Life outside the kitchen: Mercato Hong Kong’s Chef Anthony Burd tells all
It was a Friday and at exactly 5 pm, we were at the foot of California Tower in the upscale Lan Kwai Fong, Central. The building houses different fine dining restaurants but we were going to visit a particular restaurant. As the elevator doors of the 8th floor opened, the first thing we saw was the whole Mercato Hong Kong crew, busy prepping for the night’s service. Famed Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Italian restaurant’s interior was so welcoming we couldn’t even wait to be seated! The gorgeous space created by Neri & Hu displayed rustic wood tables, hanging lamps, and of course, our all-time favorite: an open kitchen.
Chef Anthony waved at us with his left hand as he pointed something to the person in front of him with his right. Mise en place, it looked like. They’ve surpassed today’s storm of kitchen prep and are ready for the long night of service.
“Hello, ladies. Thank you for coming.” Tony, as his close friends and family call him, has always been charismatic to women. He briefly glanced at the kitchen as he politely directed us to our table. Maybe he was double checking if everything is still in place the moment he exited. His staff appeared to be fond of him. Chef Anthony reflected a huge wave of leadership and a very mutual camaraderie with his team. A bottle of Carmenère (wait, a bottle?!) came to the table ― cue that we should get on our feet and start asking the 28-year old Executive Chef some cool stuff about the life of an American Chef in Hong Kong.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Chef Anthony Burd spent his whole life in the kitchen. With the influence of his family who is passionate about cooking, at a very young age, he knew he was going to be a chef.
“I have always been surrounded by people who are fantastic in the kitchen. I wasn’t one of those kids who didn’t know what they wanted for college. The kitchen has always called me.” he smiled as he reminisced his early years of culinary dreams.
“And please, feel free to call me Tony,” he added.
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Tony took his passion to the next level by moving to Italy. Without any idea what life in Italy will be like, he booked a one-way ticket and never looked back. There, he had the opportunity to come to the farm, interact/connect with them and be part of the ‘growing’. Something that he didn’t experience in the US as the farmers always came to his table.
“It was pure bliss for me. Making a menu from what we grow in the farm is not something that all chefs are able to experience. For me, that is really something big.” he said. On top of that, he also had a chance to experience living in a culture that is far away from his. He learned how to speak, live and breathe Italian.
“To be able to thrive in that kind of environment at a very young age is one of my best experiences.”
When Chef Jean-Georges handed the keys of Mercato Hong Kong to Chef Tony, he knew he is going to face a new and yet another challenging chapter of his life: new culture, a new taste, new friends, new workplace, new home. As one of the most expat-friendly cities of the world, Hong Kong was no stranger to him. With prior cultural adjustment training in Italy, the bustling city embraced and welcomed him with open arms. And he did, too. The glorious food scene of Hong Kong was one of the reasons he adjusted pretty well. Just as New York City is a city that never sleeps, Hong Kong is a city that always eats!
“Almost every week, a new restaurant opens. It enriches the city’s gastronomic offerings. To be part of that enrichment is a good opportunity I shouldn’t miss,” he said while personally pouring more Carmenère into our glasses.
He raised his left hand (yes, Chef Tony’s a lefty) and the server came with Mercato’s famous house-made ricotta cheese and strawberry jam. Served with freshly baked ciabatta, we couldn’t help but dig in! “It’s on the house,” he winked.
30 minutes before dinner service, we got the chance to ask the young Executive Chef some out-of-the-kitchen questions. For many 20-something expats, it has been really interesting to live in Hong Kong. What’s the secret of this expensive and upbeat city? Why is everyone moving and creating a life here?
“It’s a very efficient city. All kinds of public transportation are available. The city has the longest outdoor covered escalator system in the world. Everything (including everyone) moves really fast with efficiency.” he started.
Aside from the fast-paced city living, Hong Kong also offers the best outdoor and beach activities. It’s a city with mountains and skyscrapers, all in one! Can we all admit that’s just hard to beat? And if you come home at 3 am from a Friday night out, harm will not come your way. The streets are freaking safe!
Speaking of night out, of course, being an Executive Chef in Hong Kong is also 20% play. We are all familiar with the crazy life working in a 5-star restaurant, let alone a normal-ish kitchen ― everyone is freakishly overworked.
“As I grew and learned, I found out that my well-being is really important. For those years that I have buried myself with so much work, I briefly forgot the idea of self-care and doing other things I love aside from cooking. I bounced back from that by going to the gym, eating healthier food and going to the beach on a regular basis. I learned that happy people make happy food. If you are not happy, it will show in your work and what you cook.”
And by happiness, we believe he meant living life as a normal person, doing normal things. Mercato is situated in the most famous nightlife icon of the city so we are pretty sure Chef Tony knows the ins and outs of Hong Kong’s trendiest nightlife. Se La Vi, Rummin’ Tings and Stone Nullah Tavern are some bars he recommended. We’ve already planned a bar hop after dinner!
The clock ticked loudly, blaring with the murmurs of the kitchen staff. It was time for the service. Chef Tony stood up, shook our hands and said, “This is it for me. Thank you and I hope you enjoy the rest of the night. Romain, open doors, please!”
The sleek French manager nodded and mouthed “oui chef.” Everyone went to their respective stations, the doors were opened, guests came slowly and within 15 minutes, Mercato Hong Kong was on fire.
Q: What did you eat today?
A: Dim Sum from a small local shop next to my place.
Q: What do you have in your fridge right now?
A: Salad and vegetables, fruit, milk, some cured meats, and french cheese and a few craft beers.
Q: What dish will make you fly to New Jersey right now?
A: Hot Dog Johnny’s.
Q: Favourite dish from another chef?
A: Nobu’s Uni Taco by the mighty Chef Sean Mell. Nori, sea urchin, black truffle, and parmesan. Boom!
Q: What’s your best staff meal?
A: Chicken in white sauce. Thick white sauce, chicken, broccoli, served over rice.
Q: What’s your favourite wine?
A: Brunello di Montalcino
Q: What do you usually eat for breakfast?
A: 3 cups of coffee and a banana
Q: What’s your most memorable taste?
A: Osteria Francescana’s “A Taste of Normandy.”
Q: Which Hong Kong restaurant will you take a girl to a first date?
A: Yardbird Restaurant at Bridges Street, Sheung Wan
Q: Who is your best Chef buddy?
A: My sous chef, Leonard Nigro!
Q: After service, you…
A: Hit the gym or head out for drinks with other chefs in HK.
Q: What drives you crazy?
A: You know what really grinds my gears? When you’re in a rush to clean up and the plastic wrap rips and gets stuck. Chefs, you all know what I’m talking about.
Q: What makes you calm?
A: Enjoying a good glass of wine and watching the sunset.[/us_message]