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Literature

Five books a top fine-dining chef couldn’t live without: Richard Ekkebus’ must-reads for a desert island

Landmark Mandarin Oriental culinary director’s picks include a book that explains how taste works, a novel about scents, an insight into the mind of Leonardo da Vinci and the story of Pixar

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 1:30pm

Richard Ekkebus, the culinary director of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, grew up in Vlissingen, a coastal port in southwest Holland. He often visited his grandmother’s restaurant as a child and later, as an engineering student at university, he worked in restaurants, first as a kitchen porter and then as an assistant chef. Eventually his love of cooking won over and he left his engineering studies to pursue his career as a chef.

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Following an apprenticeship in The Netherlands under Michelin-starred chefs Hans Snijders and Robert Kranenborg, he worked in Belgium, The Netherlands, Paris and Saint-Etienne in France, Mauritius, New York and Barbados, where 14 years ago, he was spotted by the Mandarin Group and enticed to Hong Kong. He loves reading and says his home is filled with books.

Here are the five books he’d take to a desert island, in his own words.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer

by Patrick Suskind, 1985

This was one of the most talked-about novels when it was released and was on the bestseller list for years. It’s about an orphan who discovers he has an extremely sensitive sense of smell. One day he meets a young girl whose smell he has never come across – and I won’t say any more. I first read this as a student when I was 18, about the time I began to get interested in cooking. The premise of the book has so many parallels with the kitchen – it’s about capturing smell, taste and flavour. The story begins in Paris where I worked and lived for a long time and where my daughter, Emma, later studied literature at the Sorbonne.

Taste

by Barb Stuckey, 2013

Here, food scientist Barb Stuckey explains how taste works. What she does is very scientific, but she makes it understandable and accessible, and does it with a sense of humour. You don’t need to be a chef to read this – anyone who loves food and wants to know more will enjoy it. I advise all the chefs in my kitchen to read this. It explains that taste is very subjective – if you have limitations within your taste buds then you can’t be a good taster. Stuckey talks about the five tastes and how to open the taste buds. It was this that inspired me to offer all guests who come to the Amber restaurant five small samples of taste profiles – salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. I call it the stretch exercise of dining.

Leonardo da Vinci

by Walter Isaacson, 2017

I was a fan of Walter Isaacson even before he joined CNN. I read and enjoyed his books on Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs and, when I had to go into hospital for an operation earlier this year, I downloaded this book on my iPad to read. Leonardo da Vinci is well known as a famous painter and sculptor, but he was also a fabulous engineer and architect. This book helped me to better understand him as an artist. He was extremely interested in the human body and did dissections at a time when they were illegal. When he drew people he began by drawing the muscles and then he painted clothes over them. This has been proven by scans of his paintings which reveal the many layers.



Noble House

by James Clavell, 1981

I began reading James Clavell when I was 16. I read King Rat, Taipan, Noble House and then Whirlwind. He is a great writer and his books made me want to visit Hong Kong. When I came to Hong Kong to work for the Mandarin Oriental, I reread all the books again. I also found out that Clavell had lived at the Mandarin Oriental. Through his books I got to know a lot about Hong Kong. When I arrived here I heard about the “taipan of Jardine”, it’s a term that is still used in Hong Kong in Jardine, the group the hotel is part of. Through this book I learned more about Jardine, Wellcome, Dairy Farm, the Landmark Oriental – it was a good apprenticeship.

Creativity, Inc

by Ed Catmull, 2014

My 19-year-old son, Mathias, introduced me to this book – he is studying at Parsons School of Design. Later I saw it was listed in The Independent as one of Mark Zuckerberg’s 22 “must reads”. Creativity, Inc is the story of Pixar. Everyone loves their beautiful animated movies and the story of Steve Jobs leaving Apple and helping set up Pixar. I took an important lesson from this book. In the kitchen, we are control freaks and want to control lots of elements.

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I was taught that the chef is always right, but this book teaches you to manage your team’s creative output. What I do now is let people have more input in the creative process, letting things go and only pulling them back if I need to.