Born in Germany, Austrian by nationality, and trained in Italy and France, chef Roland Schuller has achieved most of his culinary acclaim in Hong Kong Italian restaurants. A key figure behind the success of The Drawing Room and Ammo, he also headed two cosy restaurants bearing his own name. In the late 1990s both Chez Roland and Roland's Terrace were the hot tables. These chapters in his career and stints as private chef for Roman Abramovich (aboard the Russian oligarch's south of France-based luxury yacht) and for pop star Puff Daddy mostly called for rich fine dining. In 2008 Schuller earned a Michelin star for Ristorante All'Oro, when he spent a year working in Rome as a refresher spell. In 2010 he was honoured with an Italian Cuisine Worldwide Award, for his contribution to spreading the word about Italian food. This spring, Schuller is rolling out new healthy menus at some local establishments. Last month saw the launch of his 80 per cent revamped menu at Bella Vita in Causeway Bay, where he is consultant chef, with his business partner David Cosman at their chef consulting company DC Levy.
He also recently became executive chef at Kee Club, which, in addition to its own members' restaurant, manages Alfie's in the Dunhill store in Central. The British menu at Alfie's is being modified, but Schuller's changes will always sit beside elevated renditions of fish and chips and cottage pie. Still, even the traditional favourites are in for some tweaks - a new cheese and ham toastie, for example, features Lancashire cheese and Serrano ham. Having never taken on British cuisine before, he seems to relish the challenge. "British food has changed so much in recent years," he says. "There are a lot of Polish and Russian people living there now, so newer cuisines have arrived. There are plenty of Spanish, Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants, and French has always been popular. Today's menus have moved on from 15th-century shepherd's pie. "As well as outside influences, British food today seems very concerned with naming different farms and other [geographical] sources where produce comes from, and keeping food 'clean' and natural. "I'm making natural produce and healthiness of ingredients a focus at Alfie's. We are using light vegetable stock wherever possible - plus fish stocks without shellfish and crustacean components, and chicken when we need to. But we're avoiding beef stocks," he says. Gluten-free dishes will appear from next month. There is slow-cooked ocean trout with grape seed oil, brown rice and cauliflower mesclun salad; another dish will showcase amaranth steamed cod with grape seed oil, dried grape seed powder, steamed Swiss chard, tomato confit in olive oil, baby artichoke and quinoa. The vegetables in these new platters are sourced from locally based organic producer EcoFarm, which has a large agricultural plot in Jiangxi province. Schuller has been seriously impressed with the quality of this operation, and was instrumental in winning its favour - as currently much of this produce is dispatched to cancer patients and others in medical need of highly nutritious foodstuffs. EcoFarm took the time to detoxify all its soil and place nets over growing produce, resulting in toxin-free strong flavours and good-looking produce. The chef is also planning on introducing some other light dishes at Alfie's - roast spring chicken on quinoa. At Kee Club itself, where the menu comprises both Chinese and Western dishes, Schuller, who is approaching 50 and has taken on a new personal nutrition regime, has introduced several meatless dim sum dumplings.
A soft Japanese bean curd he sourced for its creaminess has been blended with olive oil, and sea salt and organic soy sauces are used for all Chinese dishes. Schuller's current passion for organic vegetables often makes them the starting point for new dish ideas in both establishments. He is currently taken with freshly harvested kale and is experimenting combining it steamed with lemon, olive oil and sea salt, alongside pan roasted mackerel.
"It's time we all woke up to what is healthy to eat and what is not," he says. "Certainly, at my age, I've decided it's a good idea to stop eating red meat, which takes a very long time to digest. So much that we eat - meat, fish, fruit and vegetables is genetically modified. We really need to question this. This way of thinking is influencing all my menus right now." At Bella Vita, Schuller and his team have made the menu lighter, too. The chef says he is also trying to use vegetable stocks and organic produce where possible.
When Paul Kwok, CEO of Bella Vita's parent company 1957 & Co, tried Schuller's robustly flavoured Italian cuisine at The Drawing Room, he gave himself the mission of recruiting the chef to replace Bella Vita's departing chef. Schuller's almost complete revamp has added some new reasonably priced rustic dishes to the à la carte listings. While the HK$1,080 Florentina T-bone porterhouse remains, more rustic dishes have been brought in, including light risottos and pastas. "In good Italian restaurants in Hong Kong, ingredients like lobster appear too often. This makes dishes expensive, and it's not healthy to eat too much of it," he says.
He welcomes guests to ask for substitutes if they prefer less richness in their diet. Quail royale, a roasted dish of lean French poultry at Bella Vita, an already heady combination with fig marmalade, hazelnut sugar and sweet aged balsamic vinegar, is served with pan fried foie gras - which can be substituted with artichoke heart in vinaigrette. The chef's scampi cappuccino, which was previously on The Drawing Room's menu, is lighter than richer French bouillabaisse broths, and very sweet thanks to the hefty 3kg of scampi used for four litres of resulting soup. "I'm going back to basics with a lot of the Italian cuisine - there is no 'molecular cuisine' or fancy presentation," he says. Schuller's attempts to lighten Italian and British desserts may prove a challenge, but if the deconstructed berry crumble with moscato jelly and a scoop of coconut gelato is anything to go by, he is well on his way.