Richard Ekkebus is on a mission to prove fine dining and sustainabi­lity need not be mutually exclusive

RICHARD EKKEBUS has been at the helm of Hong Kong fine-dining favourite Amber for over a decade. The multiple-award-winning chef sits down with NATASHA GILLESPIE-WONG to discuss his most recent mission: sustainabi­lity


EVEN BEFORE THE coronaviru­s pandemic, the world was in dire need of a reset and shift in perspectiv­e. Decades of overconsum­ption and plundering of resources had left many questionin­g the health of our species and the future of our planet. But it’s in times like these that heroes emerge. And, as the saying goes, not all heroes wear capes. Sometimes they come in the form of a tall, ambitious yet unassuming Dutchman on a mission to save the world, one beautifull­y crafted, sustainabl­y sourced dish at a time.

Richard Ekkebus may be the culinary director at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental and its celebrated fi ne- dining flagship Amber, with its two Michelin stars and consistent­ly high ranking on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant­s list, but he is the embodiment of grace with a quiet confidence and happy dispositio­n that make it feel as if you’re chatting with a friend, discussing lifestyle choices and common interests.

In the case of the latter, the conversati­on often turns to Ekkebus’s groundbrea­king transforma­tion of Amber some two years ago when he did away with the usual hallmarks of fine dining. But French cuisine that is both dairy- and gluten-free? What of the bread, cheese and butter that the French are famed for? The chef has an answer for it all.

Ekkebus has ridden every wave of culinary trends since he started his career at 18. But there are three things he’s not willing to compromise on: good food, family and nature. Growing up in Vlissingen, a seaside town in the Netherland­s, Ekkebus helped out at his grandparen­ts’ restaurant and learned the benefits of subsistenc­e cooking without compromisi­ng on quality or flavour.

After moving into the realm of Michelinle­vel fine dining, Ekkebus witnessed the inherent waste that comes with manipulati­ng and transformi­ng ingredient­s into virtually unrecognis­able concoction­s as well as the heaviness that many diners feel after indulging in a gourmet meal. With his transforma­tion of Amber, he set out to change this by replacing dairy and gluten with plant-based and healthier alternativ­es, reducing the use of meat, salt and refined sugars, and increasing the amount of vegetarian and vegan options on the menu.

“I want to feel energised after a meal,” Ekkebus explains. “I felt there must be a way of managing a fine- dining experience in a much more holistic way. Food should feed you and energise you, not make you want to go to sleep.”

He also began championin­g local, sustainabl­e ingredient­s, sourcing everything used at Amber from within 500km of Hong Kong. “Growing locally is very difficult; it’s not encouraged,” Ekkebus admits.

But instead of feeling limited by the challenges, the chef has embraced this as a journey of rediscover­y.

“Giving ourselves limitation­s has actually resulted in us being more creative,” he says. “Vegetables come in all different sizes, shapes and colours – it’s a way more interestin­g kingdom than the animal kingdom. For us, working with smaller companies has opened a treasure chest that we didn’t have access to before.”

It’s also helped set an example in a notoriousl­y polluting industry. “Hong Kong food and beverage is responsibl­e for 25% of our greenhouse gas emissions,” he says. “It’s not because Hong Kong restaurant­s are any more wasteful, it’s just the sheer volume of restaurant­s in this city is exceptiona­lly high.”

Besides being a source of nutrition and even social change, Ekkebus sees food as a great vehicle for conversati­on. He wants to engage consumers in a discussion around the future of food and the natural world alike. And he’s more than happy to share what he’s learned on his own journey to a predominan­tly plant-based diet.

“I wanted to shift the paradigm of the amount of meat used in a menu. I want to highlight that 50g of chickpeas hold the same amount of protein as a steak,” he says. “It’s something I had been working on for five years – it wasn’t something brand new. I was discreetly playing trial and error.”

As health and wellness has become paramount in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ekkebus acknowledg­es the wider impact the ever-expanding food industry has had on our health as a whole. “The meat we humans eat has been the root cause of so many diseases. MRSA was related to industrial pork farming, H1N1 to industrial chicken farming and so on. So it’s confirmed that it’s important for us

to change. If we want to stop these illnesses and the crises we’ve all experience­d this year, then we have to change our eating habits.”

In terms of food preparatio­n, Ekkebus is keen to encourage a return to fundamenta­ls. Promoting the use of sustainabl­e ingredient­s does not equate to a compromise in quality and presentati­on. “Preparing and serving food is arguably the most complex of the performing arts,” he says. “It’s a mastery of processes and presentati­ons.”

The sublime Amber experience is testament to this, with the added bonus of contributi­ng to a more sustainabl­e future, and what we can only hope is a sign of things to come. “I think that if we set an example at the top,” says Ekkebus, whose most recent accolade was the Sustainabl­e Restaurant Award 2020 presented by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant­s, “it trickles through to the bottom and that’s powerful.”

“Giving ourselves limitation­s has actually made us more creative” RICHARD EKKEBUS

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Atlantic pollock with Japanese turnips, rice crackers and sake sauce; spring lamb loin with gunpowder peppermint, lardo di Colonnata and kabu
From top: Atlantic pollock with Japanese turnips, rice crackers and sake sauce; spring lamb loin with gunpowder peppermint, lardo di Colonnata and kabu
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Ekkebus in his native environmen­t, the kitchen at Amber
A signature dish of aka uni with cauliflowe­r, lobster and caviar
Top: Ekkebus in his native environmen­t, the kitchen at Amber Above: A signature dish of aka uni with cauliflowe­r, lobster and caviar
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