Chef Albin Gobil is doubtless sick of hearing it, but he looks younger than his 29 years. It's a nice problem to have, especially when you also have a reputation as one of the best young French chefs working in Asia.
We talk at the restaurant he oversees, one-MICHELIN-starred Gaddi's in the venerable surroundings of The Peninsula, Hong Kong's famed hotel that is now 92 years young.
After service in an impressively busy dining room — especially so given the current climate in Hong Kong — he tells us about his formative years that led him on a path towards culinary excellence, and his impressive journey ever since.
What first lit your passion for the kitchen?
I was born in the northern French département of Mayenne but moved just across the border to Normandy at the age of 5. I was interested in cooking very, very early. I was always with my grandmother, making pot au feu (beef stew) or navarin d'agneau (lamb stew). She had a garden with amazing produce, potatoes and green peas, so I started cooking and learning. At the age of eight I was making crepes and cakes, more sweet things, then by age 14, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
I went to college, did an apprenticeship and learnt sauces and basics in a traditional restaurant where we were three in the kitchen and three in the front of house. We'd have fresh fish and meat from Rungis market, so I started learning new techniques and all about beautiful produce. I then did a Certificat d'Aptitude Professionnelle course, a nationally recognised French diploma, starting at 16, working three weeks per month in the kitchen at Le Moulin and one week at college. I received my CAP and Brevet Professionnel, another nationally recognised diploma, at aged 18 and graduated top of my year so I was put forward for a competition run by the Ministry of Agriculture for the best apprentice. It was a great experience, I made the semi-final.
When did you decide to leave France?
My chef at Le Moulin was a friend of chef Claude Le Tohic at Restaurant Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas and introduced me to Claude, who was also teaching in the school. Unfortunately I couldn't work in the casino in Vegas as I wasn't 21! However, he sent my CV to London, which is how I got the position there. A few weeks later, in 2008, I started working at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon on West Street in Covent Garden.
“It was a bit scary and I didn't speak a word of English, I even I had to write down directions for where I wanted to go for the taxi driver - it's not easy to learn English in a French restaurant! ”
What did you learn there?
"It was where I started to cook and really learn to respect produce and quality. I was on the fish and meat and entremet (dessert) section. Stability and consistency is everything. They have a recipe we follow, everything is precise — that's how they can get the same effect. It looks simple but it's a lot of work. It was also remarkable how Mr Robuchon would remember everyone's name, even if we only saw him a few times a year."
What did experience mean in a MICHELIN-starred kitchen?
I did almost everything at Robuchon, garde-manger, cold section, garnish, fish, meat and sometimes assisting head chef Olivier Limousin on the pass. Sometimes we'd serve 120 guests so I got to learn about quality and consistency and organization. It's a really tough school and I was doing 16 hours a day, but it was ok because I love it and it's what I always wanted when I was young! I spent 5 years in total at Robuchon London. I also met my wife there. She was the head chef, which is why I moved to Helene Darroze at the Connaught.
It's an amazing 5-star hotel, an institution, with a two-MICHELIN-starred restaurant. After some time I understood how she works, I travelled a lot with her, even to the Peninsula Hong Kong for an event for jewellery brand Van Cleef & Arpels. At the hotel, I started as senior chef de partie, then sous chef, worked through all the sections then mainly on the pass, and I did all the tasting for the new menus.
How did you join Gaddi's at The Peninsula Hong Kong?
I looked for a head chef position for around six months and did some pastry at The Lanesborough under Eric Frechon, learning to make sugar and chocolate and showpieces. Then I got a call from The Peninsula Hong Kong. The hotel's executive sous chef Xavier Boyer used to work at Robuchon. I remember I was on holiday in Scotland with my wife. I sent him my CV and came over for a tasting at the end of November 2018, and then started here in February 2019.
When was your first encounter with the MICHELIN Guide?
It was back when I started at Le Moulin, at the time I didn't realise the importance but then I quickly did at Robuchon! I've now worked for 10 years in two-MICHELIN-starred restaurants.
What were you thinking when Gaddis received its first star?
It was great, I was so happy and super proud of the team and the work we did together since I arrived. This is the goal. To get a star is amazing, the recognition of the world for what we do. Was I surprised by the star? Yes and no, because I had received an invitation! It happened very quickly, I arrived in February and by August I brought what I learnt before. I try to do the best for the guests, working with the team to ensure the guests have a beautiful experience at the end - that's my daily goal.
“How did we celebrate? Champagne! We did a little gathering here with everybody, waiters, chefs, management. I took the next day off just to be sure! ”
What's your advice for young chefs aiming for MICHELIN stars?
It's a lot of work. It's important in this environment to be very careful of the attention to detail. In general there is a lot to do when it comes to managing the team. We're open 5 days a week and we have 10 staff in the kitchen, 3 in the pastry section. Most of my team are local Cantonese apart from one French chef, François, in pastry. I have pursued excellence since young, so it is very important to me that everything is in its place.
Has winning the star changed anything at Gaddis?
My way of cooking hasn't changed, it's the same style and produce, and I'm still working in the same manner with my team. We have a lot more curious first-time guests coming and have had good reactions and feedback. We're always trying to push to become better, that's important, so we'll try to improve on both the service and kitchen side to bring a better experience. This is our goal, and we push it!
Finally, could you please explain your 'modern classic' cuisine?
It is about simplicity but modernity, and always trying to bring a twist in the dish, a "wow" factor that makes the dish unforgettable. Most ingredients are French, such as shellfish from Brittany, but we also currently have very nice lamb from the UK. We also get a lot of ingredients from Japan, such as wagyu and sea urchin. We work with the French seasons for the menu, so we have tomatoes and apricots in the summer and Australian black truffles from July until the end of August. Seasonality is very important for me, which is expressed in dishes such as our signature of beef tartare with oysters. Oysters come from the coast so they're part of my blood, and the match with beef and Japanese shiso works beautifully. On 14th July, we even organised a Normandy event to celebrate with produce from my home - chicken, spider crab and a bit of cider!