We had a very simple brief when we opened the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, and that was to be different from everybody else. And that became a little bit of a problem because in the early years everybody had an opinion about this place.
We had guys in the bar with tattoos, and people would say, “This is not what I expected of the Mandarin.” We had afternoon tea, and people would ask, “Where’s the rose-petal jam?” We’d say, this is not the Mandarin, this is the Landmark Mandarin. And it wasn’t meant in an arrogant way, but I think that the fact that we were always compared made us so determined to remain different, a bit like with the big brother everybody looks up to, so the younger brother needs to work very hard to keep up.
When Amber first opened, a lot of people hated it; there were all sorts of dramas as the hotel-restaurant food scene was very traditional and stuffy. But today the restaurant has become a bit of a classic and it has grown on people. Sometimes people come to the restaurant and say, “Richard, it’s so good you’re here, because the guy that opened this place, disaster.” And I joke, “Yeah, he was a douchebag.”
The reality is that now we have reached the point where we could just float along, we’re like Everybody Loves Raymond, everybody loves us. And now I think we need to challenge ourselves again.
I organise my holidays around where I want to go eat, and the first time I went to Lima, to Peru, it was because it’s not really a country where people from Hong Kong would go. It opened up so many new ideas and concepts – not so that we can come back and say that we’re going to work with corn or potatoes, but it’s the concept of how people think.
That’s why we brought Virgilio Martinez of Central restaurant in Lima to Amber, because he thinks in altitudes when he builds his menus, so there’s a dish from sea level, dishes from under sea level, dishes at 800 metres or 3,500 metres. That’s a totally different approach, but because of the different levels of oxygen and weather conditions you have different products, and that gives me a lot of insight into how people work with their environments.
You can’t get that on social media. I love social media – and I hate it. It gives away a lot. People come with glorified expectations. They say you’re third in Asia, 24th in the world, two Michelin stars, everybody says you should have three – they have glorified expectations, and you have them at every restaurant, even the number one. They want to eat what they have never seen and never tasted because you are “the best”. And it’s not possible, because it’s all out there on social media.
There used to be a time, when I was a young chef, when you would discover a restaurant through a book. But now, every young chef is on his phone following all the chefs, and that’s also a problem, because Instagram is visual. I want to go to these young chefs and say, have you been tasting this? They have 15,000 followers because the pictures look good and they’re just over-tweezering their food.
Our sea-urchin dish is back on the menu now. When we took it off, it was Wall Street Journal news. But because it’s our last year going into a renovation, we wanted to have all the dishes people ask for every time. There are about 15 dishes people constantly ask for. That’s why people have a love-hate relationship with this restaurant, because you have a lot of people who say, “Oh, you don’t have that on the menu any more,” and that’s because we want to move forward.
After 10 years, we said the rooms are not good enough, let’s rip them out and build new ones. At 12 years, the restaurant is doing fantastic. We could go another 10 years, but we’d become just another “Hong Kong classic”; we’d become a museum and we don’t want that. What we want is to bring an experience. Do we need service stations? Is the whole experience sitting at the table, or is there a moment that you come back, and your table is different? Don’t go to the bathroom – when you come back your square table might be a round one!
Richard Ekkebus is culinary director at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, whose flagship restaurant, Amber, has held two Michelin stars for nine consecutive years. Amber was also voted 24th in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017, the only Hong Kong establishment to make the list.