Anyone who has been to Hong Kong knows that this is a city that never sleeps. At a crossroads between East and West, its food markets can be breathtaking for visitors who are normally surprised by the quality of the produce that one can find. What I recall and which might seem odd for Europeans is that when you go to markets there, you can actually buy live fish to take home to cook alive.
It is therefore no surprise that Richard Ekkebus, award-winning chef of Amber, the 24th best restaurant in the world in the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, fourth restaurant in Asia, best restaurant in China with two Michelin stars has stayed in the Chinese city since his arrival there in 2005. And he says he has no intention of leaving the city. “I have found my niche there and I am very happy.”
Ekkebus is a chef that takes the quality of produce extremely seriously. You could actually feel the passion with which he spoke about the quality of ingredients he finds in Hong Kong when he took the stage at Chefs Revolution in Zwolle recently.
“I left the Netherlands at a very young age after I won the prestigious Golden Chefs Hat for “Young Chef of the Year” while in the Netherlands. This was an extraordinary result,” he says and one which offered him the possibility to become a chef.
“I was told that I should travel to France if I wanted to become a good chef so that is what I did. At the time, there were no 3 Michelin star restaurants in the Netherlands.”
France has had a great influence on Ekkebus. He says that it was there that he came to understand the concept of terroir which relates to the produce, the area, the quality and the tradition. “We are now starting to see this concept emerging everywhere but it all comes from from the history of the French kitchen,” he said.
Speaking about chefs nowadays, Ekkebus says there is great talent everywhere and everyone is looking to improve their technique or the flavours of the produce. “But it all boils down to one thing, that is to find better products.”
The Dutch chef could not have had better mentors. He trained under three of the most important French chefs of recent years Alain Passard, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire. “Passard is obsessed with exceptional choice of products and he taught me the art of leaving out ingredients from dishes. Savoy is an extraordinary person while Gagnaire is a genius who improvises. It was he who gave me my culinary freedom.”
Ekkebus’s love for ingredients from the sea also stems from his origins. He comes from Zeeland in the North West part of the Dutch coast and these are the foundations which define Ekkebus’s cuisine.
After leaving France he started working as an executive chef in Mauritius but he wanted to leave the island to head to New York. His plans to go to the United States were twice thwarted. After that he got an offer from the Mandarin Oriental Group to go to Hong Kong and open Amber.
He recalls how at first the style of cuisine was met with big resistance by the locals even though this is considered to be the best French restaurant in Hong Kong (despite the fact that he is not French). Our philosophy is the French DNA. We are inspired by exceptional ingredients, craftsmanship and evolve with tradition.”At Amber, it is all about the taste. The experience is quite different and we have had to adjust to the culture and to the nuances of Asian taste.”
Japan is in a league of its own in terms of quality of ingredients
Ekkebus has a great soft-spot for Japan “I go there four times a year to get inspired and to learn on very visit there. The quality of the ingredients in Japan is incredible. They are in a league of their own,” he says. “Fish is flown to the restaurant every day from the fish markets of Fukuoka and Hokkaido. Coming from Europe, everything is quicker in Hong Kong. While in some places in Europe fresh may mean days, in Hong Kong we are speaking of hours,” he says.
During his presentation he showed his passion for quality ingredients. Mackerel cooked within hours of being caught. This was followed by an impressive dish of sea urchins, boiled cauliflower, crab jelly and caviar. “Given this is Hong Kong, we finish it with caviar.” Ekkebus then recalled an anecdote saying that when they had launched the restaurant they noticed that the entry level dishes on the menu were not being selected by customers. When we asked why we found out that it is part of the culture that when you invite people you only offer them the very best. Money is not an issue in Hong Kong,” he said.
Preparing an octopus dish he said he uses Tasmanian truffles which are exceptional in quality. The dish is finished off with aged old soy sauce which ‘is splendid in terms of umami’.
The source of inspiration is travel. You cannot really blame him for that.
Photos courtesy of www.apicbase.com
(Photos of the dishes above from top to bottom – Mackarel, sea urchin and octupus were taken with the Apic Studio, www.apicbase.com)