and fancies all kinds of budget-friendly local foods such as a humble bowl of instant noodles at cha chaan teng or the greasy goose at Yat Lok Restaurant.
With seven years of exploration and observations, he sets out to create a menu that panders to local dining habits.
“French cuisine can sometimes be a bit heavy and fattening, while cream and butter are our main ingredients. But Hong Kong people tilt towards cuisine cultures from the southern part of Europe, such as Italy and Spain, where food tends to be lighter.
“It’s important to understand local preferences in order to twist our menu to appeal to the market,” he adds, and stresses that ingredients and seasoning are the souls of French food – and his kitchen.
“Our kitchen is connected to the concept of the four seasons as seasonality matters a great deal to the freshness of ingredients. Our name Seasons looks to deliver a message that we are always looking for the best ingredients for our customers.”
The thematic floor plan is also part of the seasonal narrative. Designed by famed designer Steve Leung, the 8,000 square foot mansion-like restaurant allows visitors to journey across the seasonal transition in four stages – it starts with an elegant reception mirroring a French mansion’s foyer, adorned with a dark bronze metal gate at the entrance and a collection of portraits and paintings on the walls.
Next to the foyer are two VIP rooms themed under winter in cold hue; traversing a hallway you’ll reach the autumn harvest-themed dining area adjoined to the open kitchen and a slew of bar seating. The elegance of the main dining area is accentuated with an array of candle-like lights atop.
Natural materials such as timber and marble have been adopted in the dining space to create an elegant and contemporary atmosphere in catering to patrons from its business surroundings.
Passing through the main dining area comes the blossomy Green House, where its mosaic tile flooring in bright green, grey and beige echoes harmoniously with the glass canopy, exuding the spirit of spring. The journey ends with the summery alfresco dining area named Garden Terrace.
“Lee Garden is an exciting area surrounded by luxury brands and offices where people tend to come out for lunch. We’ve built up a customer base and have received a lot of top management from the luxury brands for regular business meetings here. Therefore we change our menu on a weekly basis to keep them surprised,” says Elzer, adding that more than 600 recipes have been created for Seasons in two years.
Another charm of Hong Kong, he adds, is it has an exciting range of imported ingredients.
“We can always use local ingredients, but the taste would never be the same.”
But even if the ingredients and seasoning are spot on, sometimes the best dishes still won’t be served because often locals cannot adopt to the French way of eating, he notes.
“Most locals have become accustomed to Chinese cuisine in which the flavours can be captured at different angles of a dish, for example, a plate of fried rice; whereas French cuisine is based on layers.
“Sometimes we mix something acidic and fattening together and add something soft on top of them. It’s all about how to eat the food. You have to eat French dishes as a whole, not layer by layer.”
The concept of how to eat properly is a subject that needs more education in Hong Kong as does mastering the art of cooking. With so much access to information on the internet, and with cooking being self-taught through a cluster of online cooking videos, it seems everybody thinks they can be a chef.
But Elzer begs to differ. “It’s sad that people assume cooking is easy, that they can learn to be a chef from screens in a few months. But the truth is they don’t actually know how to cook. It takes at least 10 to 15 years to learn how to cook properly.”
Apart from his unbeatable resume, he has another indispensable trait of a successful chef – he is at ease blending into a kitchen with people from diverse backgrounds, and knows the tricks of commanding a regiment of chefs from around the world in a kitchen.
He concedes that working at Robuchon was more enjoyable than at the Pierre, but “all the experience working in the kitchen was what makes me, me today”.
“I like chefs with big tempers because they are the ones who teach you the most. No pain, no gain.”