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Richard Ekkebus of Two Michelin-Starred Amber Talks About The Importance Of Adapting

The Dutch-born chef is not one to settle for status quo.
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“The Michelin Guide brought maturity, commitment, and quality to the city,” says Richard Ekkebus, the Culinary Director of Amber and The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong of the impact made by the Michelin Guide’s entry into the Hong Kong and Macau market.

When he first arrived 12 years ago, a few years before the inaugural 2009 guide, Hong Kong was largely still a come-and-go city for western-trained chefs, who stayed for only two or three years before moving on. Having an exceptional meal, at the nice table, with extra care and attention paid to the food and the service, wasn’t always guaranteed even at the many fancy, high-priced restaurants, unless you were someone.

But then the restaurants, particularly the ones that had been left out of the Michelin Guide, began to look more closely at their quality and to question how they were operating. “The guide raised the bar across the field, and restaurants began to deliver true, consistent quality,” Ekkebus says. “It also brought a lot of international acclaim for the city. I think everyone always felt Hong Kong was a very interesting food city for its Cantonese cuisine, but it legitimised the whole scene at large.”
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Fortunately Ekkebus, already well-versed in Michelin Guide standards from having worked in one-, two-, and three-starred restaurants around Europe from the age of 16 and having been mentored by such luminaries as Alain Passard, Pierre Gagnaire, and Guy Savoy, had the time to refine Amber’s concept and fully train a core team to form the pillars of the business before the first anonymous inspectors began visiting.
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“From the start, we were very clear that we wanted to be different. We had never wanted to be another hotel restaurant that ticked all the boxes,” says Ekkebus. Compared to the very traditional and very old school bastions of classically French haute cuisine like Petrus, Caprice, and Gaddi’s, Amber’s forward thinking and creative approach were initially misunderstood and even criticised by many in the city.

People didn’t know what to expect of “modern European cuisine” and guests were befuddled to find local ingredients like garoupa on a Western menu.
While Ekkebus stayed true to the core essence of his culinary philosophy, he also remained open to feedback, made necessary changes, and allowed his cuisine to naturally evolve. One momentous decision came as a direct response to the rebuffed garoupa. When even line-caught European fish were likewise spurned – deemed “too fishy” by guests – Ekkebus turned to Japan for high quality seafood that could be ordered each evening, caught overnight, shipped first thing in the morning and delivered to the kitchen by the afternoon. The results were game-changing.

Amber was awarded a coveted two-star rating in the Michelin Guide Hong Kong Macau 2009, and they have successfully retained it every year since. Ekkebus attributes that consistency in achievement to his team’s unfailingly high standards in terms of quality of product and delivery of service. But he isn’t interested in managing consistency for the sake of consistency.
The interior of two Michelin-starred Amber restaurant.
The interior of two Michelin-starred Amber restaurant.
“I think that if you remain too consistent, repeating everything in exactly the same manner every time, then when you circle back in ten years, you might not find yourself up where you should be,” he says.

Never settling for status quo, he and his team follow a doctrine of constantly striving to do better and to push higher with each new iteration. Even for the current degustation menu of Amber’s signature dishes, Ekkebus has revisited his old classics and given them new twists. “I became wiser over the years and found ways to improve practically every dish. That’s the perfectionist in me,” he says.

SEE ALSO: The Art Of Vicky Lau's Cuisine At One Michelin-starred Tate 

Years ago, after having successfully integrated Japanese fish into some of their dishes, Ekkebus found entry into a new world of possibilities and potential evolution. The more he and his team explored what else Japan had to offer, the more the Japanese ingredients made their way into the dishes. And some, like the Hokkaido sea urchin in lobster jelly and the various presentations of Hakoo Farm Miyazaki Wagyu beef, were instantly beloved by guests and became perennial favorites and signature dishes at Amber.
Miyazaki wagyu beef, strip loin, barbecued with dulse & red cabbage slaw, oxalis, horseradish & pepper berry emulsion.
Miyazaki wagyu beef, strip loin, barbecued with dulse & red cabbage slaw, oxalis, horseradish & pepper berry emulsion.
“We weren’t trying to be funky or cool or clever. It is just that we came to work with many Japanese ingredients that were not common in Western cuisine at the time. Yet we have always kept a profile of flavors that is very French,” says Ekkebus. “I was French-trained and I was obviously influenced by that. But now I have spent as much time in Asia as I had spent in France, and I have been influenced by this as well.”

Ekkebus admits that his palate has changed over the twelve years he has lived and worked in Hong Kong, and as a result, his cooking style has evolved along with it. When he first arrived in Hong Kong, he was overwhelmed by feedback. “It was too salty, too sweet, too sour. It was everything ‘too.’ I could simply argue that this is how French food tastes. Or I could find the truth behind the perception,” he says.
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He quickly came to realise that the Asian palate is much more sensitive to umami, the fifth basic taste that senses full-bodied savouriness in food.

“Nobody ever trained me on umami, but actually I think it is the most important element in cooking,” he says. “My food now has much more umami than it ever had before.”

Ekkebus has even replaced many of the traditional French stocks with umami-rich seaweed dashis that require less seasoning, and many of his desserts balance a hint of savouriness along with the sweetness.
Now, with twelve successful years credited to his name, Ekkebus carefully considers how Amber should continue to evolve over the next twelve years. He likens the restaurant’s recent past to a well-tailored suit that has started to chafe a little in the shoulders. “I feel that if we want to allow Amber to evolve and give it another twelve years of forward thinking, then we need to make some very important changes now.”

So in the summer of 2018, Amber will undergo a four-month, HK$80 million dollar renovation that will streamline operations for the staff and also bring more experientially-driven meal services to the guests. A service corridor will be built in parallel to the restaurant so the front-of-house team can serve with more efficiency and less disruption to the guests. And they will install an electronic pass to better control the speed of service.

Ekkebus also has plans to retire the à la carte menu, which will allow him to focus his attention on bringing more storytelling and experiential elements to the degustation menu. Guests can expect to have more interactions with the chefs, with the white brigade coming out to the dining room to carve meat or finish the sauce on the plates while introducing the dishes.

“Definitely it’s going to be another evolution to what we’ve been doing,” says Ekkebus. “And I think the best years of Amber are just in front of us.”
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