The heralded chef Olivier Elzer reimagines French cuisine with a beautifully light touch.
Newly-opened Clarence, tucked inside Central’s H-Code, has swiftly become one of the hottest tables in town—with good reason. Michelin-starred Olivier Elzer’s highly anticipated first personal culinary endeavour feels like a culmination of the chef’s past 13 years in Asia, where techniques and sensibilities acquired along the way are innovatively married into the French classics he does so well (not least at L’Envol, the heralded St Regis Hong Kong restaurant he still helms).
Within the lushly modern space, sun-drenched and overlooking Tai Kwun, is also where Elzer (alongside executive chef Simon So) unveils his patented ‘Yakifrenchy’ concept. Think Burgundy snails, frog legs and duck confit served on skewers, prepared over the traditional Japanese robata grill to give it a distinctly lighter, smokier touch—the finesse of French cuisine infused with the casual charm of street-side Japanese yakitori.
Additionally, the dark timbered raw and wine bar serves up a menu of citrus-marinated catches from the French sea; we also recommend a wine-pairing meal under the gorgeously vaulted ceilings and red brick walls of The Sommelier Room, which houses some of the world’s rarest bottles not found anywhere else in the city.
Here, we catch up with Elzer to chat about his culinary evolution, this stylish labour of love that was years in the making, and why now’s the perfect time to open the restaurant’s doors.
Can you tell us the story behind Clarence? How did this come about and why is now the perfect time to unveil it?
When it comes to my cooking, I always try to offer my customers something new to try, whether it’s seasonal dishes or off-menu items prepared especially for my regulars based on what I know they’ll like. I’ve been thinking of doing a more casual type of French restaurant for a while, so I’ve been developing this concept in my head—I wanted to bring together my traditional French culinary heritage with what I’ve learnt in my 13 years in Asia to present a unique new format of French cuisine made with Asian cooking methods.
I decided to unveil it now as I think people are fed up with the pandemic and are looking not only for new restaurants but something comforting yet completely different, which I think Clarence delivers.
Clarence introduces your patented Yakifrenchy concept, which reinvents French classics with Japanese techniques, tools and methods. Why are these two a great match? What is it about Japanese gastronomy that inspires you?
The robata is an amazing tool that can be utilised for a wide range of culinary styles and cuisines. My wife and I are big fans of yakitori and robatayaki in general, so I wanted to pay my respects to this cooking method but with what I do best, which is French food. Yakifrenchy introduces a new format of French cuisine that presents classics in an easily digestible format, and with robata grilling, less or no fat needs to be used so it lightens up our dishes.
This is your inaugural personal concept. How has this experience been compared to the other kitchens you have helmed? Was there anything that surprised you?
Well, first of all, Clarence isn’t a fine dining concept, rather an upscale casual restaurant. Not to mention, I’m paying tribute to local dining culture where I’m making a lot of sharing plates for family style meals, and cooking specialty fish and meat on the bone. This is the first time I’ve really gotten to play with my innate creativity and turn what’s familiar to me, namely French cuisine, into something new that everyone can enjoy. I’m also passing the reins to my protege, Simon So, who’s been working with me for over a decade. We’ve cultivated such a strong foundation of trust and creativity that I feel completely confident in his ability to lead the kitchen at Clarence.
I’ve been really surprised by the creativity and adaptability that we can create with Clarence. With freshness as my number one priority, it’s been wonderful to find fresh local ingredients to work with everywhere I go. As a French chef in fine dining, it can sometimes be difficult to sell the use of local ingredients, but Robuchon taught me that we shouldn’t be afraid of sourcing locally if the quality is outstanding and the products are worth it. The other day I tried some local live prawns, clams, and sea snails from the Aberdeen fish market—they were beautiful and fresh, and eliminated my need to wait for shipments to come in. The concept of sourcing fresh and local ingredients everywhere I go to create my innovative French cuisine can be done in any country.
Tell us about some of your favourite dishes and bottles from the menu, and the stories behind?
One of my favourites is the black prawns with tonka bean and lemon peel from the Raw & Wine Bar, as the tonka beans give the sweet prawns an umami layer of flavour while the lemon peel is a nod to French tradition and just brightens up the dish.
With the veal head with wasabi mayo Yakifrenchy, the veal head has to be cooked for over 12 hours for perfect tenderness before we throw it on the robata, and the wasabi mayo has just enough sharpness to it to brighten up the skewer.
The skate wing grilled whole on teppan is a very classic French fish with meat that just falls off the bone after it’s been grilled on the teppan in a French meuniere sauce and guests can personalise every bite with additional brown butter, my secret spice blend, and garlic confit.
Then there’s the Challans duck breast, charcoal, and caramel spices. Challans duck has very lean, tender flesh, and it’s famous for being made into the famous ‘Canard au Sang’ dish at La Tour d'Argent restaurant in Paris. At Clarence we cook the Challans duck breast over charcoal with cherrywood for a moist and smoky result, and the perfectly rendered skin and fat is topped with caramelised spices. It’s a very beautiful dish to share.
When it comes to wine pairings at Clarence, our sommelier will guide customers to the perfect bottle based on their individual needs and likings. Our cellar showcases a great selection of wines and winemakers such as rising stars and top guns who are well established in the industry. We also want to introduce wines from hidden vineyards in lesser-known regions. The sourcing progress is our most important priority, and in many cases we import them directly from the domaine, as we’ve built great relationships based on trust and respect with the winemakers.
I love the plush yet lively interiors of Clarence, and the pockets of spaces that groups, large and small, can enjoy. Tell us about the design?
Clarence’s design was a passionate collaboration between Yacine Bensalem of In Situ & Partners and I. I wanted a space that was French at heart, just like my cuisine. The design team, led by Yacine and Sharlene Yuquico, took inspiration from traditional French houses, bars and counters, traditional wine cellars and a country lodge, incorporating elements into Clarence’s spacious dining areas.
For example, on entering the restaurant, the wooden framework on the ceiling enveloped by fluted plastered walls was inspired by the ceiling beams and walls of a traditional French house and they provide an interplay of light and shadows throughout the space. As the largest and brightest area of the restaurant, the main dining room offers a subtle rustic feel with its natural tones and textures to provide a sense of grounding for each guest.
The Sommelier Room was designed to evoke a traditional French wine cave and features an opulent fourteen-seat black marble tasting table under a vaulted brick ceiling and stepped red brick walls. The goal here was to create an intimate space to discover the world of wine that our sommelier has curated. Next to the Sommelier Room is the Raw & Wine Bar. Where the main dining room is full of light, we used a monolithic dark wood bar to create contrast between the rooms. The Lounge, our outdoor terrace with views of Victoria Harbour and Kowloon, echoes the terracotta furnishings of the main dining room in its colour palette, as well as the brickwork in the Sommelier Room.
After 27 years in the industry, who have been some mentors or people who have inspired you? What are some valuable lessons you learned from them that had an influence on your career?
My stepfather is a passionate gourmand who encouraged my love for cooking at a very early age. He introduced me to chef Christian Métral when I was only 14, and I got to start my culinary education at the one Michelin starred L’Auberge du Jarrier.
I worked for my first proper mentor, chef Jean Yves Leuranguer between 2003 and 2004. He used his connections to personally vouch for me so I could continue my education in other prestigious Michelin starred restaurants. When I worked with chef Pierre Gagnaire, he taught me that anything out of the box can work as long as one has confidence and respects ingredients and the balance of flavours.
I would say my biggest mentor is chef of the century Joel Robuchon. He taught me to maintain his passion for not only work but everything I do. He’s also an inspiration for me to constantly evolve and try new things. He was the first French chef to utilise the Japanese teppan grill and Spanish style tapas portions, while maintaining the soul of French cuisine, which is obviously an influence on what I’m doing at Clarence.
A wearer of so many hats, how do you find time to balance it all? What do you like to do in your down time? Would you say you’re similar or different in and out of the kitchen?
My day starts around 5am. My wife and I start the day with an hour-long walk where we can talk about our plans for the day and just spend some quality time with each other. Currently I’m spending my time between L’Envol and Clarence, and scheduling my day so I have time to source new ingredients, liaise with suppliers, new and old, get admin work done, and even R&D. I try my best to have family time on weekends even though I have to work, but my wife is also really involved in my work so she’ll come every weekend to try the new dishes at Clarence that we’re working on.
I would say I’m quite similar in and out of the kitchen as I always maintain my creativity and drive for good health and self-improvement. My passion in the kitchen also translates to my love for my family.
What are some goals you have for Clarence and your culinary journey?
At Clarence, my main goals are to present a new light-hearted format of French cuisine that not only showcases my creativity, but also lightens the traditional recipes with Asian cooking methods. Clarence is also a versatile concept that I hope can be expanded to other Asia-Pacific locations, with localised flavours and ingredients.
Personally, I want to keep cultivating my personal style of contemporary French cuisine and broaden culinary horizons in Asia and beyond. My dining concepts will always be innovative as I learn more throughout my culinary journey, and they’ll evolve with the tastes of diners.
Clarence, 25F, H Code, 45 Pottinger St, Central; +852 3568 1397