Opinion: how chef Ryan Clift matches cuisine with cocktails

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 12:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 June, 2014, 12:03am

Many a modern bartender will tell you that he is bringing the kitchen into the bar, despite having no apparent culinary education.

Chef Ryan Clift's situation is the reverse - his only education is in the culinary arts.

In Hong Kong for the Landmark Mandarin Oriental's Masters of Mixology festival, the Tippling Club's chef says school wasn't for him. He started playing truant at the age of 13 so he could work in the kitchen of a Michelin-star restaurant in his native England. He got away with it for six months before his parents came knocking on the restaurant door. After what must have been an awkward conversation, Clift's parents were persuaded that the boy should go to catering college, which meant attending school one day a week and working in the restaurant for four days.

We put it together and ask if it works. We’ll work until we get the dish correct

That education was the basis of a career that has taken him around the world. After stints in several Michelin-rated restaurants in France, he moved to his wife's country of Australia to work in one of Melbourne's most renowned restaurants - Vue du Monde. When he started there the restaurant had one hat from local paper The Age. When he left nine years later it had had three hats for seven to eight years. Originally, the kitchen team comprised three chefs cooking for perhaps 10 to 20 diners per service. Then the restaurant got its three hats and moved to the central business district and was feeding up to 80 diners at a go. To make life more interesting, the restaurant's concept was to have no menu but to give each diner a different combination of dishes chosen from the 90 to 100 that the chefs made each day.

Perhaps these unorthodox experiences explain Clift's original approach to creating dishes and the cocktails with which he matches them at his Singapore restaurant, famous for such pairing.

On a piece of paper that can eventually stretch to three metres long, he will write the name of a single ingredient, for example foie gras. From there he will draw lines to any related ingredients he canthink of, in this case that might be cognac, cinnamon, star anise, plums, Sauternes and apples.

He says sometimes there might be more than 500 ingredients. Then he will think about the appropriate technique for cooking them. With the apple he could use it fresh, purée it, poach it or dehydrate it. Every ingredient is analysed the same way until the team can stand back and appraise their ideas to see what will work.

"We make it and put it together and ask if it works. There might be too many components or we might need to change the technique. It may have sounded good but it doesn't work, so we'll work until we get the dish correct."

Then the chef will work with the bartender to create a matching drink. Appropriate ingredients will be mixed with alcohol and put through devices such as a rotary evaporator, or a sonic homogeniser to concentrate flavours.

Some of the resulting drinks include the Smoky Old Bastard and the Juniper Sling. The smoky drink gets its name from the Monte Cristo cigar infused in Ardbeg whisky with manuka honey. That mixture is redistilled to extract the flavours before being combined with Peychaud's bitters and maple syrup in a tall glass filled with hand cut ice cubes.

The perfume company Penhaligon's approached the restaurant about the Juniper Sling, asking them to make a gin that was based on the same aromatics as their perfume. When they deconstructed the perfume, they found that it most closely matched the gins of the 1920s that would have been used in the original Singapore Sling.

The Perigord Old Fashioned uses the bar's sonic homogeniser to extract the flavour from black truffles in vermouth. The device hits the truffle with 20,000 sound waves in four seconds so that the fungus shatters and the flavours permeate the vermouth. This is then mixed with ruby port and a little cognac. It's often matched with a dish of cauliflower loaded with black truffle.

What if you have simpler tastes and order a rum and Coke? "We don't stock Coke on the premises," says Clift. "But the nearest 7-Eleven is only 30 seconds away."