Richard Ekkebus: "Failures Are Part of Learning"
A chat with the S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018 mentor for South East Asia, on his culinary education around the world and on his plans for the future.
Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus is culinary director at the Mandarin Oriental Landmark Hotel in Hong Kong, overseeing the modern French cuisine at the 2-Michelin-star Amber. He has worked with some of the great French chefs, but his culinary education has continued in Asia, where he has spent over a decade refining his skills.
A former winner of the coveted Golden Chef’s Hat in the Netherlands, Ekkebus will act as mentor to South East Asia region finalist Jake Kellie at S.Pellegrino Young Chef 2018. In advance of the contest, he caught up with Fine Dining Lovers.
Can you remember the moment you decided to become a chef – what inspired you and what obstacles did you overcome to achieve your dream?
My family was in hospitality, but I only realised late that I wanted to be a chef while studying engineering. I was lucky to work for two very inspirational chefs that took me under their wing. This was a critical part of my apprentice scheme.
What was your biggest triumph as a young chef, and is there anything you would consider your biggest failure?
My biggest triumph was being hired in the restaurants I aspired to work in. Ben Willemsen, Hans Snijders and Robert Kranenborg where all the best mentors a young chef could wish for, and they set me up for success later in some of the toughest 3-Michelin-star restaurants in France. I have no failures, as everything I got wrong, I learned from. The deal is not to focus on failure itself but how it happened and how you could prevent it from happening again. I reckon failures are an integral part of learning.
As a mentor, what do you expect from your young chef, and what do you think you can offer him?
I expect he will deliver his message, his expression and his philosophy in his dish. I am here to advise, support and try to make the best version of his concept through my experience as a chef and a former competitor in competitions.
What would victory in the S.Pellegrino Young Chef competition mean for a young chef?
Competing is important for a young chef. It is the best way to sense your capabilities. You are very vulnerable in a competition and you have to be extremely well prepared on the day to be in control of your craftsmanship. So it is ultimately a fantastic learning curve, but it is also a way to ignite your further career. If you don’t win, you might win next year.
Tell us about some of your experiences as a young chef working under the likes of Alain Passard, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire in France.
After winning the Golden Chef’s Hat in Holland (aged 19), I left for France to continue learning. I went to work for each chef with a specific expectation and none of them disappointed me. France made me a better team player. It opened my creativity, enabled me to deal with adversity, to become adaptable and be open to change. It also enhanced my skills and made me who I am today. I am grateful to all my former chefs.
Despite your early mentorship in France, you said you didn’t learn to cook there. What did you learn in France?
In Holland I built an excellent skill set. What I learned in France was terroir and a sense of place. You cook with butter in the north, duck fat in the south west, and olive oil in the south of France. This was eye opening. I learned the sense and importance of seasons, and it broadened my spectrum considerably.
After leaving Europe for pastures new, which ‘new’ ingredients have surprised and excited you most on your travels?
After France I got travel fever and went to Mauritius. That was an amazing playing field - 5 cultures (Indian, Creole, Chinese, French and British) coming together in one 210 square kilometre tropical island. I was like a kid in a candy store. I learned how to use a wok, and a tandoori oven. I learned to use spices, exotic fruits and vegetables, and warm water fish from the Indian Ocean. My 8 years in Mauritius was ground breaking. From there to NYC, then to Barbados, to end up in Hong Kong - each country contributed to my skills and made me a better chef.
Tell us about some of the Asian influences on the French cuisine at Amber.
We tried that when we opened 13 years ago - sweet and sour, lacquered items, bok choy, ginger, 5 spice - but were quickly slapped on the wrist. Today the influence is more refined. The taste of Hong Kong has shaped my cuisine along with my product source: Japan. The way I season has dramatically changed and refined itself. I now understand the importance of umami and mouth feel. This city and its population have shaped my cusine in a very subtle manner. But don’t expect soy sauce or wasabi in my food - it is way more subtle than that.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your plans for the future?
We are working on Amber version 2, so everything we have learned over the past 13 years, we will use to make an even better version of Amber in late 2018.