Ferran Adria and Hong Kong's Richard Ekkebus on that HK$10,888 dinner
Molecular gastronomy pioneer was full of praise for Amber executive chef when Susan Jung sat down with them before the Hong Kong restaurant team cooked a 12-course tribute to the man who made El Bulli world's best place to eat.
When you are Ferran Adria, doors that are closed to mere mortals suddenly fly open.
Near the end of a special dinner last Friday at Amber at The Landmark Mandarin, Siobhan Bent of Phaidon, which publishes Adria's cookbooks, asks which place I would recommend to take the chef for lunch the next day. She says he is interested in trying contemporary Chinese food cooked by a young Chinese chef who is doing something interesting. Ho Lee Fook is my immediate answer, but I add, "Too bad it's closed for lunch."
Bent sends a message to the Ho Lee Fook PR person and 10 minutes later, asks me, "Would you like to join us for lunch at Ho Lee Fook tomorrow?" I do, of course, and when I arrive at the restaurant, the entire kitchen team - led by chef Jowett Yu - is hard at work preparing the meal for the four guests in the otherwise-empty dining room.
Adria - considered by most food lovers to be the most influential modern chef in the world for his work at the now-closed El Bulli in Spain - was in Hong Kong last week for a collaboration with Richard Ekkebus of Amber, which has two Michelin stars and is number 38 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list. The meal was not cooked by Adria; instead, it was Ekkebus' dishes that were "inspired by" El Bulli techniques and ideas. Each of the 12 courses (and five canapes) included a notation of the year the technique had been developed by Adria and his team. The meal had foams, spheres, snow and microwaved cakes - innovations that are now widely used. The price of the HK$10,888 dinner with wine pairing also included El Bulli 2005-2011, a seven volume set with a list price of more than HK$5,000.
On the afternoon of the first public El Bulli-inspired dinner (there was a private event held the night before), the two chefs sit down together to talk.
Ekkebus says, "We started talking about this collaboration in May, immediately after the Benu meals," (for which he alternated courses with Corey Lee of the Michelin three-star restaurant in San Francisco). "We did that in partnership with Phaidon. We told them that any events they wanted to do, we would support them and help if it was the right person. They said, 'How about Ferran?' We said, 'Oh, for sure!' Amber is not an avant-garde restaurant, we're more a modern French restaurant, but there are a lot of techniques and knowledge that [Adria] has created that we use."
Ekkebus had visited El Bulli twice - in 1990, just a few years after Adria became chef of the restaurant, and when he was still making Mediterranean cuisine, and again in 1996, when he'd started the so-called "molecular" movement. "It was only six years later when he started to create his own language, his own techniques, where you had foods that did not have a benchmark. It was transforming - the concept and philosophy changed dramatically in that period of time. It wasn't the food only, it was the whole philosophy of the restaurant, the 40-course menu, the small portions. My first visit to El Bulli and the one six years later were entirely different. I never ate there again. By then he had global recognition and it was impossible to get a reservation.
"I've always been intrigued by the modernist movement, but I have a traditional culinary training and I hold on to that - I've never been a trend-sensitive chef. But the techniques have constantly influenced me because, of course, I read about them and I've watched all the videos and documentaries about Ferran and met him on many occasions. There are very few chefs who mark their era and Ferran is definitely one - he's marked this era in a very personal manner. In 30 to 40 years from now, we are going to talk about Ferran the way we do about Escoffier and Careme and Bocuse - these great chefs who made extremely important contributions to cooking."
The two dinners sold out even before they were announced to the public. "It was sold out in three hours," Ekkebus says. "The original intention was to do 40 people each night. We were getting phone call after phone call, but we were sold out. A lot of people were upset - we got the usual threats, people saying they'll never come to our restaurant again and 'Do you know who I am?' We were obliged to push it to 70 a night. It's big - we could have filled the event with Ferran for two weeks, if he would have given us two weeks of his time."
Adria says, "The challenge that Richard faces is very complex. He has to prepare a dinner with the spirit of El Bulli, but it's his cooking - very few people would have been bold enough. The meal last night [at the private event] was very well balanced; he demonstrated how intelligent he is when it comes to cooking. He knows what the Hong Kong public likes - that's why I said let him do whatever he wants, because I don't know the tastes of Hong Kong. I practically said OK as soon as I got [the menu proposal, which Ekkebus had sent for approval two months before]. He has to do what he wants to do."
The menu was composed primarily of dishes that Dutch-born Ekkebus had created through the years for Amber. "Three of the dishes are new - well, more, if you count the canapes," Ekkebus says. "We went through all our recipes where we used techniques that are inspired by the El Bulli era. We never try to copy the dishes of El Bulli but there were techniques that I felt were useful and inspiring.
"Creating new dishes and a menu like this is a constant evolution, from the time we put it on paper to ensure that each course represents different techniques by El Bulli, to the stage where we cook each individual dish, [progressing to] where we taste the menu as an entirety to establish if the portions are right, then where we taste the wine paired with each course. These stages took us three months and it was a true team effort. Even over the three days we're serving the dishes, we'll still make adjustments, and if we would serve it for another week, adjustments would still be made - cooking is a work in progress."
Adria says this is the first time he's collaborated with a chef so closely, although, because his techniques are used so widely, it's not the first time he's eaten food inspired by his creations.
"What's nice is that each one does it in their own way. I've often said I've eaten dishes that were better done by other chefs than the way we did them. We didn't have time to fine-tune the dishes because [at El Bulli] we would change the entire menu every year. With each thing we did, we opened a new pathway.
"With our creations, a chef could come along, taste it and then elaborate on it better than we did. I love going to eat at places that are doing what we did. I would love for young people to be better than I was. El Bulli has opened the doors, so to speak, that is undeniable. But I want young people to be better than us."