Your insider’s guide to Hong Kong

Class Acts

A stream of Amber and MO Bar alumni have gone on to great success in their own right

Words: Janice Leung Hayes
Photos: Nic Gaunt

A NOT-SO-SECRET TRICK in the trend forecasting business is to identify the leaders in your field of interest, and keep an eye on their protégés. In the case of Hong Kong’s red-hot culinary scene, the best place to start is at the top restaurants. Many of these bright young stars have come from formal training, often from hotels, like The Landmark Mandarin Oriental.

The hotel’s food and beverage outlets, Amber and MO Bar, might already be showered with awards and accolades, but to Richard Ekkebus, the hotel’s Culinary Director, there’s a sense of pride when he sees how well staff do after they’ve left the hotel family. “My personal satisfaction is to ensure that everyone who has worked with me, whether for a short or long period of time, leaves a better craftsperson, a better team player and better person,” he says, adding: “I love to surround myself with people who are in areas better and more developed than me, I certainly do not look to create a team of ‘yes’ men and women.”

Agung Prabowo, Roman Ghale and James Tamang, a trio of MO Bar alumni, opened The Old Man, a tiny yet sophisticated bar in Central, in 2017. It quickly gained a loyal following, and debuted on Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2018 list at number five. Tamang and Prabowo were behind the bar at MO Bar, with Ghale out front. For Prabowo, who was there for six years, it was his first job in Hong Kong. “I learned a lot of things from Richard. One of them was that there are never shortcuts. As a young person, I was always looking for shortcuts, but Richard would explain to me the reasons behind doing certain things. He guided us until the day we left”.

Ghale started out as a captain and eventually became assistant manager of MO Bar. “The Mandarin Oriental has really good training,” he says, while his two partners nod in unison. “Everything from your posture, how you move around the bar, the confidence – all of these affect the guest experience. At the hotel, you learn that it’s always about the guest experience. Even small things, like emails. Till this day, I’m writing emails the way I learned to at MO Bar,” Ghale says with a chuckle.

  
  
Clockwise from top left: Nicolas Boutin; James Tamang; Jake Kellie; Roman Ghale

Maxime Gilbert, former chef de cuisine at Amber, recently opened the fine diner Ecriture in Central. He had worked in several top hotels before arriving at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, but even he couldn’t anticipate the intensity of working in a hotel right in the heart of Central. “It was a challenge to serve hundreds of people each day. It was so busy, we were always working at 120 percent. Being at Amber made me push hard and to be very organised,” Gilbert says.

“Richard is into the details,” he continues, “and he finds the right person for the right job in order to be consistent. That’s a big part of what I learned at Amber – consistency.”

  
From left: Stephanie Wong; Agung Prabowo

Organisation, emails, and consistency don’t sound sexy, but they’re essential to the smooth running of a business, especially one like Roots Eatery, which does catering and pop-ups. Founder Stephanie Wong, who was a commis chef at Amber, says: “There’s a place for everything in the Amber kitchen. Systems for sanitation, like checking temperatures for food storage, are things I learned and that have become part of how I do things now,” she says.

Nicolas Boutin, the executive chef of one-Michelin-starred Epure in Kowloon, remembers how rules and systems helped the kitchen run smoothly when he joined the pre-opening team in 2005 as executive sous chef at Amber. It was a lesson in how “developing the basics” and laying down good foundations allowed Richard to “always move forward” with his cuisine.

  
From left: Esther Sham; Maxime Gilbert

For Esther Sham of Ta Pantry and Maison Es in Wan Chai, it was a cooking class at Amber that inspired her to become a chef. “It was my first time in a professional kitchen and I was just mesmerised,” recalls Sham, who staged at Amber while starting Ta Pantry. “Richard is a true leader. It’s not just about cooking in the kitchen, it’s about your work ethic. He set a great example for us.”

Ekkebus’ influence extends beyond Hong Kong. Jake Kellie, the head chef at Burnt Ends in Singapore, was mentored by Ekkebus for the San Pellegrino Young Chef competition earlier this year. “During the whole cook off he didn’t leave my side,” says Kellie, who won the Southeast Asian semi-finals, and came second in the global finals. He says of Ekkebus, “He has a very strong presence wherever he is. People care about what he says and everyone listens”.

Maxime Gilbert agrees: “Richard has the respect of everyone because he truly shares his knowledge”.

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