Four-hands dinners have become part and parcel of Hong Kong’s dining scene. Chefs from across the globe are flying in for that one-off cooking collaboration featuring crossover menus at exclusive events.
Last week we saw a unique collaboration between Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus, Culinary Director at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, and Korean chef Mingoo Kang of Mingles in Seoul, which ranked No. 11 on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2018, for a two-night, four-hands dinner at Amber.
We caught a moment with the two chefs to understand more about their cuisines, their combined efforts and why four-hands dinners will continue to be popular for both guests and chefs alike.
How would you describe your culinary style?
Chef Kang: People call it contemporary Korean. It’s Korean because I am Korean. But for me, it is also very important that we use good local and seasonal produce. Then we can play with Korean techniques and taste. In Korean cooking, the fundamental element is jang [or sauce] and we have 3 jangs. Ganjang — soy sauce, Doenjang — soy bean paste and Gochujang — chilli paste. Wherever I am in the world, I can make good Korean food with fresh local ingredients and jang.
Chef Ekkebus: My style is different, it’s a melting pot of many things. But my foundation is French. We keep the integrity of the flavours European, but we have tweaked. Over the 13 years I’ve been in Hong Kong, I have learnt how people taste and perceive things. Things are seasoned differently here. We work unusually for a French restaurant — with a lot of umami, less salt and more sweetness. We also work with a lot of Japanese ingredients.
It’s almost fusion — but that’s a dirty word in the culinary world — a word people don’t like. But the components are all fused together to make it what it is; the personality that I have, the journey I underwent, the ingredients I have access to and the understanding I have of the Hong Kong palate.
What do you think of the food in Hong Kong?
Chef Kang: I like Cantonese food, especially dim sum. I also like noodles and enjoyed egg tarts. Noodle soup here is very good — wonton noodles. We have good dim sum in Korea too, but it’s expensive. The ones that aren’t so expensive, well, they aren’t that good. I like it all, from street food to fine dining. I also really like Amber, of course. When I ask my friends about Hong Kong restaurants, they always suggest Amber.
Chef Ekkebus: Actually we do have a very strong Korean following. Every day we have Koreans in. Even during the typhoon, all my Hong Kong guests cancelled and the only table that turned up were Korean guests. They are the die hard fans.
What do you think is different about the dining scene in Seoul and Hong Kong?
Chef Kang: Hong Kong’s dining scene is huge, there is a wide range of cuisine and it’s more global. In Korea we have a much smaller range of cuisines. Our dining scene is still young, we started about 5 years ago and it has changed a lot already. Seoul is fast with changing trends. At the moment, natural wine stores and bars are growing.
Chef Ekkebus: Hong Kong and Seoul are very different. Hong Kong has always been a cosmopolitan city, while Seoul has only really been discovered over the last few years. It is still up-and-coming, but that’s what makes it so exciting. There is an incredible culinary culture, which looks at the old imperial cuisine — extremely refined — but then goes all the way to the great street food and barbecue. Seoul is always high on my agenda if I want to escape Hong Kong. But it is a very different food metropolis.
What about Korean food?
Chef Ekkebus: I love the food, it’s spicy and flavourful. There’s nothing I do not like. It’s extremely tasty and seasoned. There’s also a dish that chef [Mingoo] does which is fish, treated like an envelope — basically stuffed with vegetables and steamed. I think it is a very interesting technique. And it has a sauce, which should almost be served on its own. It has an exceptional complexity of fermentation, spice, acidity. I’d love to know how he makes that.
Chef Kang: We don’t have secrets — I already gave one of the guys in the kitchen the recipe.
Chef Ekkebus: I need to find this guy!
Do you see any similarities between the cuisines?
Chef Ekkebus: I’m trained in traditional French cooking, so as you know we have something called ‘Mother Sauces’ [the base sauce in making other variation sauces]. Some of the sauces we have are over 13 years old. This is something that is done in French cuisine. Giving soul to the sauce. And you see this in Korean cuisine too.
Chef Kang: Yes, you can see this in our soy sauce. We have an 8 and 10 year old, given to us by Jeong Kwan [the Buddhist monk chef] but we use it only for special guests. This is “shi-ganjang” or seed of soy sauce.
Chef Ekkebus: There are actually other things that are similar, for example, when I started to understand how kimchi is made, it reminded me of sauerkraut. So there are a lot of things in different cultures that, one way or another, have some common ground.
How do you think your styles match or complement each other?
Chef Ekkebus: If you look at what we have done before [four-hands with André Chiang, Ferran Adrià, Zaiyu Hasegawa and more], it has never been someone who does exactly what we do. We always want to have contrast, that’s the interesting part. For the first time, we are doing something with Korean flavours. That’s where the excitement of having events like this come from, it’s not by finding someone who has the same qualities or vision. Mingoo’s vision is very quality driven. He has an integrity towards what exists within Korea but gives it his own personality. It is a cuisine that I really admire. The charm of it all is in the contrast rather than the harmony.
How do you two get along?
Chef Ekkebus: I’m 52 and he’s 33, but I don’t feel the generational gap because I’m really just a child!
Chef Kang: I was really surprised when I heard his age, before I arrived here I thought he was 40 or 42.
Chef Ekkebus: I use a lot of Korean face creams!
Chef Kang: I don’t feel much of the age gap at all. His cooking style, the way he thinks, his philosophy. He’s very open minded — very young, in my opinion. His food is very serious, but whenever we have a conversation, he is very innovative.
Do you feel you have learnt much from the four-hands experience?
Chef Kang: It’s has been a great inspiration for us. We have been working, talking with the team and we have had a great time. It’s only been three days and we’ve learnt so much.
Chef Ekkebus: That goes both ways. Traditionally we would send our people abroad to learn at a restaurant. But I always felt that it was only bestowed on one single person. So I thought why not bring someone to our kitchen; have them cook with our tools and use our ingredients. Then the whole team can see what their level of commitment is, observe their style of cooking and technique. This is the great thing about doing these dinners, we see new methods, different association of flavours and products that we have never worked with or even seen.
Will we be seeing any Korean influences in your dishes from now on?
Chef Ekkebus: Rather than influences in the dish itself, I think what is more important is taking influence in the procedures, how they prepare or set up a dish. I’m not going to do a kimchi dish or work with Korean soy sauce.
There’s another beautiful dish he [Mingoo] makes, that will probably influence some of my dishes. It’s like a cabbage mille-feuille. All the layers of cabbage cooked in a rich broth, covered with thinly sliced abalone. Beautiful dish. It’s complex in taste, but looks simple in presentation. I sometimes overthink things, so its simplicity really shines through. The clever utilisation of ingredients, technique and skill. That will influence my dishes — the Asian discipline.
What will you take away from this experience?
Chef Mingoo: I will take away a lot. We saw how the team operates; how they maintain taste, temperature and texture of the dish before it reaches the guests. I took some memos, so when we go back we will change some systems. Also presentation here is perfect, I think we will be making some great changes on the plate too.
Chef Ekkebus: Cooking is a lifetime apprenticeship — I’m still learning. I’m still seeing different ways of doing things, learning about products, about how to treat them. If someone says I’m an accomplished chef, he’s just overconfident. It does not exist. It is an eternal search for perfection!