Those familiar with Hong Kong’s dining scene will immediately recognise Richard Ekkebus, the Dutch-born chef who heads Amber as its culinary director. Ekkebus has served as a firm fixture in the food world, having evolved the definition of fine dining from when it was first introduced in the city a decade ago.
As the opening chef of Amber, this year marks the tenth anniversary of the chef’s appointment. It is apt then, that Ekkebus took home the coveted Chefs’ Choice Award at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 in Singapore earlier this year. We speak to the chef about his experience at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental throughout the years, what it means to him to be recognised by his peers, and what he envisions for the future of Amber.
When they described this project of the Landmark Mandarin Oriental to me ten years ago, I was immediately very excited. The idea for this hotel is that we didn’t want to make a copy of the Mandarin Oriental. It needed to be positioned as something complementary to the brand at the time.
It was very exciting, but when we opened we realised how difficult it was to establish ourselves. We were always compared to the old Mandarin Oriental, and people would come to our afternoon tea and be upset because we didn’t have rose petal jam.
We got quite a fair amount of trouble back then, and even today, some people come up and tell me that they’re so glad I’m here because the chef who was here at the opening was just all drama. It’s funny though, because I was the opening chef. It’s how you turn from being the new kid on the block to, over the course of ten years, becoming an iconic hotel.
For Amber, we wanted to be different. At the time, the high-end dining scene was not as mature as it is today, and we didn’t want to be a classic French restaurant because it was associated with a very stiff environment and heavy food. We wanted to be a modern interpretation of a French restaurant.
The restaurant has matured and gained in quality over the years; it’s still a little stubborn and still a little bit different, but this has attributed to the success of Amber.
Sometimes we have to make tough decisions and remove dishes from the menu if we feel that will prevent us from moving forward and evolving as a restaurant.
We always talk about me and that’s a little frustrating, because I think the strength of the restaurant lies in the strength of the people I work with; they challenge me and push me forward.
The success of this restaurant is not nailed down to one single individual. I am the guy leading the orchestra, but I think what makes us so special is that I have that true desire of surrounding myself with people that push me forward.
The Chef’s Choice Award goes to all the chefs in my kitchen, and all the front-of house staff in my restaurant, because there is no such thing as a dining experience that’s only based on the food – it’s the total experience.
The approach I have here is very intuitive. At the beginning of each year, I write a one-year plan of what we’re going to do, and what I want to achieve. It doesn’t have all the fine details, but it has all the main points.
In the next 10 years, if I knew exactly what I wanted to do with the direction of the restaurant, wouldn’t I just do that now? Right now we’re working on a whole new thing with tea, something we tried when we first opened and people weren’t really receptive to, but we want to bring tea culture back to our restaurant.
10/10 is a new HongKongTatler.com series pondering the past and future of those who have shaped society today.