Interview with Chef Ekkebus, Amber, The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
What do you do and how did you get into the industry?
I was made to do what I do. It only took me 17 years to realize this though as it was not a logic choice. Since a kid I wanted to be an architect, then an engineer. I was attracted to that world until I studied it and then wanted out! I am still attracted to architecture and construction, it amazes me!
I grew up in a restaurateur’s environment as my grandparents had a hotel, café and restaurant in which my grandmother looked after the kitchen and my grandfather was behind the bar along with my aunts. I was in a family business where everyone needed to chip in. I was always found in the kitchen with my grandmother. I loved to help here and even enjoyed the most hideous jobs like peeling grey shrimp. Possibly it was there where my future desire to be a chef was built.
However when coming to the critical point where you need to chose your future as a young kid: it never crossed my mind to become a chef - that came much later when, as a student, I did a weekend job helping out in a kitchen doing dishes and as a kitchen porter. I began my career via a part time job to make pocket money to be followed by an apprenticeship in my native Holland under Michelin starred chefs Hans Snijders and Robert Kranenborg. I won the prestigious Golden Chefs Hat for ‘Young Chef of the Year’ in Holland, which encouraged me to further perfect my art under the tutelage of some of the greatest three-star chefs in France, including Pierre Gagnaire, Alain Passard and Guy Savoy.
That later led me to take up the Executive Chef position at the Royal Palm in Mauritius. It was here that the heady mix of French, Creole, Dutch and Indian heritage of Mauritian cuisine, gave me free rein to creative imagination. After seven successful years I moved to another legendary property, The Sandy Lane in Barbados, where the wide-ranging culinary traditions of the Caribbean further seduced me. Then MOHG approached me on various instances.
I was soon attracted by The Landmark Mandarin Oriental project and was pleased to come on board prior to the opening. Throughout the years, I have been given plenty of opportunities to get really involved in all the details of this now legendary luxury property! I have been abroad as an expat for over 22 years now!
Share with us an interesting story from behind the scenes.
Before Hong Kong I worked in Sandy Lane and every year Luciano Pavarotti would stay with us for a long period of time. He used Sandy lane as a base to do some concerts in South America, he loved to eat and was a real pleasure for the chef. He would always eat in his villa yet he loved to come out a few times. But in his last years he had trouble walking long distances so we helped him to get into the restaurant. We would pick him up with the Bentley bring him to the back of the kitchen entry, drive him through the building and the kitchen in a golf club car straight into the restaurant! I thought it was the best way to enter a restaurant and certainly did not go unnoticed!
What's the best/ worst part of your job?
The best is that we are able to make people profoundly happy every single day, we are in the business of pleasing. The worst, although it happens very seldom, is when we are not able to please a person, regardless of our efforts. The ones that we do make happy however largely make up for those who are not.
What's your personal favourite meal?
I love fresh seafood and fish. That makes Hong Kong a paradise as this city offers the broadest spectrum of live seafood from all over the world!
What's one of the funniest things you've seen behind the scenes?
We work very long hours and to do so you need to have a good atmosphere. When service starts there is focus but between these moments we love to pull tricks on each other or crack jokes. We laugh a lot as it's the best way to get rid of the stress! We have a pastry chef who is particularly funny and we pull pranks on him all the time!
The perfect day off would be...
As a chef I love to be surrounded by food. A perfect day is to visit the Aberdeen wet market, followed by a great Congee breakfast, crash a Tai Chi lesson in the park to be followed by a yum cha lunch to burn the calories with a nice hike in the Peak, followed by a few drinks in one off Hong Kong’s finest bars, before enjoying a great meal in one of the exciting new restaurants in town.
A day in the life of a chef is...
... exciting and I could not dream of doing anything else!
What do you do for fun?
Read, travel, eat and ride my Harley Davidson.
What's something you'd like guests to know about Amber?
At Amber we have a staff ratio that ensures we have one staff member to look after every guest.
What's your favourite food and wine pairing?
A whole wood-fire grilled seabass drizzled with olive oil generous sea salt and crushed black pepper served with a young Gaja Barbaresco made out of 100% Nebbiolo.
What's your view on the Hong Kong food scene?
It's a vibrant food scene that is totally multi cultural. This city has the very best to offer in every single food ethnic, both entry level and high end. You can eat top quality noodles in the street for a few dollars or splash out in luxury in the very best Chinese restaurant along with the world’s finest wines.
What's in store for you in the upcoming months?
I opened last year my second restaurant in Shanghai in the Mandarin Oriental Pudong called Fifty 8° Grill. To travel between the two cities is pretty exciting and my focus is to stabilize and further grow this concept. Amber stays the flagship but my Shanghai project is a long desire to do a casual restaurant concept that is craft driven and thrives on the classics from my favorite cuisine in the world: French.
The dining concept is a modern grill, luxurious but with a warm and cozy atmosphere. The interior evokes memories of the golden years and is influenced by art deco design. After the movement of molecular, a return to the true values of great food has been revived: brilliant ingredients well prepared with great respect for traditional cooking techniques. Craft above creation! It's a concept where exceptional ingredients are at centre stage. We use dry aged meats with grass-fed, grain-fed and wagyu beef to choose from. Prime cuts and butcher’s favorite cuts of meat are proposed and prepared according to old tradition grilled over wood fire or braised. There's a strong emphasis on the Asian sense of hospitality: shared plentiful meals, half portions, small, medium and large cuts are available, all dishes presented are encouraged to be shared. There's a wide selection of side dishes of exceptional organic vegetables prepared according to traditional recipes with a twist too.
Restaurant design embraces the visual aspect of a working kitchen and the quality of products provided just like you would find in upscale tapas bars or steakhouses. It shows off craftsmanship: working chefs firing to order sourdough, French baguettes, traditional French tarts and pies, skillfully baked in a centre stage wood fire oven.