In our Chef’s Special feature, three Hong Kong chefs spill the beans on everything from their favourite ingredients to cook with, to the guilty late-night snack they can’t resist after a busy service. In this instalment, we shine the spotlight on GUSTAVO ENRIQUE VARGAS MORA, Head Chef at Uma Nota Brazilian-Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong.
Tell us a bit about your restaurant and its cuisine.
Uma Nota is a modern boteco, traditionally known in Brazil as a meeting place for those looking for a refreshing drink and good street food, in a fun and easy-going setting. We bring São Paulo’s Nipo-Brasileiro street food and cocktails to Soho, offering a unique twist to a long heritage of Japanese migration to Brazil. The menu is adapted to include local ingredients featuring dishes that combine Japanese cooking techniques with fresh, authentic and unique flavours.
What’s one of the signature dishes at Uma Nota, and is it hard to cook?
Our most signature dish is the Coxinhas de Frango – chicken and okra croquettes with homemade chili sauce. This dish is quite time-consuming to cook, as there are many steps to prepare, but it’s a classic boteco snack across Brazil. Our guests really love it.
How did you get started in cooking, and where have you worked in the past?
I started helping in the kitchen as young as 10 years old, in my family’s street food restaurant in Colombia. Since then, I’ve worked across many different restaurants in Bogota, Lima, São Paulo and now Hong Kong.
Favourite place to eat around town?
An old-school char siu place close to the MTR in Sheung Wan where I always get barbecue pork and rice!
What do you like to cook at home after a big night of service?
It’s generally quite late when we finish service, so I tend not to cook at home. But when I do have more time, I love a good grilled steak with a simple lentil salad and roasted potatoes.
What’s your guilty pleasure as far as fast food or eating out goes?
What’s the most underrated kitchen utensil?
The mandolin. I use it to prep everything from slicing the veggies for salads, jalapenos in the salmon sushi and root veg like cassava.
Favourite three ingredients to cook with?
Garlic, butter, and cassava; cassava is so versatile, and can be used in many ways people don’t expect.
Is there any ingredient or food that people might be surprised to hear you don’t like?
Something I really don’t like is liver – pork, beef or chicken; but that’s not too surprising.
What’s an ingredient you see becoming trendy in the next year or so?
Koji is something chefs have started to rediscover, to use in marinades for meat and fish, and it’s a good substitute for salt.
Where do you like to shop for ingredients in Hong Kong?
That depends on the product; we try to source our vegetables locally as much as we can through Hong Kong Farmers Pride, but we also have a specialist Brazilian supplier that imports ingredients into HK that we couldn’t find anywhere else.
What’s one tip that might be helpful for amateur cooks?
Don’t be scared to make mistakes – that’s the only way we learn!
What can diners look forward to at your restaurant this year?
To mark Uma Nota’s milestone fifth birthday, we have a lot of exciting things planned throughout 2022, bringing to light different aspects of Brazilian food and the country’s party culture – our brunch series, for example, sees us “travelling” through different regions of Brazil. We started in Rio at the beginning of the year, and currently we’re hosting our São Paulo-inspired Sampa Brunch until the end of July; then we’ll move to the Bahia region for our Bom dia Bahia Brunch in August!
There’s plenty to celebrate so we’re excited to share these moments with our guests.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.