Chef Antimo Maria Merone’s pursuit of happiness is a true testament to following our hearts and reaping success. The talented and down-to-earth executive chef admits that he started late on the culinary path and was dissuaded by many on his journey. He talks about his love for food rooted in his childhood in Napoli, Italy where he spent time at his grandmother’s home teeming with earth’s natural beauty.
Executive Chef Antimo’s inspiring story of reaching his goal reflects his passion and persistence when it comes to his craft. The chef will be taking the lead on deciding the menu at 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana, taking the restaurant to new heights. It has already made a triumphant achievement having received one Michelin star exemplifying the high-quality cooking that’s worth a visit for gourmands and food lovers.
The stunning restaurant is considered a culinary jewel nestled in the heart of Galaxy Macau. Decked in elegant decor and stylish furnishings with a splash of vibrant colors that calms the senses, it also boasts one of the most striking bars in the city decorated with exquisite Murano glassware. In fact, to provide guests with an even more premium experience, comfort, and exclusivity, the fine-dining venue will be undergoing a renovation next year! As the dining destination unveils an extraordinary new menu that upholds Umberto’s values, we delve into Antimo’s ardor and devotion for culinary arts as the man of the hour.
What are your first memories of cooking and delicious food growing up in Italy?
My first memory of cooking was when I was 13 years old. In the care of my grandmother, my natural curiosity was piqued. I approached my grandma after having pre-cooked food when I came home from school because all the adults were working. I thought I can do this myself. So I started making my own sauces, then I started making my own pasta and then moved on to more dishes. I love family celebrations because we’ll always have a special dinner. We ate traditional Italian dishes and even pastries during Easter and Christmas holidays. Those are fond memories with my grandparents and family where my interest in cooking all started.
Now, after a few years in Macau, has your cooking style changed? Do you now have different sources of inspiration?
Well, I definitely changed a lot since arriving in Asia in 2012. It’s been seven years now and while I still maintain a certain style when it comes to cooking, finding ingredients in Asia can be challenging and interesting. We procure ingredients from all over the region and also New Zealand, Italy, Spain, Australia and more. Of course, these factors all affect the way I cook. I also love to eat and drink and find many inspirations from Chinese and Japanese cuisines and the intricacy of other techniques and methods.
To be honest, I think my style today is more straightforward and simple than it was seven years ago. You may find a simple dish is produced but behind it is a meticulous process with elaborate flavors and combinations. The result you see on your table comes from months of research and dedicated preparation of the best materials available to our hardworking team.
Macau is 9,000 kilometers away from Italy. How do you make your guests at 8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana feel closer to your beautiful country?
I believe that it’s not just about our ingredients but we focus more on the method and delivery of dishes. We retain the characters of Italian cooking in the way we approach food. Our pasta is always deliciously made and combined with warm and welcoming service. That’s a very important part of Bombana, the Italian hospitality that adds to an over-all rewarding experience.
You haven’t always wanted to be a chef. What was the turning point for you?
Being a chef was not a cool profession back in the day. I initially studied economics at a university in Milan but I kept cooking for my friends and others, everyone loved it when I cooked. I never cooked professionally in a restaurant until I was 25 years old. I felt a sense of unhappiness with what I was doing, I didn’t finish my studies, and it was then that I moved to Berlin. I didn’t have a degree and no skills except for cooking so I decided to go with what I love doing best.
At 28 years of age, I decided to get a proper education at a culinary school and I studied hard. I was already at a late stage in my career path and often heard comments that I was too old to reach my goals because I started late. I didn’t allow that negativity to engulf me and I held on to the belief that I would follow my passion no matter my age. Being committed to your goal is an important factor in life. Being consistent can overcome natural talent; the same with hard work and I sincerely believe that. Deciding to do what I love was the best decision I ever made! Building a career is part of every person’s life and to avoid any unhappiness from daily pressure, it’s important to always choose what’s good for your physical health and mind.
You were born and raised in Napoli, Italy, has it affected your culinary work? How would you describe your cooking style?
Absolutely yes! My family worked in agriculture so I grew up close to fresh food and produce. As a kid growing up in the countryside, I hated it but it may seem ironic now that I yearn for it. Being a Neapolitan is clear in the way I cook; I always incorporate olive oil, and seafood especially fish in my dishes. My foundation is very Mediterranean and it’s imprinted in me and also inspires many of my dishes.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with? What are the top three ingredients you can’t cook without?
I can’t cook without olive oil. I am also a tomato lover and I like eating it fresh and raw. I also favor vegetables and I think it’s not just healthy but adds immense flavor to any dish.
There are some exciting changes coming to the restaurant and the menu, what new elements will you be bringing to the dining experience? What can we expect?
I feel truly lucky to have Umberto Bombana as my mentor. He encouraged me in so many ways. He told me that a restaurant has to have its own soul intertwined with the chef working in it–that’s essential to the success of any dish. We are creating something that exemplifies Bombana but different from what’s done in Hong Kong as well. Macau’s Bombana will have its own personality and character. I think guests who came here four years ago will surely see the evolution that we’ve gone through. My name will be placed on the menu and we have an amazing team developing a completely new experience for guests. We’re also lucky to have the support of the Galaxy Macau team.
8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana is recognized with one Michelin star. Do you feel the pressure of the Michelin guide? How does it affect your work and food?
We do maintain standards in order to please our customers and the star is a natural consequence of doing so. We want people to have an exceptional experience and work hard every single day to improve it. We don’t rest on our laurels and continue to innovate and refresh our menu. I think that’s how a restaurant should be. We are working towards the goal to achieve two Michelin stars but ensuring that our guests have a great experience is our top priority.
8 ½ Otto e Mezzo Bombana is popular and well-loved, what do you think keeps guests coming back over and over again?
I believe it’s the fact that people are treated in a way they feel comfortable. They’re not overwhelmed or feel forced by the service. Our service is extraordinary thanks to Leonardo Degl’innocenti who is the General Manager, along with an extensive wine list, and a refreshed menu with the best ingredients of the season. Our attention to quality and price for value is very important too. I guess keeping everything in balance has proved to be effective and we owe that to the big support of Galaxy Macau as well. The idea is simple, it’s to serve guests well enough for them to come back for more.
Who is your toughest critic?
I’d say with 100% certainty that it’s my wife. She has a great sense of aesthetics and wit. Her palate is really good. She understands my customers and I take her opinions seriously. I may not agree all the time (laughs) but it’s valuable to me.
You recently got married, congratulations! What do you cook for your family on a day off?
We go out for meals during the holidays most of the time. I am always in the kitchen during workdays so we like to relax on my day-offs. I love Feng Wei Ju and the Chinese dishes there. It has two Michelin stars and extremely good in every aspect even price-wise. In Hong Kong, when we have time, we like to dine at Caprice and Belon.