Western chefs are heading east. Asia has become fertile ground for chefs from Europe, Australia and North America, all looking to hone their craft in some of the world’s most exciting food cities. Big names such as Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have all opened up in Asia. And from Shanghai to Singapore, no fewer than 17 of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants have western chefs at the helm, including the number one restaurant, Nahm.
Holder of 3-Michelin stars, French chef Yannick Alléno has restaurants in Beijing and Taipei; while the British chef Jason Atherton - whose Pollen Street Social restaurant in London has one Michelin star - has places in Singapore, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Also in Hong Kong, and at number 4 on the Asia’s 50 Best list, there’s two-Michelin-star restaurant Amber, which is headed by Dutch chef Richard Ekkebus; while in Shanghai the French chef Paul Pairet has two restaurants in the top eleven (Ultraviolet and Mr & Mrs Bund).
BANGKOK, THE DAVID THOMPSON'S REIGN
Meanwhile Bangkok can boast Asia’s best restaurant. Nahm is the brainchild of David Thompson, an Australian who fell in love with the richness, depth and complexity of Thai cuisine back in the late 1980s. Settling in Bangkok, he learnt from an elderly Thai matriarch whose recipes and techniques had been passed from generation to generation, and which set Thompson on a path of culinary discovery. He went on to enjoy success in both Australia and London, where the first iteration of Nahm won a Michelin star. But it was upon moving back to Bangkok that Thompson’s cuisine rose to new heights, thanks in no small way to the superiority of ingredients in Thailand. “There’s a poverty of Thai ingredients in the UK at the moment,” says Thompson, recalling his time at Nahm in London. “There was one stage where there were two apple aubergines, and the guys seized them as if they were the rarest of gems, yet two years prior to that we would have thrown them out as being substandard.” For western chefs cooking Asian food, it appears Asia is the logical place in which to flourish, thanks largely to a wealth of what Thompson calls “delicious and vibrant” ingredients. But when it comes to western chefs cooking western cuisine in Asia, there are different motivating factors involved in moving east.
HONG KONG: EKKEBUS, BOMBANA AND MUCH MORE
“I was trained in Europe with the big French chefs, but then I left, and that was purely out of the desire to see the world,” says Richard Ekkebus, who worked with Alain Passard, Guy Savoy and Pierre Gagnaire before jetting off for pastures new. “I ended up in Hong Kong, being a little bit tired of the Michelin system at the time - the demands of the three- star restaurant - and just wanted a change of atmosphere, to learn more about other perspectives of food.”
Ekkebus has become renowned for his modern take on classic French cuisine at Amber. Yet he is still able to use Hong Kong’s location as a global crossroads to make the most of a variety of ingredients, from Japanese seafood to Tasmanian truffles. And it’s not just Ekkebus who’s capitalising on Hong Kong’s unique position: the likes of Umberto Bombana (8 1/2 Otto e Mezzo Bombana), Fabrice Vulin (Caprice), Michael Michaelidis (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) and Canadian Matt Abergel (Yardbird) have all found success in the city.
THE "STRAIGHTFORWARD FLAVOURS" OF SINGAPORE
It’s a similar story in Singapore, where you’ll find restaurants by Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali and Daniel Boulud, all plying their trade in the same hotel (Marina Bay Sands). Also in the city-state is French chef Julien Royer, whose Jaan restaurant currently stands at number 17 on the Asia’s 50 Best list. But as Royer explains, a European chef must learn and adapt before achieving success in Asia. “It’s a new beginning. I have been in Singapore for two and a half years, and it’s totally different. The eating habits are different. People in Asia eat more meals a day than we do in Europe - sometimes four or five - but smaller. What I’ve noticed is Singaporeans like straightforward flavours. A piece of foie gras will taste of foie gras, a piece of cod will taste of cod. They like an umami flavours, like the Japanese: charcoal, smoke, soya.”
Catering to the broad Asian palate is one challenge; but Asian appetites for new and exciting culinary experiences present mouthwatering opportunities for creative chefs like Paul Pairet. His Ultraviolet restaurant in Shanghai sends diners on a multi-sensory journey, combining food, film, ambient lighting, scent and sound in a boldly imaginative culinary experiment. One minute you’re eating fish and chips to The Beatles as the rain lashes around you, the next you’re tucking into melted Gummi Bears while the restaurant staff run laps around the communal table.
Pairet’s wild imagination, creativity and ambition remain untethered in China, thanks largely to sponsorship and strategic partnerships with tableware and technology brands whose participation forms the basis of an innovative research and development project. According to Richard Ekkebus, this could only happen in Asia. “If you see what Paul (Pairet) is doing in Shanghai, a project like that is not possible in Europe today, for the simple reason that nobody would be interested in creating such a crazy and exceptional project. The difference is today the economy is extremely strong and there’s a lot possible here in Asia.”