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Meet Ermanno Lelli, Hong Kong's Favourite Italian Chef
by: Rubin Verebes
May 19, 2022
Buried on the leafy and muffled Mee Lun Street in Soho, and inside the namesake Mee Lun House, lays a momentary escape to the warmth and culinary passion of the Mediterranean. Entrance is however granted based on a price willing to pay and connection to the man that occupies the residence.
Place your legs on heavy steps that climb up into a dimly lit room, adorned with Italian Barolo and Franciacorta wine, shelves of twice-pressed olive oil and passata, soft watercolour paintings, with an open-air kitchen centred in the middle.
This is the gastronomical lair, named Segreto (Italian for secret), of Napoli-born chef Ermanno Lelli, food and beverage consultant, “the guy to talk to” driving culinary business in restaurants, and director of a small empire of Italian food concepts setting Hong Kong abuzz.
In his more than 12 years of life in Hong Kong, Ermanno is evidently religious about his need to import authentic Italian concepts to the Asian city and assist the boost of local food concepts to challenge perceptions and break away from stale copies and repeats found often in the industry.
"Cooking something very creative and very passionate [is] highly related to the passion that you have for the other sex,” Ermanno uttered on a toasty April morning in Segreto. “There are some chefs that say you can’t cook if not for a woman.”
“Food is a mix of passion, creativity, and knowledge. It’s my main passion.”
Ermanno’s storied career has seen him run F&B operations in his home country of Italy, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Canary Islands, Slovenia, the U.S., England, and China. Cooking in Africa, Europe and the Americas earned Ermanno a living in the early 2000s, funding his “thirst for knowledge” in the form of master's degrees and extensive culinary training, which saw the chef promoted to F&B director, possessing a know-how and autonomy to emigrate anywhere with his expertise.
His adventure in Greater China began in late 2007 in Shanghai as a general manager at Favola Restaurant. Ultimately, Ermanno saw a draw to Hong Kong to harness his business expertise and marketing knowledge to create new concepts and drive competition in the city’s burgeoning Italian food scene.
In early 2009, Ermanno began as the F&B director of W52, “the number one Italian restaurant in Hong Kong,” a fine-dining venue on Wyndham Street that challenged the reign of 8 1/2 Otto E Mezzo Bombana.
Within that year, he completed a masters at Cornell University in Food Service, Management, and Marketing to further his verifiable thirst for knowledge - he currently has four masters and two bachelors - leaving to work with Maestro Group, founders of Italian-stronghold brand ilBelPaese, and open his foremost F&B venue.
When the chef sought to break away from the restraints of working in a structured company, he formed his eponym consultancy group, Ermanno Lelli F&B Consulting, in 2012, to build his empire of Italian concepts in the city.
First, Ermanno opened Enomod, a contemporary American-Italian venue heralded as a first by the chef on many fronts. The restaurant stood on Elgin Street as, what Ermanno refers to, “Hong Kong’s first social dining concept.” It was the first restaurant in Asia to advertise on Facebook, and the first restaurant to employ a now-standard industrial modern retro design.
“I envisioned [Enomod] as a basement of a house of Italian immigrants in New York in the 1920s,” Ermanno said. The F&B scene welcome Enomod’s brief stint in Soho and the chef who introduced a vibrant and accessible take on Italian cuisine.
In the early 2010s in Hong Kong, Ermanno noticed his top chefs suddenly departing and his consulting work with F&B venues running dry. “I realised I had to do something in Hong Kong.”
“I had this small kitchen in my first office [in Wan Chai] that I [used for] cooking for my clients. I tested food with them for a restaurant and many would tell me, ‘your food is better than the restaurant [they work at] or better than the chef.’ They start to ask me if I was cooking for them for money.”
“I had a small table for four people to cook in the office,” he explained. What became Segreto five years earlier in 2018 was named “Easy and Tasty,” with Ermanno cooking Italian pastas, seafood, and meats for tables of four in Wan Chai, then a dedicated space in Lan Kwai Fong, and finally his Mee Lun Street venue, that caters to up to a dozen diner.
The restaurant grew with a wave of hype in the city. Bookings were made three months in advance and Ermanno prepared fine-dining standard of Italian food four or five times a week for informed guests in a private, magical space.
“There was a need for private kitchens in Hong Kong and for authentic Italian. In 2009, Hong Kong was the top city in Asia, a hub for the best chefs in the world. Four years later, all the chefs left. Then, the F&B machines became focused not on food, but on trends, design, and public relations.”
“I didn’t want to do commercial [dining] or some fancy Italian, I wanted to [create] a proper Italian place. Hong Kong’s Italian restaurants were mostly commercial Italian, and not real Italian, the good stuff. That’s why I opened [Segreto] and why it became so successful. Because I do things that other people don’t do, right in front of them.”
On a quiet Monday morning, Segreto is where Ermanno spoke to The Beat Asia about his lengthy F&B story in Hong Kong. Dining-in at the Mee Lun store was largely paused during the five wave of COVID-19, but prior to the pandemic, Segreto was an incubator for his concepts that have proved very successful, namely Casa Pasta and a future tiramisu-cake delivery store.
With branches in Bali and Sheung Wan, Casa Pasta is hailed by the chef as a “one-wonder-shop,” a la Dunkin Donuts: “You only serve one thing [donuts] but one hundred different varieties.”
“It’s a model that works, it’s low investment because you only need one machine to make one product, it’s very easy to be agile, and it’s very easy to develop.” With seventy percent of the menu serving pasta, Ermanno stated Hong Kong, and equally Bali, lacks a distinct pasta bar in the city, with Casa Pasta claiming the title as the first, according to him.
“I wanted a quick counter pasta service and something scalable. It’s a winning business model and fully sustainable. The goal is to open 50 new franchises.”
Another one-wonder shop that Ermanno is planning to open in his incubator of Hong Kong, and scale to the world, is Tiramisu Lab, or what the chef calls “50 shades of tiramisu.”
Beginning operations as an online store, the lab will sell flavours such as “pistacio-misu,” “Thai-misu,” with coconut and mango, “Bloody Orange-misu,” “Amalfi Lemon-misu,” and “caramel-salted-misu." Ermanno said the tiramisu, the “most famous cake in the world,” can be used as a template for savoury “misu’s” too.
Alongside Hong Kong’s “first” pasta bar and the development of Tiramisu Lab, Ermanno is to launch “Hot Mamma,” an Italian spicy oil influenced from his chef days in Rome and a dream to create a Mediterranean-Roman-style Tabasco sauce that “animates” a meal.
The spice collection of Hot Mamma is inspired by bomba calabrese, an Italian sauce using hot cherry peppers and vinegar, and will include a spicy spread, a pepper-infused oil, a spicy ketchup, and a spicy barbeque sauce. “Hot Mamma has a strong taste, so you keep eating it because you like the taste. It's not about the spiciness.”
Friends of Ermanno have become addicted to Hot Mamma, Deliveroo orders a stream out of Casa Pasta daily, and Segreto is gearing up for reservations following a relaxation of restrictions from the fifth wave. The future is definable says the chef who aspires to grow his empire locally and import his concepts abroad in the future.
“I have my passion on building business. I don't care about making money,” he said in his final comments in our interview. Ermanno has lofty, yet realistic dreams about his business in Hong Kong and is driving the standard for Italian food higher and higher.
“My dream is to build an F&B hub in Hong Kong. A lot [of people] have done it but no one’s done a real job. I want to develop food and beverage services on a higher level and [grow them into] international brands.”
Every day, Ermanno heads to his Mee Lun House office-cum-restaurant to analyse trends, train chefs, coordinate restaurants, and plan his next culinary move in the city.
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