Beef & Liberty’s Uwe Opocensky first came to Hong Kong in 2004 and worked at the Aberdeen Marina Club. He had always wanted to work in Asia, he says, and held prestigious positions at a number of venues before eventually becoming executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong and then later launching Beef & Liberty.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming executive chef?
Culinary arts have interested me from a very young age. I started as a young apprentice at the Gasthof zum Hemberg in Germany, after which I embarked on a training program under Anton Mosimann at this private dining club in London and worked my way up to executive chef. After nine years I was ready for my next challenge and headed to Cyprus, where I led the kitchen operations at a high-profile hotel called the Anassa—this was my first hotel job. We had a culinary farm and fishermen. It was after this stint when I really wanted to head to Asia, to be around the Asian culinary scene and was given the opportunity to work at the Aberdeen Marina Club. After some time there I did a six-month unforgettable stage period at Ferran Adria’s world-famous El Bulli, then returned to Asia to Kuala Lumpur and finally ended up at the incredible Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong.
What are the lessons you learned during your nine-year tenure at Mandarin Oriental that are still applicable today?
I really learned about the discerning taste of the Hong Kong market. Many people here know their food and wine, there is no fooling them if you know what I mean. It taught me I had to stay on top of my game at all times, no room for error. This still applies today—I take all feedback (good and bad) to heart and always strive to deliver the best quality product. It also taught me how to work with and for a large organization, manage big teams, and constantly educate on consistency.
What was it like venturing out on your own with the creative freedom to do whatever you wanted?
It was sad to leave my role at The Mandarin Oriental, but at the same time I was very excited to be able to start fresh, go back to basics so to speak and create hamburgers and other dishes that really speak to me as a chef and person.
What were the challenges and rewarding moments of launching Beef & Liberty?
Every job has its challenges, currently in Hong Kong the hamburger game is on with a few concepts out there that people like to compare us to. The casual dining scene has exploded with fun creative concepts popping up all over town so it’s really trying to stay on top in terms of quality, ingredients, and creativity. Needless to say, it is very rewarding hearing feedback from our customers and having customers “beg” for certain specials to come back because they love them so much—this makes me feel like I’m doing something right. Also working on some other fun bits, like the video series we’ve just launched “Cooking with Uwe” is creating a buzz around town, something no other chef in Hong Kong is doing really. I’m really trying to connect with the customer on a level that they can relate to.
How did Beef & Liberty start out? What was the concept behind it? Why burgers, specifically?
Back in 2010, the founders of Beef & Liberty acquired Shanghai’s leading premium burger restaurant, Gourmet Cafe. They spent a couple of years repositioning this cafe—redesigning the concept and the menu, updating the design and the brand overall which then lead to its relaunch as Beef & Liberty in 2013. In 2014 they then opened the first Beef & Liberty in Hong Kong. A second restaurant followed in 2015 and a third in 2016. Gourmet Cafe served burgers amongst other things, but the redesign of the overall brand led to a focus on hamburgers, something the founders have been passionate about for a long time, so that’s where it started really…reinventing the hamburger, turning it into a top quality product and introducing it to Shanghai and Hong Kong and hopefully eventually in other parts of Asia and then around the world.
What’s your favorite item on the menu?
My all-time personal favorite is the Black Pepper Burger.
What’s the best-selling burger and why do you think customers love it?
The Bacon Cheese is a best-seller for sure. I think it’s because it’s an international classic. The combination of juicy beef, quality bacon and cheese is just a classic indulgence.
Do you use any typically Asian ingredients in your recipes? Do you think HK culture has influenced your style, taste, and outlook of cuisines?
Yes, I have and I like to play around with different ingredients. It’s also part of the reason why I wanted to come out to Asia in the first place. To be surrounded by Asian chefs, food and culture…to learn and constantly develop my culinary skills. Being in Asia has definitely helped me understanding and appreciating the different cultures and cuisines. Now at times, I bring Asian twists to some of the burger specials. For example, the soft shell crab sandwich was me playing around with Asian influences.
What makes a great burger? What’s the perfect pairing for a burger?
Of course, the beef is the key ingredient. We only use 100% hormone-free, grass-fed beef (from the Scottish Highlands). Not only is this better for the environment, but it just tastes so much better. Other factors are the way it’s cooked…we always recommend a medium, juicy and pink. Then the buns, you can’t have a good burger without a quality bun, we have our own recipe for this as well. My personal favorite pairing is with a beer. I like it paired with a Brooklyn beer especially, which we have on draft at all our locations.
Do you often visit Macau? Do you have a favorite spot in Macau or a place you often go to? Why?
To be honest, I don’t have too much free time, so Macau I haven’t frequented often, but when I do go I just like to explore the scene, catch up with chef friends and try all the new restaurants. I have to say, I have always liked Fernando’s, both in terms of food and atmosphere.
What should we anticipate with this pop-up collaboration with Mandarin Oriental Macau?
For us it’s really about introducing the brand to Macau, we’ve been asked by many guests when we’ll open in Macau, so maybe this is a start. Let’s see what Macau has to say about our hamburger.
What’s in store for Beef & Liberty for the rest of the year that we can watch out for?
We’re opening our second and third restaurant in Shanghai by the end of the year and are always exploring sites in Hong Kong. I’m currently working on menu development and we’ll be launching a very special collaboration with Brooklyn Brewery very soon…stay tuned!
When: 6:00pm-10:00pm, August 8, 9, 10 and August 17, 18, 19, 2017