Eight years is a long time for any restaurant to keep itself afloat amidst Hong Kong’s ruthless merry-go-round of openings and closings, powered by the dining public’s pervasive mentality that “new is always better”. Harbour City’s Italian restaurant mainstay, Al Molo, is an exception to this de facto rule — having built a steady stream of regulars since its opening in mid-2011, supplemented by heavy weekday traffic thanks to a flood of visitors and tourists who frequent the mall (not to mention that competition has been relatively staid until the fairly recent debut of the F&B-heavy Ocean Terminal Extension).
For shoppers, Al Molo — with its clutch location overlooking Victoria Harbour (again, one of the few restos to own this view before OTE came along) and promise of freshly made pastas — is a reliable Italian gourmet retreat to go hand-in-hand with a day of retail therapy. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the restaurant is spearheaded by the chef Michael White — one of the superstars of New York’s Italian dining scene, with a growing international empire grounded by two-Michelin-star flagship Marea.
After eight years, and with new competition in Harbour City nipping at its heels (the past year alone has seen the introduction of Gordon Ramsay’s Maze Grill, Sichuan powerhouse Fu Rong, and Italian import Paper Moon), it seems that Al Molo is primed for its next stage of evolution.
The first step? Bringing in new talent. Born in Venezuela and relocated to Texas at the age of 12, Nelson Gonzalez side-stepped a potential career in medicine to pursue a love of the culinary arts, slowly making his way up in the cutthroat world of New York kitchens. He holds a degree from the French Culinary Institute, but rather than pursue French haute cuisine, he realised that it was in Italian food — and in homemade pastas, in particular — where he derived the most joy in the kitchen.
Naturally, he credits his mentor, chef Michael White for igniting his love for Italian cuisine. When approached by White with an offer to relocate to Hong Kong, Gonzalez found the promise of new adventure too irresistible to pass up. Since arriving in October 2018, the young talent has since overhauled 80% of the menu, with more new dishes in the works. It’s an invigorating boost of energy for a restaurant that’s soon headed for the 10-year mark. We grabbed a moment with the easy-going New Yorker to discuss his all-time favourite ingredients, his love for Asian cuisine, and a few culinary tricks he has planned up his sleeves.
My story is one of those cheesy ones where I cooked with my grandma and was surrounded by family members that were really into cooking and providing home-cooked meals all the time. So that was a big influence on me and the reason I decided to become a chef. After high school I had a tough decision to make: I also wanted to be a doctor — I was always a fairly good student — but it just didn’t attract me in the end. I wanted to be more creative, not to have to follow rules and standards and be a book person all the time.
So I decided to move to New York to attend culinary school and then started working at Aureole by Charlie Palmer. Shortly after that I joined the seafood restaurant Oceana, where I spent a huge amount of time just butchering fish and learning about fish, how to break it down and how to make the most use of it. And then one day after leaving Oceana I was like, you know what let me try Italian food. It wasn’t that appealing to me honestly; the reason I wanted to do it was because of my goal to eventually become a modern American chef — assuming that modern American food tends to overlap a bit with other cuisines.
I went to Ai Fiori, Michael White’s restaurant, and from the moment I walked in I fell in love with the kitchen. They had two ladies making pasta fresh every day, and I just fell in love with watching them work with their hands. I knew this is where I needed to work. For me it was going to be something temporary; I was going to pick up the skills, learn how to make pasta and the basics. But the longer I worked with Michael, the more I fell in love with his passion for real, hearty food — something that looks really nice but is also very soul filling. So I’ve been working with Michael for over five years now.
Even though we have a few restaurants in New York he’s very, very involved. He’ll swing by, no schedule or anything, just to try your food, and give you his ideas. He’s really hands on. One of the reasons I like Michael so much is that he’s not the kind of chef that’ll give you direction like, “This is what I want”. He’ll kind of let you go on your own path and then he’ll maybe give you little tweaks here and there. But he allows you to become the person you need to be, and the chef that you’re meant to be, while sort of moulding to his style as well.
It was totally unpredicted. I was offered one of our restaurants in New York actually, but what didn’t attract me was that it was French food. I studied classic French food and was kind of like, I don’t want to go back to it. Then one day, Michael just came up to me and asked what I thought about moving to Hong Kong. In the last few years I’ve thought of moving outside of New York just to see something different. Every city, every scene has its own different aspects to it, so I had thought about maybe moving on to San Francisco or Chicago. I knew nothing about the food scene here so I started Googling. We came here in July and I fell in love with it.
To me it’s like New York, very cosmopolitan, very fast-moving, but one thing I like about it is that it’s a little more concentrated. So for one thing, you can walk everywhere, and having the available ingredients from all over the world and also being surrounded by all these Asian ingredients are what attracted me to the idea.
Trying to bring in more seasonality. One of the big issues I’ve had in the beginning is that people tend to think Italian food and then tomatoes. But when I arrived it was October and that’s when tomatoes are like done, you don’t really want to eat tomatoes at that time of year because they’re not going to taste like anything. So trying to explain through the food to customers saying, “Hey, we don’t want to do a tomato salad because it’s just really not going to taste that great right now, but come back in the summer”. Also, trying to use more local ingredients. I like to work locally, because you never know, whether due to weather or whatever, when you might find yourself without an ingredient especially in Hong Kong, where 98% of goods are imported. So I try to incorporate some Asian ingredients into my menu without necessarily making it taste Asian.
For instance, on our new set lunch menu we have a tagliata (steak), very simple with mashed potatoes and Chinese leeks. Usually I would use either spring onions or local leeks back in New York, charred on the plancha and made into a salsa verde with some lemon zest, olive oil, salt and pepper. But the leek I’m used to is not that prominent here, so I thought let me try the local one and it turned out to taste just as good. To me, the local one is a little bit more like a chive rather than a leek, it has a bit more of a bite to it, but I was really happy with the final result.
One is the Piedmontese beef carpaccio. Traditionally, they do the tonnato sauce like a vitello (veal), but I wanted to do it with a nice beef because the contrast of flavours is a little bit more prominent. Veal tends to be a little bit more mellow, so pairing the beef with the tuna made it more flavourful in my opinion. Coming in, pasta was big over here so we’re making sure the pastas are very tasty and very easy on the eyes. The casarecce was a little bit of an experiment pairing pork sausage with calamari. I didn’t know how people would react to that combination but it seems to be doing very well. It’s sort of a trick where you don’t know which is which since they’re the same size and similar colour.
And then the ravioli — Michael is a big ravioli person — which is made with pork shoulder, pork belly and guanciale all braised together for like six hours. Then you grind it and you make the pansotti, which means ‘little bellies’. Finally, seafood — I mean, we’re in Hong Kong right in front of the water and Al Molo literally translates to ‘on the docks’, so seafood needs to be a big part of the menu here. I’m a fan of the sedanini, which uses Boston lobster finished with creamy stracciatella on top.
I think when a chef goes into a new restaurant, it’s always important for them to put their stamp on it. I consulted with Michael on certain dishes that he wants to put on the menu and got his approval, but the majority of the menu is my own creations and my own inspirations. Obviously we kept some of the Al Molo classics, but it’s very important that I look at that dish and make sure that it’s the best it can be — maybe tweaking something here and there. As a chef taking over, I wanted to make Al Molo stand out — because of the age of the restaurant, it’s hard to stay consistent, stay popular, stay in the word of mouth of people, so I wanted to make sure that the menu is always fresh. I wanted people to to come in and try different things but also see things that they are familiar with.
The hardest thing I’ve noticed in Hong Kong in general is staffing — that seems to be a big issue here. Many of our staff have been here for a while, so I think part of the issue is every chef has their own habits and their own way of doing things and it’s kind of like teaching them your way. It’s not because I’m the chef and ‘This is the way I want to do it’, but it’s more because I’m one of the chefs that has worked with him the longest, so I think I know what Michael likes and doesn’t want. So teaching them that: this is the Michael White way, this is why he’s so successful, and making sure the Michael stamp is on everything.
He doesn’t monitor every single dish. When he was here in October, he tasted some of the dishes. I came to Hong Kong from New York with a menu in mind already, and a list of things that I would put on the menu. So I had him taste several things in NY and then some things when we arrived in Hong Kong. There were many changes from my planned menu when we landed in Hong Kong — once you start learning who your audience is, then you’re like, ‘Okay this will definitely not work here’, and then you have to make tweaks.
So we have a snapper aqua pazza (which means ‘crazy waters’ in Italian) and it’s usually like a watered-down tomato sauce with maybe a fish stock or a clam stock, or some type of seafood stock. I’ve literally changed that description on the menu three times. People eat it and they love it, but just the wording of it — you don’t know how to explain it to people. It’s a matter of putting a dish as simple as that — you know that anyone will like it as long as they like seafood — but being able to explain it on the menu, and conveying the message of what the dish is. Especially since the menu is mostly in Italian with just a short English description, it’s a bit of a shock to them. That’s definitely been a challenge.
Any pasta really. I just love pasta. Right now I’m struggling because I’m on this keto diet. I actually made some tofu noodles, shirataki noodles, and I turned it into a pasta and I was like, wow this is actually a pretty good pasta dish. I can eat pasta for three meals a day.
I’ve been to a few small places. I live in Central, so little Vietnamese places here and there. I’ve been to hot pot already twice this week at Hai Di Lao. I’m just trying to enjoy the Hong Kong scene as much as I can by eating the local food, because even though I’m cooking Italian, you can get inspiration from everything you eat. You might go to a Vietnamese restaurant and eat a salad that has fish sauce, but Italians have a fish sauce called colatura. So if I eat a Vietnamese salad that has fish sauce I can take inspiration out of that and make a version of Italian salad that has colatura. There’s inspiration everywhere you go.