The MO Bar, the big ‘O’ is the Chinese symbol for shared experience
Richard Ekkebus at work
They no longer build warships in Vlissingen, but the Dutch coastal town has a modern claim to fame. Chef Richard Ekkebus, of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental’s Amber restaurant, was born and grew up in Vlissingen, surrounded by boats and fishermen, developing an early love of the sea.
Half a world and nearly half a lifetime away, here we are together in Hong Kong, sitting alongside the bar at Amber, Hong Kong’s newest, most-talked-about restaurant – chatting about Ekkebus’s childhood in Holland. He’s a big guy, 38 years old, well built, with slicked-back hair, a broad smile and an open face which suggests that what you see is exactly what you are going to get. Not surprisingly, within seconds our conversation turns to food. His grandparents owned a restaurant in Vlissingen, in the old trade exchange building, and his face suffuses with pleasure when he remembers what they served: ‘Whole turbot poached in milk, lobsters, oysters. Simple food, but impeccable. It was an amazing environment in which to grow up. There was lots of game, like pheasant and partridge, and we’d use an old bicycle wheel to fish for crabs on the beach.’
If he had any thoughts then about his future, it was to be an engineer. Or maybe a vet. Later, his father, knowing the headaches of running restaurants, discouraged him and his two sisters from going into the business and they were packed off to college to get a degree. So much for fatherly advice. All three dropped out. Ekkebus became a chef and both sisters now run restaurants.
The lobby at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
He cut his teeth under two chefs, both Michelin-starred, in Holland, before winning a Young Chef of the Year award which took him to the gastronomic holy grail, Paris. Under masters such as Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Passard (‘he made Gordon Ramsay look like a pussycat’), his talent blossomed. Then came the siren call and Ekkebus headed to Mauritius to take up an appointment as executive chef at the Royal Palm. In an echo from the hit TV show Lost, he feels the hand of fate may have actually steered him towards Mauritius. ‘I didn’t know the significance at the time but lots of doors in Vlissingen bear the symbol of the dodo – the national emblem of Mauritius.’
Chef Ekkebus at work
In fact, Dutch sailors had brought the pigeon-like bird back from the island in the 17th century and introduced it into the local diet. It was as if Mauritius was beckoning him. ‘After Europe, I was on a discovery trail of spices, fruit, exotic vegetables and indigenous fish. But surprisingly few local chefs took advantage of it. It had to be confirmed by foreigners like me that what they had were products of extremely high quality – guava, Queen Victoria pineapple… you name it. So I used everything I could, taking it all to the next level.’
I was on a trail of discovery, a trail of spices, fruit and exotic vegetables. I used everything I could, taking it all to the next level
After seven happy years, he moved to Barbados, which threw up even greater challenges. Although he enjoyed his two years at Sandy Lane – brought there by former GM Jean-Luc Naret, now head of Michelin in Paris – he admits that eventually the Caribbean wore him out. ‘If I didn’t leave, they would no longer get the best of me,’ he says, letting his perfect English slip into slight ambiguity. Can he elaborate? ‘Well, let’s say I left at my high point,’ he says, with a smile.
Head-hunted for Mandarin Oriental, in 2005 he came out to Hong Kong to have a look around. Yes, he liked what he saw. Before he knew it, he, his wife and their six year-old son were moving wok, stock and barrel from the Caribbean to the other side of the world. Hong Kong’s first boutique hotel, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, younger sibling to Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, was opening in just a few months and its restaurant, Amber, was exactly the sort of place Ekkebus now envisaged himself being.
Chocolate and gold leaf samosas
Chef Ekkebus inspecting produce
The restaurant was nearing completion when he arrived. Although he has helped to ‘dress’ it – staff uniforms, René Ozorio china and distinctive stemless glassware which has raised a few eyebrows – he loved Adam Tihany’s typically cutting-edge design. Amber incorporates geometric patterns of copper, beige and rust; heavily textured, brushed-cotton biscuit banquettes; and 4,200 golden rods suspended from the ceiling in the shape of an elongated ‘S’. Glimpsed through a private – or rather, given the room has glass walls, semi-private – dining room, Tihany has installed a ‘wall of wine’ which has become something of a signature in MO restaurants. There are 700 bins, visible though tantalisingly out of reach.
The restaurant has also pioneered a wine ‘tablet’, a sort of outsized Palm Pilot which cross-references the entire cellar and, at a touch of the screen, reveals all, making intelligent food and wine pairings or simply giving information on countries, grape varieties and styles. Even bottle labels appear on screen, so that customers can identify favourite wines whose name they may have forgotten.
Sous-chefs working in the kitchen at Amber
Although Hong Kong is Ekkebus’s third ‘island’ on the trot, with its high technology, work ethic and food culture, it could scarcely be more different from his previous two postings. And yet, inevitably, there are similarities. Superb, exotic local produce abounds but there is a striking absence of the kind of ingredients he regards as essentials – foie gras, lobster, Gillardeau oysters (this is a chef who, after all, learned his trade in great Paris kitchens). Rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, he approaches the issue of sourcing with typical pragmatism – and enthusiasm. ‘Hong Kong is the most strategic place on earth,’ he says, ‘so it’s just a question of logistics, no more than that.’ He brings in lobsters from Brittany, tuna from Japan, peaches from Australia, even parsnips from England. ‘There are flights to Hong Kong from every corner of the earth every day and I have no problem getting the freshest, the best ingredients.’
11-hour poached pork belly
Chef Ekkebus serving up
Amber bills itself as a Modern European restaurant, where, as haute cuisine is Ekkebus’s primary discipline, the food basis is, understandably, French. ‘But my food has an adventurous line. My recipes are my own. I’ve learned well from my masters but I don’t re-interpret them.’ Point taken. It would be hard to imagine seared yellow fin tuna cubes with crispy chicken-skin, a soy and maple syrup reduction, long beans and baby bok choy as anything but highly original and yet… And yet, it has an oddly familiar ring – echoes of the mer/terroir cuisine of southwestern or southern France. He also does marron tail with peas, broad beans, crushed pistachio and Granny Smith apple shavings. Marron is a freshwater crayfish – one of the largest in the world – from Western Australia and its natural sweetness and butteriness finds a foil in the crunch of the pistachio and the tartness of the apple. Strictly speaking you might call it fusion, though Ekkebus prefers the term ‘natural fusion’. Either way, there is a remarkable harmony to these complex, sophisticated dishes. Ditto Anjou pigeon, which Ekkebus serves with samosas of the minced pigeon leg, along with caramelised grey shallots and a Banyuls wine and chocolate emulsion. Everything on an Ekkebus plate has a point and a purpose – yet there is fun and a touch of frivolity, too.
How does a self-confessed perfectionist like Richard Ekkebus relax? ‘Food is my religion,’ he comes back with instantly. So in that sense he can never entirely switch off, though he works out three times a week on what he calls the hotel’s ‘torture machines’. But there are other outlets, like fishing, reading and music – he keeps his iPod at his side, even in his office. What’s playing? ‘Modern jazz, classical. Anything. It depends on my mood.’ And like most great chefs, he has very dodgy food habits of his own. ‘Mmmm. Plain chocolate Bounty bars,’ he almost drools. ‘If there are 10 bars in the fridge – we always keep them in the fridge at home – I’ll eat every one.’
In a remarkably short space of time, Ekkebus has settled into the rhythm of Hong Kong life and Amber seems very much his baby. ‘Mandarin Oriental puts so much into creating hotel restaurants – it’s ground-breaking in the hotel industry.’ Before offering him the job, MO had talked to the UK’s Heston Blumenthal (of the Fat Duck, in Bray, Berkshire) and Parisian Pierre Gagnaire (who will launch a new restaurant at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong when it re-opens later this year after its major makeover), both of them holders of three Michelin stars, but Ekkebus was clearly the man for The Landmark.
Marron tail with peas, broad beans, crushed pistachio and apple shavings
He doesn’t sing MO’s praises because he is a yes man, or even a union man, but because he is a passionate team player. And he has a remarkably slender ego for a chef of growing international celebrity. In fact, you sometimes wonder if he has any ego at all. ‘I’m nervous,’ he insists. Nervous in the Continental sense of ‘jittery’, or in the English sense of ‘frightened’? His is a sort of always-on-edge nervousness. ‘I don’t like mediocrity,’ he explains. ‘I’m a control freak and I have moments of total frustration. But, luckily for me, this hotel group doesn’t sleep,’ he goes on. He loves the ethos. ‘At The Landmark, for example, I don’t have to do a traditional tea like they have over the road [at Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong]. I don’t have to serve rose-petal jam. I have a jam producer who only supplies me and the George V in Paris – that’s it. My jams aren’t ‘jellified’ jams, they’re more liquid. We have sweet potato and rhubarb jam and serve scones with preserved ginger and lemon. That’s the difference.’
Though it was only last year, it must seem like a long time ago now that Alain Ducasse called him one Saturday night and told him, not altogether jokingly, that the time had come for him to move on. Why? Because Ducasse felt his own restaurant in Mauritius, Spoon des Îles, was trailing in Ekkebus’s shadow. So Ekkebus did as he was bid and the rest is history. Or at least, it is history in the making.