We sat down with Richard Ekkebus, Director of Culinary Operations and Food & Beverage at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong to talk about Amber restaurant’s sustainability journey with Food Made Good HK.
What first inspired you to embrace sustainability?
“It must come from my childhood, being raised in a village that is below sea level. This area has been constantly battling the sea. I was always a huge fan of Jacques Cousteau, from watching his movies to listening to him talk about biodiversity loss in the world”. Richard also describes his mom as setting an example to treasure nature and buy from local fisherman and farmers in their area. From all these influences, Richard formulated his commitment to preserving the environment. Humanity, he believes, has been tapping nature’s resources too heavily.
THE HUNGER FOR ANIMAL PROTEIN
When Richard first moved to Hong Kong, he was shocked to see the abundance and overconsumption of animal protein. Per capita, Hong Kong is the world’s third highest consumer of fish and seafood (1) – a hunger for animal protein that may well be related to historical hardship.
“Over the years, the upward mobility of the middle class allowed for more consumption of animal and seafood products. I think we need to rewind and start making progressive changes about how we eat and how we recycle plastic products.”
Richard points out that over the last 40 years, our consumption of natural resources has grown exponentially while we’ve avoided finding solutions and instead push the problem to the next generation.
“Many solutions such as aquaculture will help, but this may unknowingly create a vicious cycle of overfishing the smaller fish down the food chain to feed the aquaculture or making smallholder fishermen job’s obsolete. We are still understanding how intertwined sustainability problems and solutions are.”
A CALL TO ACTION FOR MORE SUSTAINABILITY EDUCATION
Schools are one agent for raising awareness about the impact of heavy animal protein diets on your health and the planet. Richard has worked closely with VTC, curating talks about plant-based diets that show students how exciting and delicious these meals can be. He also loves teaching others about sustainable seafood and sustainable kitchen techniques.
Richard stresses the importance of reaching local chefs and encouraging them to become Members, citing the need to have everyone around the table if we are to make meaningful change.
Can you share one sustainability action that you pushed for internally that you’re especially proud of?
“For me it’s been pushing the plant-based paradigm in the kitchen. In a traditional French kitchen a dish normally constitutes of 75% animal protein and 25% plant-based, which varies according to seasons.”
Amber has strategically planned its menu so that customers leave feeling lighter, nourished and content, compared to a traditional French meal which can make you feel tired and full because of the heavy ingredients. Amber has pushed the limits of what plant-based cooking for fine dining looks like, creating a new fan base. Richard has noticed that plant-based meals are bringing in more customers within the 30-40 age range.
SUPPORTING THE COMMUNITY
“I made a commitment that every month I will work at raising funds or bringing awareness to a good cause.”
Richard’s commitment to raising awareness for charities extends all the way throughout the Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong (LMO). The hotel has worked hard to make a caring culture central to its business DNA. Charitable events and initiatives that Richard and the LMO team have participated in over the years include: baking gingerbread men for the Cookie Smiles campaign; Richard running 100km in December to raise awareness for rights of Nepalese women; and growing his signature Mo-vember moustache to raise awareness for men’s mental health.
CONSUMER PREFERENCES FOR INDULGENCE
Richard has worked to eliminate gluten and refined sugars from Amber’s menu, by substituting the refined sugars with honey, maple syrup and raw sugars. Natural sweeteners such as these are reenergizing rather than making you feel heavy and full and have added nutritional benefits.
What’s preventing more chefs from working with plant proteins in Hong Kong?
“Consumer perception is the biggest barrier. You have to make the transition slowly in Hong Kong. Amber served dairy-free desserts during the five years before the restaurant renovation. Many patrons have the idea that if Amber takes items away the meal is perceived as less indulgent.”
Many of the ingredients that Richard showcases on the menu are organically grown or have Fairtrade certification which cost around 30% more than typical non-organic food. Amber always sources products responsibly and pay the farmers who grow these ingredients a fair wage. The traditional perception of indulgence from the consumer standpoint is holding back plant-based menu items for many fine dining restaurants.
What routes enable chefs to work with more plant proteins?
“Donating a percentage of the price for certain dishes to Green Earth, a local environmental charity, supports their ongoing vegetation enrichment programme that replants indigenous trees in Hong Kong”.
This is a unique route which is mutually beneficial for all parties: Amber, Green Earth, and the consumer. This five-year long commitment between Amber and Green Earth allows for deeper exploration into indigenous trees of Hong Kong and also introduces consumers to Amber’s plant-based dishes. Win-win partnerships such as this help shift the mindsets of consumers, allowing chefs to shape a new and enjoyable food culture.
“It is also important to put as much energy and resources into the plant-based menus as possible”. By making such commitments, chefs will continually find new culinary innovations.
What should restaurants be doing if they’re interested in sustainability? Where should they start?
“They should be putting the same amount of effort into their plant-based menus as they do on their meat-based menus”.
Richard stresses the importance of having descriptors in plant-based menus that are “simple with no seduction”. Pure product descriptors are crucial in conveying the ethos of plant-based dishes to the public. Chefs play an equally important role in pioneering innovative menus. Richard notes that it is easier for chefs to satisfy the Hong Kong palate by including meat into menus, but stresses that this should not be their role. Instead, they should focus on alternative forms of proteins coming from legumes and vegetables. Thereby easing the general public into being open-minded about alternative proteins.
Can you name one upcoming food trend that really excites you?
“The increasing incorporation of sustainable seafood into menus”.
Do you see this trend taking off in the HK F&B scene?
“Yes, more chefs are entering the sustainable seafood space in Hong Kong, by including these ingredients in their menus”.
This is crucial in order to collectively raise awareness as a group of restaurants. Richard believes that this habit could “drop the coin” among restaurant-goers. Consumers picking up on this trend could accelerate the normalisation of sustainable seafood in restaurants.
Can you describe what being a Food Made Good Member means to you?
“Food Made Good’s three pillars were crucial in building the LMO sustainability framework and structure”.
Richard emphasises the importance of having a third-party auditor keep track of progress and add structure. He also noted that audits are an excellent way for F&B parties to “legitimise efforts”. A restaurant’s quest for sustainability shouldn’t be a solo journey. Having sustainability audits and a community of like-minded team players allows for collaboration, and helps build momentum for a better food culture.
The Food Made Good toolkits provided to members also allow actionable solutions and outputs for similar sustainability challenges faced by restaurants. For LMO, this was a fantastic resource that has created opportunities to further enhance its sustainability programme.