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Inside the Second Coming of Hong Kong’s Amber

By Kames Narayanan

Chef Richard Ekkebus in the new Amber kitchen, which features an automated system in place of an order wheel to track diners meal progress and time the dishes accurately.
 
Nic Gaunt
Chef Richard Ekkebus in the new Amber kitchen, which features an automated system in place of an order wheel to track diners meal progress and time the dishes accurately.

Any conversation on Hong Kong’s culinary scene will probably include the Dutch-born chef Richard Ekkebus — the culinary director at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental and head chef at the establishment’s two-Michelin-star restaurant Amber. Since taking the helm 14 years ago, Ekkebus has steadily led the restaurant to culinary greatness — along the way, positioning it amongst the city's finest dining establishments. 

In 2015, Ekkebus sent shockwaves through the city and amongst ardent Amber fans when he made the defining decision to remove two of his revered dishes — foie gras lollipop with raspberry and beetroot jelly coating and the masterful combination of sea urchin, lobster jelly, caviar and cauliflower — from Amber’s menu. This marked Ekkebus’s calculated decision to dismantle Amber’s identity that had been established over a decade. 

“Well, it started about six years ago when we were in the ninth and 10th year of operation. Typically, the shelf life of a restaurant in Hong Kong is four to five years. How arrogant would it be if I thought I could extend it for eternity?” Ekkebus said. 

“Like a race bike, you know? There comes a time when you need to change the bike. Similarly, with restaurants, there comes a time when you need to change and push for new boundaries and go in a different direction with your narrative, to evolve your story,” he continued. 

Ekkebus’s starting point: a thorough evaluation that delved both inward into the fabric of the restaurant and outward into the city’s fine dining landscape. Like putting the pieces of a puzzle together, Ekkebus shaped the DNA of the new Amber by understanding where fine dining stood in relation to the restaurant. 

When the restaurant closed its doors for a four-month-long makeover last December, it kicked off Ekkebus’s culinary expedition across the globe in search of flavours and techniques to shape the new menu for its relaunch. The tour took Ekkebus and his team to the Mediterranean and the Middle East. 

“Everywhere we went, it was really first to understand where fine dining stood within that area, where sustainability stood, and to bring all these influences back into the vision for the new Amber,” said Ekkebus. 

The eventual overhaul, a landmark makeover six years in the making, was unveiled earlier this year in May. And along with it, a new dogma coined “progressive cuisine” by Ekkebus. Changing hands from his long-established genre of modern French cuisine, Ekkebus approached his new menu at Amber with a distinctively lighter hand. He not only stripped his menu entirely of gluten and butter, but also steered the focus of the restaurant’s fare toward plant-based produce. The result: uncomplicated dishes honest to their ingredients. 

Andrew LoitertonFrom left: An iteration of A5 grade sirloin wagyu beef served with red miso, black garlic sauce and Japanese sansai (mountain vegetables); Okinawa corn with a centre of caviar, seawater and sudashi zest is an appetiser on the menu.
From left: An iteration of A5 grade sirloin wagyu beef served with red miso, black garlic sauce and Japanese sansai (mountain vegetables); Okinawa corn with a centre of caviar, seawater and sudashi zest is an appetiser on the menu.
Andrew LoitertonFrom left: Aji (Japanese horse mackerel) is served with wheatgrass, celtuce, kyuri and virgin linseed oil; amongst the non-dairy desserts conceived is the sake lees, raspberry, rice milk puffed black Camargue rice.
From left: Aji (Japanese horse mackerel) is served with wheatgrass, celtuce, kyuri and virgin linseed oil; amongst the non-dairy desserts conceived is the sake lees, raspberry, rice milk puffed black Camargue rice.

Despite seemingly subtracting ingredients from his culinary practice, Ekkebus’s cuisine is not lacking in taste. It instead inspired him to look into possibilities he would not have otherwise. “We found 70 plant-based oils that we had never explored and never thought of previously. We now use about 45 oils in our menu, and every oil adds a layer of flavour, sometimes even texture or colour into the dish. It’s a more intellectual way of cooking,” said Ekkebus. 

The new menu’s starter, a bed of enriched soy milk topped with a generous serving of black truffles, heirloom tomatoes, cameline oil and fine herbs, is a culinary exposition of Ekkebus’s newfangled take on fine dining. The ingredients here take centre stage — each layer coming together harmoniously to coat the palate. The freshness of the heirloom tomatoes compliments the piquant base, forming a rounded finish punctuated by notes of truffle. 

Working down the menu, fish and meat dishes rear an occasional head — their integrity preserved through Ekkebus’s simple approach. For instance, a piece of A5 grade sirloin wagyu beef cooked to medium rare perfection sat on the plate with little else than tamarind puree and baby romaine folded in with anchovies and onion. Across the menu, the full potential of ingredients is expertly teased out by Ekkebus’s cooking techniques. The trick here is that in fact, there is no trick at all. 

The greatest weight of Ekkebus’s move away from butter, refined sugars and gluten perhaps fell on the restaurant’s pastry chef, Michael Pretet. The initial handicap turned triumph for Pretet who looked out of the box to fresh fruits and ingredients like buckwheat and coconut to more than make up for the stereotypical butter-drenched end to a meal. 

The notoriety of fine dining’s generous courses, and the servings within each course, usually sends diners spiralling into self-loathing and a food coma. This was Ekkebus’s point of contemplation. 

“The world does not end by the last dish, it continues. We need to make sure that people still feel as if they can handle the world after a meal,” he said. 

Nic GauntThe new interior of Amber echoes chef Richard Ekkebus's lighter approach to fine dining.
The new interior of Amber echoes chef Richard Ekkebus's lighter approach to fine dining.

The newly renovated interior of Amber, too, is an extension of Ekkebus’s cooking philosophy. Departing from the intense dark red and bronze colour palette of its past, the restaurant now sets up a mood of ease in neutral hues. In place of an ostentatious 4,320-rod chandelier that once hung from the ceiling sits a minimal, pared-back light fixture. Rather than exclusive, isolated dining, its interior evokes a sense of organic gathering synonymous with the restaurant’s fare. 

The second coming of Amber, as Ekkebus described, was a “come to Jesus” moment. “I felt that I needed to confess what we really stood for,” he said. His rewrite of Amber cements the restaurant’s position at the forefront of Hong Kong and perhaps, the world’s, culinary arena. 

Amber, Landmark Mandarin Oriental, 15 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong.