Holland days

Richard Ekkebus knows a lot about food. But then, he also knows a lot about everything he cares for, from obscure facts about ancient architecture to every conceivable detail about mushrooms—information he has gleaned thanks to a thirsty mind and an obsession with detail. “I was always very driven. If I wanted to know about the moon, I made it a mission to find out everything about it,” says the 46-year-old Dutchman, the culinary director of Amber at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong. “I was committed. So when I got the cooking fever, I went all the way and it hasn’t stopped to this day. It’s still the thing that makes me tick and what I love the most.”

Time certainly flies. In a city where restaurants come and go, many being casualties of rising rents and fickle palates in their millions, Amber will be celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. In the past decade, the restaurant has had much to look back on: it has maintained two-Michelin-star status for the last seven years, and secured a place on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the past four, among countless other accolades from local and international press. It was named the Best Restaurant in China in the Asian edition of the San Pellegrino awards, where it also clocked in at number four in the region.

But where did it all begin? Ekkebus may live and breathe Hong Kong now, but his origin story lies in the seaside town of Vlissingen, nearly 9,500km from this pearl of the Orient. Born into a hospitality family and raised in this fishermen’s village in southwestern Netherlands, Ekkebus had plenty to sink his teeth into from the start—although he was initially discouraged from entering the business by his father. Nevertheless, he spent his weekends as a teenager scrubbing and peeling potatoes and cleaning mussels for his grandparents’ restaurant, each mundane task instilling in him a sense of quality. “The time growing up in the countryside set my ‘hard disk’ for how food should taste,” he explains. “What is the flavour of exceptionally fresh fish? How does a strawberry or tomato taste, picked straight from the vine? I say that kids that grew up with fishsticks and instant mashed potato cannot create any benchmarks for themselves.” Slowly, the thought of becoming a chef took shape in his mind.

At 17 he went full throttle, going to train with the legendary Hans Snijders at Château Neercanne who, as Ekkebus recounts, taught him all he wanted to know about mushrooms—and much more. Following that, the young man moved on to train with Robert Kranenborg, the rural legend of Holland. He was only 18 when he completed his stint, which culminated in his first award (the prestigious Golden Chef’s Hat for Young Chef of the Year) and Kranenborg encouraging him to continue with his culinary journey in France. “Back in those days, going to France was like heading into the wild west,” Ekkebus laughs. “It was tough because [the French] really didn’t like foreigners.” He recounts how his peers refused to call him by his name, referring to him as La Hollande instead. “They thought that we [Dutch] didn’t know anything about food. And they were right. At the time, I even called myself the culinary refugee of Holland,” he says.

From there on, Ekkebus honed his skills with three of the greatest French masters in the business: Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard, and Guy Savoy. You can, to this day, tease hints of what he has learned from each of his mentors, from the clarity of the intense mushroom tea he serves as an earthy palate cleanser, a homage to Snijders’s bucolic forest setting; to the delicate procession of vegetable-focused plates, influenced by Passard’s thoughtfully tended gardens that form the base of many L’Arpège creations. A taste for exotic flavours, gleaned from his years working at The Royal Palm in Mauritius, then The Sandy Lane in Barbados, are reflected in his dishes that oftentimes defy neat categorisation: while Ekkebus describes Amber as being modern European, with primarily French sensibilities, his creations certainly pass through a prism of international influences, particularly Japanese. Upon accepting the role at Amber in 2005, he quickly found that he had to adjust his game.

“It took me a while to find out what makes Hong Kong tick,” he admits. “When I came here, I wanted to show off everything I knew on one plate, and I tended to overcomplicate things. But now that has profoundly changed.” What inspired Ekkebus was the simple beauty of Cantonese food, a philosophy that he found had parallels with what he was taught by Passard all those years ago. “It’s not about 20 flavours. It’s the essence of food. Take away all the fluff, powders, and foams, and keep it very simple.”

To use the word ‘simple’ would be a disservice to the complexity of flavours that form the DNA of Amber’s exquisite procession of dishes. Anybody who has dined at Amber over the best part of the decade will be able to recite, in perfect detail, the components of Ekkebus’ most famous dish: sea urchin, caviar, lobster jell-o and seaweed crackers. It’s almost obscene in its sensuality, the intensity of the sea encapsulated in a jewel box of a dish. In a recent review of Amber, I remarked that this was defining plate that would create serious ripples should it ever be removed from the menu—imagine St JOHN without bone marrow, or Momofuku without pork buns—ditto the instantly recognisable foie gras lollipops that precede every meal here for as long as guests can remember. It was during the height of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement when the article was published, and a local foodie commented that, should Ekkebus attempt to cut away the sea urchin dish, he would “occupy Amber” in dire protest.

But, ten years on, Ekkebus is desperate for a change. “We get stuck into our own classics, and it blocks out creativity,” Ekkebus explains. “There needs to be an evolution, and questioning yourself over what you’re doing. I feel like we have been too conventional, just holding onto things because people expect it. Maxime [Amber’s chef de cuisine] and I have agreed that we need to cut the umbilical cord of this dish and say goodbye.”

So what next for the next ten, twenty years of Amber? “We’re moving much more towards vegetables—not because it’s funky and fun, but because it makes sense,” says Ekkebus. “It makes sense in our contribution to the environment, and because we get so much access to amazing produce that happens to be vegetables. Four years ago, I would not have dared to, because people would be wondering where the protein was.

“I have changed and I have been able to adapt and be successful. I’m not a guy with a huge ego, but I’m not going to serve you bland food. And people also evolve with us. Sometimes I have long-time guests who come in and tell us: ‘it’s so good that you’re here now. The first chef that was here was a disaster!’” A corner of his mouth lifts up in a bemused smile. “I tell them: ‘Yeah. I know.’”