Feel free to protest copiously online against our bold-faced proposition that Richard Ekkebus is the most famous and finest chef living in Hong Kong. The culinary director of the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, with a staff of 72 (at last count) oversees all cuisine at the hotel. Under his supervision of the property’s collection of restaurants and bars, Ekkebus created and then championed progressive restaurant Amber into prominence, ranking (56th) on the World’s 100 Best Restaurants 2018. Just one feather in his highly festooned cap; for the 10th consecutive year in 2018, Amber was awarded two stars in the Michelin Hong Kong and Macau guide.
While most would rest comfortably on their star-studded laurels, for the past six years Ekkebus has had grand plans to completely alter what was essentially a faultless restaurant, and had the lofty idea of changing not only its DNA but also expanding the cuisine culture of the five-star hotel as a whole. But not with predictable, tedious global expansion, rather with in-house, evolutionary changes to ensure that the hotel would be a key dining destination in a city long overcrowded with culinary alternatives.
But first, a bit of background. Ekkebus began his career with an apprenticeship in his native Netherlands under Michelin-starred chefs Hans Snijders and Robert Kranenborg. In his home country, he won the prestigious Golden Chef’s Hat for Young Chef of the Year, an honour that encouraged him further to perfect his craft and dispense with his engineering-degree studies. This was much to the dismay and chagrin of his father, who didn’t speak to him for two years after he quit college. But under the tutelage of some of the greatest chefs in France, including Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and Guy Savoy, he honed his skills.
While in France, how could this foreigner make his mark in the notoriously difficult, esoteric, distinctly French, overtly snobby world of chefs and their kitchen-confidential games? Well, for one thing, he refused to play. Ekkebus didn’t even bother to compete. Instead, his wannabe “gypsy soul” led him on a flight to Mauritius to become executive chef at the Royal Palm and then, years later, to Sandy Lane in Barbados. He still considers Mauritius home (he has a sprawling house there — “where my wife and kids go a few times a year, far more than I do!”). In 2005, he was appointed executive chef for the Landmark Mandarin Oriental through an accident of fate (more on that later).
While things were swimming along, in December 2018, the hotel’s signature restaurant, Amber, closed for renovations over a four-month period. Ekkebus spent his time exploring new ingredients, contemplating the needs of diners and evolving a bold new culinary philosophy.
Amber’s revered French-style cuisine was changed dramatically — the restaurant’s progressive menu has now dispensed with dairy products, minimised refined sugar and reduced salt — inviting diners to appreciate flavours in their purest form. So much effort and such a big, expensive gamble. Will it pay off?
While it wasn’t the first question that came to mind when we finally meet in the innards of the hotel, it was one that lingered. Having dismounted his beloved bike and freshly changed from all-black denim into the crisp white linens worn by all cooking staff, Ekkebus discussed, well, just about everything during a series of conversations.
First, the basic question: Why renovate Amber when it had stellar reviews and a mile-long waiting list? You know the adage, if it ain’t broke…
That’s a good question, but to put it simply I didn’t want to take for granted the fact that Amber was so successful for so many years. I asked myself, if we continue in the same way, will it have another 50 years of shelf life? So, I came up with this new sort of evolution on the old Amber — which by the way, wasn’t so old.
I also thought, why not add three more restaurants while we’re at it? So we went a bit insane. We opened SOMM by Sommeliers, which has a very strong food component. We built a brand-new Amber, of course, and a private room that’s hidden behind a wine cellar. Then we have two Japanese eateries: Sushi Shikon, the only three-Michelin-star sushi restaurant in Hong Kong, moved in with us, and also Kappo Rin, whose chef Masa-san is from Kyoto. It’s also supervised by the head chef of Sushi Shikon.
Not only the restaurant, but you’ve got a brand-new look too.
I’m going to be 53 soon, so I’m trying to be healthier. What’s going to be the next 15 and probably the last 15 years of my career? Is it going to be the same old, same old or is it going to be something very different and exciting? I decided to do something different and exciting.
For the restaurant, it’s more than a cosmetic, interior design change…
Exactly. Well you can’t just make a cosmetic change — that’s just lipstick on a pig. A delicious pig, but still a pig! I really wanted to make a profound change. When we opened 15 years ago, we were a disrupting force. I think we wanted to be, once again, this disrupting force, but in a thoughtful way. We decided, in a French restaurant, to take out that old style of cooking, cut refined sugars, and minimise salt. Not to become a more healthy restaurant but really to improve the experience. In a restaurant like this, we need to change the perception of what fine dining could be. And that’s the statement we want to make in the new Amber.
You’ve involved many from the local community in this project.
Well, I think we all talk about sustainability but people always forget about the sustainability of making sure that people around you are able to make a good living. I wanted to make sure that we support local artists, local tailors, local food suppliers. My son is an artist; he studies at Parsons and I know how difficult it is to make a career in the arts.
I used to buy French jackets for all the chefs to wear. One day I asked a great local woman, who has a line called Milk, if she wanted to make chef jackets for me. And she brought me this great jacket — now all my staff uniforms are from her. It’s creating this organic cosmos of people that live on the success of the restaurants. Everything in our orbit, we want them to succeed.
Also, you can’t live for 15 years in Hong Kong and not be sensitive to how much opulence there is but also so much waste too [gesticulating outside to the crowded streets of Central] — in the sense that people don’t even realise the problem that they’re creating. I felt that we as a restaurant need to be more in the forefront of trying to create a movement from a professional perspective and making a change in Hong Kong and especially in how we consume it.
It was very important for us that that became the golden thread through the whole project. We wanted to cut out the industrial washing of white linen, so we have no tablecloths. We also went for natural and stained materials instead of, you know, dyed, chemical things.
Does this go all the way down to ingredients? There’s a certain high-status value to state that the steak is from Argentina, the wagyu from Japan, the red wine from France, the white from New Zealand and so on.
Of course. In the past I always thought that chicken from France would be the best chicken, but we’ve started to find a source closer to home. We have a chicken that comes from New Territories because there’s a farm where people are doing great things and we want to support them and see that they can make a living out of that.
And we’re building a rooftop garden here as we speak to grow all the small vegetables and herbs. You know something funny? Most of my chefs have no clue how a vegetable or flower or a herb grows! And it’s very strange because I was born and raised in the countryside.
Garden rooftops around Central… sounds lofty.
But we have to start somewhere — to make Central more green, and to bring more oxygen to Central. We really need to reduce our carbon footprint. Maybe the majority of our restaurant guests aren’t bothered with it, but through this messaging and by explaining why, we can plant a little seed of this idea to buy local. We did the maths; we were bringing in 35,000 kilograms of dairy products every year. Think of that carbon footprint. Insane.
The menu won’t change fundamentally to something tediously healthy, will it?
We’ve always been seafood-focused, because that’s who I am. I was born and raised next to the sea, so seafood is where I’m comfortable. I’ve always loved vegetables. I had a hippie mum and we were always veggie-driven in our home. And it’s a very Dutch thing. I always have a heavy hand on vegetables but a very light style of cooking. So we were never a place like Caprice or Robuchon, butter and cream. We’ve always had a lighter touch. I want people to have an amazing meal here and not go into a food coma after. I thought of this after a recent trip to France.
Home base of all fine dining.
Exactly. We ate at all the fine restaurants, food marathons. We ate at so many Michelin-star restaurants but after, we could do nothing. We wanted to go see the museums but we collapsed in food comas. And I thought, it should be a better feeling when you leave a restaurant. That’s what triggered me to cook differently.
When we cut the salts and sugars, the flavour was better. We replaced cream with tofu. Maybe not as exciting, but we replaced milk with water. All of a sudden there’s a very different flavour profile. I had this little discussion with my team about how much dairy we would use in a menu on average. We put everything on a tray: the cream, butter, milk. The tray was so heavy – who wants to eat all this in one sitting?
What else did you eliminate?
We started by asking the question, what really makes you feel bad after eating? We identified refined sugars. We need protein, but let’s use better protein. We need fat. So we started to buy all these different types of oils; we identified about 70 blended and basic oils. We use about 30 on a daily basis now. People don’t like salty foods. So we started to work more with umami and less with salt.
I call them dogmas, but I think these are limitations actually. [They push] us to be more creative. Instead of ultimately falling back on a little cream, a little butter, it forces us to think. We want to bring in fat elements that could enhance the dish. Then we experimented with oils; olive oil, flaxseed oil, rice-bran oil, almond oil, avocado oil, pumpkin-seed oil, all types of flower oils — and then all of a sudden we see the possibilities these oils have within the flavour profile.
What brought you to Hong Kong, by the way?
After Barbados, I was on my way to New York when 9/11 happened. Every plan went on a toss, as everything I’d planned with my family was gone. And then Mandarin Oriental came along and offered me a couple of opportunities that I didn’t want initially. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; they asked me to create a restaurant from scratch. They just asked us to make it a world-famous restaurant.
Is your family in the hospitality business?
My grandparents were. My grandfather ran the bar and my grandmother was always in the kitchen. Because my father was a child of hotel-running parents, he always told us never to go into hospitality; you’d have no private life, no family life and it’s too much hard work and, “I don’t want you to go through this. I’ve seen it with my parents and they both died before they were even 60.” I was studying engineering, and to earn money on weekends, I worked in the kitchens. I hated what I was studying and I loved what I was doing part-time, so I made the switch. My father didn’t speak to me for years — but then later he came around and he was very proud of me.
How did you land your first apprenticeship?
I would read Gourmand, a very famous French magazine at the time, about all these famous chefs. I would buy books in French, but my French was very average and I would obsess over these people, especially Guy Savoy. I heard hundreds of people wanted to learn under him. But I was also very clever: I knew he loved rugby and I used to play rugby. I wasn’t that great, but I made sure to talk a lot about rugby and how much I loved it. He said, ‘You’re hired.’ Sometimes you need to do your homework.
What was so special about the great chefs you worked with?
I think Guy Savoy really made a mark on me on a human level, because he was so strong. Some people really have it in themselves to lead people and he’s a natural-born leader. You’d want to follow him if he walked into a fire, without question. I’ve worked with people who’ve been extremely tough on me, like Robert Kranenborg in Holland, a two-star chef. He really taught me a lot about cooking and the refinement of cooking, and he always called it playing with fire. Cooking is not just putting things on the stove; it’s about regulating fire and how to get the best extractions. And then working with Pierre Gagnaire was about trusting your instincts. He’s not a guy who’s about written recipes, his style is very unconventional. He’s like the jazz man of cooking. I learned from him the only person that’s in charge when you’re cooking is yourself.
So you’ve been to Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant Pierre in Hong Kong?
Yes, of course, many times. When he [Gagnaire] comes to town, we try as much as we can to catch up. I still call him ‘chef’. I’m not competitive with him or his restaurants. I want to do well for myself, not disappoint myself. You don’t want to do well to beat other people, you do it for yourself. For the pride you have in what you do.
Speaking of pride, what did the Michelin star mean to you when you first got it?
It’s the greatest recognition that we’ve had through all these years of re-positioning and rethinking. But that honour hangs like the Sword of Damocles — I’ve been reading in The New Yorker about chefs who killed themselves over the fall of a rating or the pressure to maintain it. It’s just an opinion, after all.
I was very close friends with [the late chef and owner of La Côte d’Or in Saulieu, France] Bernard Loiseau and it’s extremely personal and it’s very hard to grasp for me. Some people can’t take it. Opinions aren’t facts, no matter how well articulated.
It does piss me off, though, I’m going be honest with you. I stopped reading the TripAdvisor reviews because it affects my day and it shouldn’t because it’s one person’s opinion. There are colleagues, however, whom I really respect; when they come here, I really want to hear what they think. Opinions are like… well, they’re like a butthole.
Everyone has one. But it doesn’t mean anything. Constructive criticism, that I can take.
Photography Nic Gaunt | Art Direction Bex Gaunt | Styling Tasha Ling