American-Japanese Chef Jeff Ramsey earned his first Michelin star rating at the age of 32 while serving at the Tapas Molecular Bar at the 6-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo. His foundational excellence in Japanese cuisine stems from his training with Masayoshi Kazato, the official Sushi Ambassador of Japan before he took a detour to discover and develop a bold experimental style that was cultivated by renowned Chef José Andrés.
An accomplished practitioner in modernist cuisine, Ramsey is passionate about creating a culinary playground that goes beyond the plating of good food as its very foundation is built on establishing and eliciting an emotional connection between the customer and the experience in a meaningful way. As the executive chef and co-owner of Babe, he's serving up a fun approach with his "Japas" menu that takes its cue from the tapas concept.
You’re focused on creating a unique fun dining experience with Babe as opposed to fine dining. What are your thoughts on the consumer shift towards a more casual dining experience?
I just want the core of what we are doing to be the focus; it’s about what is on the plate versus all the formalities associated with fine dining, meaning we don't use rulers when setting down the cutlery and such. We want the eating experience speak for itself.
When did you first discover your passion for cooking?
I worked part-time jobs while still in high school, making pizzas and it was always fun to experiment with toppings and decorating the pizzas in fun ways, which developed into a passion over time. When I started as a sushi apprentice, I remember feeling how limitless the study of the craft is and that got me into it even deeper, and I became more serious about it.
You have a unique approach towards food. Where did that come from?
My base cuisine is sushi and Japanese food; everything sort of stems from the relationship and understanding of sushi. It’s not an easy thing to notice when you eat my food, but when I personally analyse my dishes I can see the connection.
What is modernist cuisine to you and what do you hope to bring to the table?
For me, it’s not always about the new flavour combination. To reach people’s hearts with food, they need to have flavours that they are comfortable with, flavours from their childhood and flavours that their mothers or grandmothers served to them. For some dishes, I use this approach to enhance the standards. But a menu full of that wouldn't be so interesting, so we also try to push the envelope with unusual but tasty combinations as well.
What comes first to you – ingredients or techniques?
Taste trumps all. Letting high quality ingredients shine is key, and when the ingredients aren't of the highest caliber, the technique becomes more important. For instance, sushi in Japan is extremely minimalist, because the quality of the ingredients are amazing. Outside of Japan, you'll see sushi with mayonnaise, spicy sauces etc. because the quality of the fish is just not the same.
Tell us about the rooftop garden you built to produce ingredients that are not easily available here.
The Garden is our pet project at the moment and I believe it is the first fully edible rooftop garden/farm in Kuala Lumpur. It’s our "Chef's Garden". We are experimenting with lots of heirloom, non-local plants, such as Japanese Shishito and Sansho Peppers to see if they can adapt to the local climate. It will take a few seasons for these plants to fully realise whether or not they can cope with the conditions and thrive here. We've let the Shishito Peppers ripen – they are usually harvested green – and the taste is quite different. This makes it a unique product. We are trying to grow the Sansho Pepper as a microgreen to get small little punches of flavor as an edible garnish, again something not available in any market, even in Japan. We apply the same "out of the box" thinking to our farm as we do in the kitchen and hope for the best. We don't use any fertilisers, organic or conventional, our farm is beyond organic. We use only compost that is created in our worm bin, and let nature do the work for us, and the plants absolutely love it!
What was it like earning and retaining a Michelin Star rating while heading the Tapas Molecular Bar at Mandarin Oriental Tokyo?
The pressure is definitely there, but I am at home in that sort of environment. I am grateful everyday for being selected to be part of a proud line of chefs who have earned the same distinction.
Throughout your culinary career, is there someone you look up to?
Right now my role models are Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz, known as the proprietors of the Boka restaurant group based in Chicago. Besides being generally cool guys who now have it all, they are intensely passionate about what they do, they pass that on to all of their extended family in their restaurants and put their faith in talented people to perform in doing what they do best. They have built a venerable empire in Chicago with their many successful concepts and it’s by believing in people and then supporting them to reach their dreams. I am striving to do that every day.
What’s your ultimate culinary dream?
I will have a Japanese styled Bed and Breakfast (ryokan) with my own farm complete with animals and fruit trees so I can cook whatever I want to without concern about money whatsoever.
What’s your take on street food?
It’s the food of the people. Before food trucks and pop-up restaurants, the street food stalls were the most cost-effective way for aspiring cooks to pedal their craft for the masses. Street food isn't about refinement and celebrity, but about taste and serving food for the common people.
Where’s your favourite place to go for a meal?
I like to eat at Dewakan, Chef Darren Teoh is doing some very interesting and tasty things with local Malaysian ingredients and tastes. It’s amazing to get food with that level of creativity and passion behind it, for such a bargain. He's killing it there and I wish more people knew about him.