It’s Hong Kong. Restaurants come and go. But when you tell people Amber is closing they register genuine shock.
It’s a highly competitive food scene here. But no one seriously argues that Richard Ekkebus’ Amber, the restaurant on the seventh floor of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Central, isn’t the signature fine dining experience. It’s got the Michelin stars (two) and continues to rise in the San Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants (24th – the next highest placed Hong Kong establishment is 60th).
But next July, this Hong Kong culinary institution will close.
Or the old Amber will. A year later, Ekkebus will unveil a new one. Same name, same space: but much will change. Out goes à la carte. There’ll be more space, a bigger kitchen (that you can visit), more tables for two or three (‘A lot of people
eat in threes’).
And why the radical refurb? In short, because he doesn’t want this culinary institution to become, well, institutionalised. As a 50-year-old empty nester, he’s ready to show he’s still got bags of disruptive, creative energy. For him, the chef’s whites are like a football kit. Once he puts them on, he’s out to compete: ‘If you’re a player, you want to win the cup.’
Amber opened with The Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel in 2005. This was experimental, bold cooking in an experimental, bold space.
And Hong Kong hated it.
Ekkebus endured a tough time getting accepted by the Mandarin loyalists (that’s just about everyone above a certain income bracket in Hong Kong). They hated the untraditional sauces, the Asian ingredients. They hated the chandelier – made of 4,320 bronze rods. They hated that there were ‘guys with tattoos and girls with dreadlocks’ among the clientele.
But slowly, everyone came to realise that this was something refreshing and new in a fine dining scene that was, as Ekkebus puts it, ‘dusty, stuffy and very old school’.
Amber was, and is, classed as ‘modern European’, but at the beginning he eagerly joined the movement pioneered by his friends, France’s Paul Bocuse and Spain’s Ferran Adrìa, to incorporate Asian flavours.
He knew he’d arrived after five or six years when people said, ‘Richard, we’re so glad you’re here because, seriously, the guy who launched this place…’ That guy was, of course, Ekkebus himself.
Now he faced a new problem. His new loyal customers went crazy when he took their favourite dishes off the menu (‘people get really emotional about food here’). But Ekkebus wanted to try new things, keep the team on their toes.
The solution is the Amber Classics Menu: a kind of a greatest hits package, available until ‘old’ Amber closes. So if you got emotional because 2006’s Hokkaido sea urchin in a lobster jelly with cauliflower schrencki-dauricus caviar and crispy waffles disappeared from the menu – it’s back.
You hear fellow/rival chefs say ‘it’s alright for Richard – he doesn’t have to worry about the rent’. But he has had his worries: inflation, costs and the pressure to fill the priciest tables in town. Like lots of creative people he’s had to learn the language of ROI (return on investment).
But despite numerous offers, he’s not going anywhere. Amber is Hong Kong and Ekkebus is Amber – they aren’t going to sprout up all over the region and he’s not going to become a brand like his mentor Pierre Gagnaire or his friend Gordon Ramsay.
One thing that is going is the chandelier that the regulars eventually got to like. ‘The feng shui master said it’s lucky – like sitting under raining gold,’ says Ekkebus.
But the 4,320 bronze rods will be chopped up and sold off – so anyone can own a bit of raining culinary gold.