Boisterous, confident and arms laden with tatts. At just 35 and with experience working for some of the world's best restaurants it would have been easy for the British born chef Ryan Clift to settle in London, work the scene, find a partner and set up his own restaurant - but that doesn't suit his style.
In 1999 he moved to Australia in search of new challenges and ingredients and in 2008, already with a string of awards under his belt, he moved again, this time to Singapore to start his own venture The Tippling Club. A chef attracted to the energy of a professional kitchen as a 14-year-old dishwasher, to a chef who is now drawn to the raw energy of discovery and interesting flavor pairings he can play with in a place like Singapore.
His Tippling Club restaurant is built on an idea of pairing modern cuisine with cocktails and pushing the envelope of ingredients and textures - something demonstrated perfectly in his signature carrot gnocchi dish.
A restaurant that he explains has helped to change the dining scene in a city that's currently in the midst of a culinary explosion, "Removing tablecloths, removing the tables - only having one counter where everyone sits in front of the kitchen. It's fine dining without the snobbery," Clift explains. "My chefs, my waiters, my bartenders all wear the same uniform - you don't know who is in the dining room - you're served by all of them."
A style of dining that, Clift is first to admit, is not the norm in China, "It's usually very luxurious, multi billion dollar fit outs - lots of money thrown at it. I'm different. I started my restaurant with very little and built it up from there. Removing the thought process of wine, we don't serve wine with our meals it's all paired with cocktails. We created a bar within the kitchen that spends just as much time developing the drinks as we do the food."
After five years Clift says the restaurant is finally paying off - mainly thanks to a shift in the attitude of dinners throughout Singapore. "When I first came to Singapore there had been a restaurant before me that had done modernist cuisine and failed. I think this left a bit of a bad taste in the mouth of the Singapore dining scene. To be serving cocktails to a nation of Burgundy and Bordeaux drinkers who have some of the best private cellars in the world, to get them to try things with a cocktail was difficult.
"The first year was a little stressful but I said all along, 'we are not changing what we do, we are not changing how we make our drinks and we're not changing the food'. We stuck to our guns and it's paid off. They've finally clicked on, loosened up and started to come out for dinner...'It's not all about classic French food'," he adds with a cheeky smile.
It's a revolution the chef has slowly helped to push, but why fight it? Why not open a place in New York or London where attitudes are already open, Clift explains the reasoning simply, "As a chef in Singapore it's extremely exciting for creativity purposes. I don't need to worry about seasons or ingredients, I can get anything I want in Singapore. I can get a delivery air flown from the market every 12-hours straight to my kitchen...This offers me a lot of freedom."
The chef now finds himself part of a dining scene that is currently 'exploding', catalyzed only further by the upcoming inaugural ceremony ofAsia's 50 Best Restaurants list, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna, to be held in Singapore on February 25th. Another signifier that Asia now sits on top of the culinary hierarchy.
"The list is revered, feared and adored by the industry globally", says Clift. "Everyone I know is waiting with baited breath the day the list comes out. The fact that the top 50 Asia list will come here and the fact that it will be held in Singapore is a testament to where Singapore is as a dining hub but it's an exciting thing for the whole of Asia.
"The fact that more critics and more judges will be coming through Asia to check these restaurants when the list comes out - it's more exposure for the little 30-seat fine dining restaurants like myself. There's so many young chefs who are not recognized in Singapore, but they will soon, especially when the judges start to come through."
"I think it's one of the best things to happen to Asia in a while. It's going to elevate dining here. Ok, Singapore is already exploding but with talk of Asia's 50 Best coming, everyone is upping the anti. Pushing a bit harder, getting refurbs, buying better gear and of course ingredients."
Clift is a chef who is proud of his location, his achievements and his unfaltering motivation to do it his way. He now finds himself at the centre of exciting discovery, cooking in a part of the world that is developing at a startling rate. But the chef is the first to admit that, when looking at Asia's dining scene, it's not all about Singapore and Hong Kong.
"Jakarta is coming up, it's a few years away but it's slowly growing - they're investing a lot of money. Bangkok is about to bubble. The dining scene in both these parts of Asia is very exciting and I think these really are the two cities to watch at the moment."
And his predictions for the first Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list? "I'd love to see Seiji Yamamoto up there - he just openedRyuGin in Hong Kong, I was there recently and everyone thinks he will get three Michelin stars in his first year. On the day of the top 50 announcement he will be dining in my restaurant - we'll open it just for him.
"I'd love to see us up there, André Chiang from the André restaurant for sure and I think, from Bangkok, I'd love to see Bo.lan and Nahm, David Thompson is making some amazing goals at Nahm."
"And my number one? You know what? He's a good friend and I love what he does so I'm going to say I'd like to see Seiji Yamamoto take the top spot."
Speaking with Clift you get the idea he honestly feels like one of the leaders in an exciting culinary landscape. That he is situated in a chef's paradise, both for the attention the area is now receiving and for the ingredients, culture and traditions he is able to use for inspiration everyday, and, as Asia continues to rise so will the prominence of young, exciting, chefs like Clift.
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