For an avid book reader like Richard Ekkebus it must have been a source of both pride and a sense of worry that the restaurant in Hong Kong was called the one with the ‘Da Vinci’ code menu. Was the restaurant Amber, which he created at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong so ahead of its time? And would he manage to find the ‘Grail’?
Today, the Dutch chef of the acclaimed restaurant has guests telling him how happy they are that he is the chef of the restaurant because the previous one was not good. They don’t realise that it was he who created Amber. “But I have not changed, it is the people who have changed. Hong Kong has evolved. Today there is a big surge of restaurants, new cool concepts being opened and we have grown within this environment and gained acceptance to the point where everybody loves us which means we need to push a bit further again, to make our customers feel a little uncomfortable again.”” he said.
He has been proven right but that has taken a long time.
He moved to Hong Kong 13 years after a series of coincidences which included seeing his dream of opening a restaurant in New York vanish after the September 11 attacks. He had previously resisted offers from Mandarin Oriental because he was not sure he would be able to leave his mark on a restaurant within a corporate structure but when he was offered the possibility to work on a restaurant within a new boutique hotel at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong he knew that the answer would be yes.
He took it upon himself to explore the restaurants of Hong Kong, to see what the city lacked, to try something different. “I was convinced that if the restaurant was to be successful, we could not operate it as a hotel restaurant. If we wanted it to have personality it had to operate as an independent restaurant. It might not tick all the boxes of a hotel restaurant but we did not care,” he said.
Looking back it may sound easy but that was not the case. “The process was complicated because we were working in a corporate structure and sometimes you have to make decisions that do not fit in with the corporate decisions. There were times when we had to argue about what we wanted to do but with time we showed that we were successful not only from a financial perspective but also when it came to awards and recognition.”
The Dutch chef realised pretty soon that Hong Kong locals were used to tradition but he did not expect that the innovations that were being introduced at Amber would face such resistance.
“It was initially difficult,” he said. “We were not necessarily worried about international recognition because that came immediately with lists like Conde Naste Traveller and other trend setters. The most difficult part was to convince the local people because they were extremely traditional. If you go to Caprice or Petrus today, they have not really changed. The service is very traditional and so is the food. So it was hard for us because we needed to convince the locals and they had a problem with us because we were ahead of our times.”
Richard tells me that they had a tea master in the restaurant but the locals could not understand why a western style restaurant should have a tea master. “We had tea pairings with food. We developed a programme for our wine list to be on a tablet and people hated it. We had to take it away after six months because people felt intimidated by it. Now it is very common for wine lists to be on iPads,” he said.
People called us the Da Vinci restaurant. They could not understand us.
“People called us the Da Vinci restaurant. They could not understand the menu, they could not understand cooking that was not traditional. It took time. Over time, we held on to what we wanted to express, to deliver what we set out to do and the locals started to fall in love with us,” he said.
He tells me that as part of a big renovation that restaurant Amber will undertake next year, they asked 150 influencers in Hong Kong to name 5 fine dining restaurants and more than half of them came up with the name Amber in first place. “We now have credibility in the city.”
So how did he end up in Hong Kong? It is a long story but one that shows the importance of being open to opportunities and change and to follow your instinct.
He took an interest in cooking and kitchen life at a young age but his original plan was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an engineer. As a youngster, it did not even cross his mind that he would cook even if his grandmother had a restaurant in Zeeland, the Netherlands and he would often be in the kitchen peeling shrimps for which the region is renowned. At the time, there were shrimp peelers, families who would peel 30 kilos of shrimps to earn money. There were a lot of tedious jobs that needed to be done like removing the beard of mussels which would earn him some pocket money. “We grew up in an environment where if you wanted money you needed to work for it. So we would help out for two to three hours on the weekends.”
“It was not child labour,” he jokes. “We enjoyed it and I was spending time with the family in the kitchen where we were not normally allowed.”
Richard went to university to study engineering. “In the Netherlands, your parents would pay for the university courses but if you wanted to have the money to party you needed to earn your own money. So I took weekend jobs in restaurants.”
The chefs he worked with used to tell him he was doing a good job and they would ask him to help out during weekdays when someone was sick. “I would be asked whether I was available to go to work on Monday or Tuesday and soon I was working four or five times a week, sometimes even every day. As a youngster, I made a lot of money so I was happy. But then the studies were overshadowed by this and I really enjoyed it. What I liked most was not the money but actually working in the kitchen, working in a team. I thought to myself why am I studying, this is not what I want to do. So I stopped my studies and moved to working full time as a chef.”
His fortune would turn when he won a competition in the Netherlands for adult chefs at the age of 18 competing with chefs working in Michelin star restaurants. “I was getting offers to work in hotels and this was incredible for an 18-year-old boy who did not even know the basics. I asked my chef at the time, Robert Kranenborg who was the most famous chef in the Netherlands what I should do. He urged me to leave the Netherlands because at the time he had the best restaurant in the country and there was nothing else. There were no 3 star restaurants and to experience that you needed to travel to Germany, Belgium or France.”
At the time going to work in France was difficult. “The French did not like foreigners in the kitchen. It was very hard to find restaurants that were willing to take you. But I was lucky that Robert had contacts with chefs. He found me a job at Alain Ducasse in the south of France at Juan-les-Pins. He had just been elected best chef of the year by Gault Millau. I was extremely happy that I was going to work for Ducasse. He was not as famous as he is now but I was working for one of two rising stars in France. The other was Alain Passard.” Then disaster struck. Ducasse got an offer to move to Hôtel de Paris. Richard told him he would not have a problem to follow him but Ducasse’s reply was that they were not hiring.
Richard had to change plans. His former boss decided to phone Alain Passard as he was a good friend of his and asked whether he had a job for him. “He said yes but I needed to go the following Monday. So from one day to the next, I had to pack my things and drive to the French capital with friends. I found a little room in Paris where to stay and started my career in France. “Passard was an up and coming chef in Paris after having worked at Le Carlton in Brussels where he had two Michelin stars. I learned a lot there but it was as a pastry chef which was not my speciality. It was very challenging and the problem for me was that he did not let me out of the pastry section. Then through another friend, I got to hear that Guy Savoy had a vacancy. He was one of very few chefs at the time who had multiple restaurants. He had a restaurant in New York, six restaurants in Paris. Today most chefs has multiple restaurants. At the time, it was unusual so it was good to see how it worked. I spent one year there and learnt a lot about team work. Guy is a rugby man, he is focused on how he can get a team to work better together.”
After a year, Savoy arranged for Richard to go and work with Pierre Gagnaire who at the time was the most unconventional chef in France if not the world. “He talked to me about this chef who had a different philosophy, a different way of plating. Savoy called him and told him that he had this great guy who wanted to work with him. Pierre told Guy that I should go and see him. So Guy took me to eat there and we talked to him and he hired me on the spot. I had to start the following month. At the time, it worked like that. You were handed over from one chef to the next. Now young chefs can choose where they go but at the time you needed the help of a chef to get somewhere.”
Richard worked with Pierre for three years. There was the glory of the three stars and he stayed there till the restaurant went bankrupt. He then received a call from Guy Savoy telling him there was this great opportunity in Mauritius. “He told me there was a hotel and the owner was a good friend of his. They are looking for an executive chef. The hotel had 60 rooms, the kitchen team had 40 people and the hotel 3 restaurants. I had never done this before. I was the number 2 with Pierre Gagnaire but never did this before. He said Richard, I know you well enough, you worked for me for one year, I see it in your eyes, you have the ability to do this.”
Breaking free from the 2 or 3 star environment was the best thing to happen to me.
With the benefit of hindsight that proved to be the best thing that Richard had done. “I ended up in the resort which was something really different to what I had experienced before. It broke me free from the two and three star environment. I was doing something really different in a very exotic country using different ingredients and meeting different expectations.”
It was here that Richard created his own story. He took over from an older chef who had just retired. “The restaurant was serving very classic French cuisine. I reasoned that people travelled 14 hours to get to the Mauritius by plane and probably wanted to experience something different. “Wouldn’t they want to discover the island’s cuisine? We started to use the influence of the island which was a very multicultural society and we started to create our own multicultural Mauritian cuisine. We became famous in the process. Chefs like Michel Troisgros and many others were flying to see what I was doing, how I was working with spices, how I cooked with tandoor ovens and steam baskets. Nobody had seen that before but for us it was working with the influences which were on the island.”
An opportunity came knocking 8 years later after having created a reputation for himself. “Alain Ducasse called me one day and told me that it was time for me to move on. At the time no one was talking about his restaurants in the Mauritius because they were talking about me. He told me he knew I wanted to open a restaurant in New York and he had somebody in mind who could help me. It was a way of getting rid of the competition. Mr Ducasse brought me in contact with the people for the New York project. It is a long story and I learnt every step along the way but the best lesson I learnt is that if you want to get rid of your competition, you buy them out,” he said.
That project never came about because of the September 11 attacks which changed his path for ever. Mandarin Oriental had tried to approach him for different projects at the time. But Ekkebus was only interested if the project was small and he could be hands on. “They called me to tell me that they were building his new boutique hotel in Hong Kong. I asked whether that meant they would have two hotels in Hong Kong and they said yes but the new one would be different. I was intrigued but they told me that they were also looking at other chefs. I was invited for a cook off in Miami. They loved what I did. They flew me in to Hong Kong for another cook off, they loved it and offered me the job. I was given a clean slate to work on Amber.
“There was no legacy. We had a vague idea of what we wanted to do of course. They gave me a small brief, three paragraphs of how they envisaged the restaurant would be. I looked at it and we evolved from that. We have changed that brief in the process and have created a jewel in the process,” he said.
So how different is Amber to that original brief. “It has evolved. We have succeeded in carving a niche, in having our own following and our own DNA.”
The restaurant will close its doors for a complete refurbishment in summer 2018 because as Richard told Food and Wine Gazette “if we want to go beyond, then we need to change our shell. It is like a lobster that changes shell. You reach a point where the shell becomes too small for the lobster. We are the same, if we want to evolve as a restaurant we have to change the way we operate,” he said.
Amber and the chef are highly acclaimed not only in guides but also in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. How important are these for him?
“I think that no matter which list or guide you look at, they are all open for debate.” He is clear that they all have their own politics. “There is no perfect listing and everybody has a different opinion. But I believe that if you do well in all listings then you must be doing well. Today, Tripadvisor is just as important and even if sometimes you read things which you cannot understand, it does not matter because all contribute the success of a restaurant,” he said.
He tells me he has been thinking a lot lately about the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “What I think is interesting is that if you need to implement a guide, it takes a lot of time, it is a huge process which requires huge resources and is extremely complicated. But with the World’s 50 Best Restaurant list, you take 900 people within an industry, foodies, chefs, restauranteurs with regional influence who eat out a lot and you let them vote for a list and all of a sudden you have the most eclectic list of restaurants in different continents. Take Brae Restaurant by Dan Hunter in Birregurra, Australia as an example. It is far from Melbourne. People want to go there because it is on the list. The list has helped to promote areas, regions or countries that people had never heard of before. I would never have gone to Melbourne, taken a car for two and a half hours to get to Dan’s restaurant if it was not part of the list,” he said.
Who should be number 1 or 100 in the list is a philosophical question. What is important is that it has not made be a more competitive chef but it has made me a better human being.
Richard believes that the curated list of restaurants is more important than the position. “I do not want to go into the debate of who should be number 1 or 100 because that is a philosophical question. All 50 chefs or 100 chefs deserve to be number 1. Shelf life within the list is also limited. We all know this. The clock is ticking for everyone.”
He said it is a good thing that people want to travel to eat and that is something very powerful. “As a chef, I am very proud to be on the list but this is not something that I am preoccupied with on a daily basis. I think that what is important is that it did not make me a more competitive person but a better person. All the chefs that are in the list have initiatives. Massimo Bottura wants to save the world by tackling the issue of food waste, everybody has something. They want to be contributing beyond the fact that they are successful restaurants. That for me is the most important as a human being. It made me want to stand up for certain things. Because of the social position that we have these days, we can raise certain questions. We can be political, we can even question things but that’s not a problem. Somebody needs to raise certain issues and since we are in the food industry, it is good that we raise them. For example, in Hong Kong, we live in a city of over consumption. We have huge problems with landfills and pollution. There are things that I really fight for. How can we eliminate plastic within our operations, how can we limit waste, how can we limit the amount of plastic pollution that is coming back to the food chain after 100 years of industrial and household use of plastics.” (Read more about what he and Amber are doing soon).
Is it difficult to be a chef today with the influence of social media? “I think it is a double edged sword. It is great because a lot of people talk about you. But it is a pity because a bit of the surprise factor has gone. Sometimes we have guests who have seen everything online. They come and they are not impressed because they know everything. There is no surprise element except for the taste. That is the problem because most people have seen all our dishes.”
Has this put pressure on the creative cycle. Does it mean you need to change more often? “We needed to change and do it regardless. We have always been a restaurant that changed. After a year, you need to say goodbye to certain things and do things differently. I think that has always been how we worked. For me, the biggest constraint of a chef is the menu because with a menu you need to cook a specific ingredient in a specific way. But the reality is that the fish or vegetable may come to you a bit bigger or smaller so you need to work it differently. Produce might not be as good on the day but people are expecting it, it is on the menu so you need to serve it. Ideally you would not have a menu. You would ask what people would like to eat, what they cannot eat or don’t want to eat and then you serve them the food. This is the best way of cooking. It is searching within yourself each day and pushing the boundaries.”
Driving a motorcycle to work is like meditation
Richard loves motorcycling and he finds that this is like meditation to him. “For me, coming to work by motorcycle has a meditating effect. I only skip if it is raining. Those 45 minutes from home to the restaurant are a time for reflection. You are alone and it is a good time to think. If you are in a car, you end up checking your phone when you stop in traffic or on traffic lights. You might answer an email. That is not possible on a motorbike. For me this is like a zen moment. Even after a crazy service, you can still be stressed in a car while on a motorbike you have the time to think. When I arrive home I would have already dealt with the stress. And that means that I am available for my family,” he said.
So how does he find the time to be creative and where does he get inspiration from? “We use a lot of Japanese ingredients. Travelling and going to the market is the best way to know where I want to go. I do not have the luxury of seeing the farmers being in Hong Kong. But I go six times a year to Japan, I visit the farmers, I visit the fishermen. I know who is catching my fish, who is growing my turnips. I know them by name and I know them for many years. That is where I get my ideas. Of course, we have the people who do the markets in Hokkaido, Tokyo and Fukuoka and they send us lists and pictures everyday.”
At the top end of restaurants, people tend to think of chefs as being in charge of creative labs but Richard said “the most mind-boggling part of our job is the repetition. It is a bit like a Charlie Chaplin movie with the guy doing the same gesture over and over again. Working on the same dishes for years and years is not good for me nor my team. So the more we chase, the more we evolve, the more people are motivated and excited. If your work is repetitive it stops being motivating. Evolution is the most important part of our job. The transition from one ingredient to the next, changing a small detail, using a different technique, learning from a new colleague,” he said.
“To be able to change constantly through the season is the most motivating part of the work for me. When we start to work with asparagus it is exciting but after 2 months, I need to move on,” he said.
Richard keeps a book in the kitchen and jots down ideas. “Some people have a board, I prefer a notebook.” (telling me later he is a huge fan of Moleskine). “We write a product, the techniques we can use. We build everything step by step without a set way of doing thing. Sometimes you think that something is right, you state it and find that it is not good so you have to start all over.”
I create my own pressure
Is there more pressure today than in the past? “The pressure is not created by Michelin or by a list. I create my own pressure. My own pressure is to please my guests and not to create the same dish every day. I want to become a better chef to be a better master of my team, this is the pressure I create for myself. Should I get one, two or three stars, that is the guide’s prerogative.”
He says that today restaurants that have a reputation can sustain themselves and that is important. “But we also need to acknowledge the commercial importance of guides and lists. We are living in Hong Kong and we cannot underestimate the importance even of a website like Tripadvisor. When you aim to have a full restaurant every day you need lists and guides to point out the level of quality that the restaurant attains as this also justifies the price you are charging. There has always been pressure. If you are an organised chef and can train your staff, you can still have a day off and it will probably be better than when you are there. You don’t need to be there seven days a week. You need to make sure that the delivery and quality is consistent.
“Of course we have highs and lows. It is like a marriage. One day you love your wife more, one day you love her less. At the end of the day you make it work and it is the same in the kitchen. You need to work to grow, you cannot become complacent.”
Living in a metropolitan city has become important for Richard. “I lived on an island and was very romantic about it but it drove me nuts after 10 years because I am a competitive person. When I was a kid, I would go fishing and wanted to catch the biggest fish. When we were playing football, I wanted to score. I am a competitive person by nature so you do not want to be in the mountains. I want to have the competition. In Hong Kong there are 35,000 restaurants. Can you have a more competitive scene than Hong Kong? I think it does not exist. For me it is a perfect playground. It does not prevent me from being creative. Every city has its constraints, its flavour profiles, its expectations. It has taken us a long time. We were not loved from the beginning. We have a genuine interest in pleasing them. Do I want to be in the countryside? No. I prefer to live in a city and when I want to go to the countryside I can go for sources of inspiration. He tells me that you can live in the mountains but you would not be able to have a restaurant full with 60 seats every day.
There is a time and place for everything. For Richard, that place and time is Hong Kong.