“I don’t wake up each morning and think to myself, lets push a little harder today to get an additional star or any other recognition. My guests push me to be critical and to constantly look to evolve our product—a dining experience is about more than what is on the plate.”
Entering The Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s Amber restaurant in Hong Kong, eyes instantly lift skyward, lured by the unique and dramatic chandelier made up of 4,320 bronze rods, suspended above the refined dining room. The scene is set.
Amber is the culinary theatre of Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus, who trained under some of the world’s greatest chefs — Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and Guy Savoy—honing his techniques to near perfection, before moving to Hong Kong and taking up the helm of Amber in 2005.
“At night, the artful ceiling radiates a gilded halo over the restaurant’s rich spectrum, from amber to russet,” Richard says, clearly still in awe of Amber’s beauty in spite of it being his culinary home for almost nine years now.
During that time, Richard has netted Amber two Michelin stars and a spot at number four in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list and 36 in the World’s 50 Best. Which, Richard says, are all “wonderful recognitions.”
“The San Pellegrino panel assembles 800 voters from the industry — foodies, bloggers and journalists — and their opinion matters as they are worldwide taste makers. It motivates my team and me to push even harder and to improve on our consistency, our dishes and to source more exceptional ingredients.”
Collecting stars, points and awards is good for business. As Richard acknowledges, bookings increase and profits go up instantaneously. “What changed [after winning awards] is that the restaurant is always fully booked a week in advance now, whereas in the past the restaurant would fill up on the day. This is certainly a comfortable situation for a business. On the first days after the announcement [of winning an award] the phone system can’t cope, the website had a monstrous increase in views and all of a sudden you are placed in a window that the whole world wants to see.”
Hong Kong is a melting pot of culture and tradition, modernity and technology. Eye-wateringly tall skyscrapers sit side by side with century-old buildings decked with bamboo scaffolding, while neighbourhoods are buzzing with street markets and row upon row of electronics stores. Few places in the world offer this level of juxtaposition and, mirroring Hong Kong’s diverse cityscape, the city’s cuisine is equally as varied. Traditional dishes can be found on every block, while avant-garde cuisine, such as that offered at Amber, is on the rise, too.
“I have seen considerable growth in Hong Kong since the arrival of the Michelin Guide. The chefs and restaurant owners are way more committed and push themselves to be recognised.
“At Amber we have tried a modern and lighter approach to French food. When Amber opened, all French fine dining options were classical and offering heavy creamed and buttered French food, but Amber has freshened up the image of French food with an approach that has a sense of today’s time, meets today’s guest expectations and needs,” says the chef.
In addition to Amber’s eight-course Degustation Menu, offering signature dishes such as langoustine and the Hokkaido sea urchin, the restaurant also offers guests the choice of an à la carte menu, with a focus on shellfish and line caught fish dishes, such as sea bream, red amadai and blue lobster. “The ideal Amber menu should not be too big. I think people have had it with the idea of a 22-course tasting menu; I think eight is really the max.” He continues: “I was born and raised next to the sea, so a fair share of exceptional and fresh seafood to start, then poultry is vital [for me].
“I particularly like the poultry from Miéral in France, some well matured cheeses and, for dessert, [I like] some beautiful fruits — right now we get amao strawberries from Fukuoka in Japan.”
I wonder what excites Richard most as a chef and the answer is simple: the seasons. “Every new season brings its excitements, however, the nicest ones for me are summer and winter. For example, right now, I am excited about the first cep mushrooms, but trust me, in two months time I am anticipating the white Alba truffle and want to move away from the porcini!”
Of Dutch origin, trained in France and having worked in kitchens around the world, I ask Richard how much the locality influences him: climate, culture, local tastes, preferences and, most importantly, what fresh produce is readily available. “It is key to adapt to what the local clientele need and want, but also to stay faithful to your vision and to authenticity. My approach has matured over the years and I have become more patient. I have evolved to where I would like to be, but within the boundaries of what is expected. Today, my inspiration comes only from the seasons and what the season brings.”
Richard taps into East China Sea’s bountiful waters for produce and makes use of Japan’s fine ingredients—such as those delicious red strawberries—not as a matter of fashion, but for Richard, Japan’s proximity to Hong Kong and the country’s high quality produce makes it a sustainable source.
“Japan offers me the very best ingredients to ensure I can bring the highest quality of cuisine to my guests. Every day a flight from north and south Japan arrives with seafood, fruits, vegetables and meats, which are of the very finest quality possible. I know all my purveyors in Japan personally and we have a close relationship, they understand my needs. If I go to the fish market in Fukuoka they call me Mister Amadai!”
What is most important to Richard’s cooking is that he stays close to his French roots and training. “There’s no miso or wasabi in our food—it’s important that we stay very faithful to the French cooking methods and flavour,” he says.
Richard was brought up around food, with his grandparents running a hotel, café and restaurant in Holland. “My grandmother looked after the kitchen and my grandfather was behind the bar along with my aunts,” he says. It was a family business and everyone had their own role to play, including Richard.
“I was always found in the kitchen with my grandmother. I loved to help and even the most hideous jobs like peeling grey shrimp were fun at the time,” he says. “I have to credit my grandparents with teaching me how to pick the best apples in fall and berries during summer and how to hunt and fish near our seaside home in Holland.”
Richard’s parents were equally influential and as a boy he got to enjoy a diverse range of cuisines, particularly Chinese, Indonesian, Thai and Japanese. He says: “I had very curious parents and we ate a lot of Asian food at home. My mother was great in cooking Indonesian dishes due to the fact that some of her best friends where Indonesian.
“Growing up in our house was far from a culinary drag—the Ekkebus family loves to eat,” he laughs. “I admit that I am still attracted to the simplicity, contrasting flavours and variety of textures of both Asian and Oriental cuisines, so my comfort food is everywhere in Hong Kong!”
Feeling at home in China, Richard also travels regularly to Shanghai, where he runs his second Mandarin Oriental project, Fifty 8 Grill, which he describes as a “cool craft driven concept.”
Making regular trips to Shanghai also gives Richard the opportunity to call by his friend and fellow chef, Tony Lu’s Fu 1015 restaurant. “Tony has tremendous talent. Fu 1015 comes from the same stable as the Fu 1088 and Fu 1039 restaurants, where high-end Shanghai-style cuisine is served up in historic buildings. The cooking is traditional—fish is often served whole and refined, without being overwrought or fussy. Close attention is paid to the consistent quality of the restaurant’s key ingredients rather than to unnecessary garnishes and embellishments.”
When it comes to eating in Hong Kong, Richard also has his favourites. “There are so many great places to go to eat in Hong Kong; The Chairman for great Cantonese, Yardbird for brilliantly executed yakitori, The Boss on Queen’s Road Central for dim sum, Sang Kee Congee Shop in Sheung Wan for the best congee in town and On Lot 10 for my favourite French fare.”
It is, however, Richard’s own French fare that has put Amber at the forefront of Hong Kong’s culinary scene, which, Richard says, is the result of a team effort. “Between the Mandarin Oriental Group and my team’s dedication and desire, the common objective is to get better every single day. I don’t wake up each morning and think to myself, lets push a little harder today to get an additional star or any other recognition. My guests push me to be critical and to constantly look to evolve our product — a dining experience is about more than what is on the plate,” he finishes.