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Fine arts to fine dining

Published on Thursday, 29 Apr 2010
Makoto Ono says hard work is the key to his success.
Photo: Edward Wong

Makoto Ono was born and raised in Canada to Japanese chefs. The fine arts student found his passion in food when helping in his family restaurant during university. Now based in Hong Kong, the 2007 Canadian culinary champion is head chef at Liberty Private Works and Liberty Exchange. The latter is due to open next month. 

Why did you become a chef?

My father is a sushi chef and my mother is a chef in the kitchen in Winnipeg. But I never wanted to be a chef. When I was young I just wanted to be an artist. I liked drawing and munga (Japanese comics) and studied fine arts at university. But I've always helped out with my family restaurant, washing dishes and busing tables. 

During university my father asked me to help with the sushi bar and I got to interact with the guests and learn basic skills like cutting. That was the first time I realised that food is very similar to art in the use of colours, forms and shapes. When you make a painting or drawing you need to have a balance and use different textures. Food has the same elements. Since then, I enrolled in Dubrulle Culinary Art School in Vancouver and worked in a few restaurants. 

Is going to a culinary school a necessary step in becoming a chef? 

There are a lot of self-taught chefs. It’s quite possible to become one just by researching and reading. Everybody’s path is different. Some people like to go to school whereas others prefer gaining work experience. I decided to go to the culinary institute because I wanted the formality of an institute. 

What steps did you take to develop your career further? 

I went to London to travel, hoping to eat and taste everything there. I ended up working for free as a cook. That’s how you break into the restaurant industry in western restaurants in Europe and North America. If the chef likes you, you’ll become part of the team. After a year, I went back to Winnipeg to open a restaurant. The food was French-based, like what I do here. 

What brought you to Asia? 

I wanted a change. Winning the Canadian culinary championship put so much pressure on me. Everybody was judging me. I lost the meaning of why I wanted to do this. 

Then an opportunity came. I was catering a dinner in Toronto and a lady told me her son in Hong Kong was looking for a chef. I had always wanted to work in Asia so I joined the company, which was opening a Japanese restaurant in Beijing just before the Olympics, so it was very exciting. I wanted an opportunity to see the changes in Beijing. But there was a struggle because of the culture. I don’t speak any Chinese and I don’t have any friends and family there, so it was really difficult. Last year, I came to Hong Kong as a guest chef at Dakota Prime in Lan Kwai Fong.  

What opportunities are there in Hong Kong? 

People love food here but there’s still a lot of room to do different things. I can’t think of a place with so many private kitchens. I’m able to go to the market and change the menu everyday so that everything is fresh. This [private kitchen] is small enough so that we don’t have such high labour cost. The opportunity to open Liberty Exchange is happening now. I like making and eating the food here but I want a hamburger or some comforting food too. Liberty Exchange a very different concept but the similarity is that it’s still about the food, the integrity of the ingredients and respect for the simplicity of food. 

What are your secrets of success?

It's 100 per cent hard work. You work 15 hours, seven days a week to try to perfect the technique. Outside of the kitchen, you read cookbooks and trend-related magazines, research on the internet to find ingredients and suppliers, and try the food everywhere. 

What challenges did you face in running a restaurant? 

Winnipeg was a very small town and people there don’t like spending too much money. I was one of the most expensive restaurants so I was afraid that people wouldn’t want to try it. But once they tried the food they enjoyed and they understood the value of what they were getting. 

When I came to Hong Kong I knew nothing about the place. I didn't know where to find ingredients and suppliers – when I saw a delivery truck I just took down the number. Also, we offer a surprise menu here so we didn't know if people were going to accept. So far it’s been ok. People do ask me for a menu for two to pair a wine with. I will give them a rough idea of what I’m going to make. But it always changes. 

How would you advise young people who want to become a chef? 

You have to want it more than anything because you have to sacrifice so much. When I was in London, I worked so hard and didn't see the city or make any friends. In this industry, we are always working when people are going out to celebrate or have parties. So be prepared for what you're getting into. There's no time for girlfriends or boyfriends, and you are going to spend more time in the kitchen than at home.


Tough grind  

  • Worked in star kitchens with celebrity chefs such as Marco Pierre White at Mirabelle and Jean-Georges at the Vong
  • Won the Canadian Culinary Championship  in 2007
  • Opened French restaurant Gluttons in Winnipeg and is now head chef at Liberty Private Works and Liberty Exchange in Hong Kong


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