As is evidenced in his award-wining and Michelin-starred Babe restaurant in Kuala Lumpur, Chef Jeff Ramsey’s food is smashingly good. The Japanese-American Chef is heralded for his ‘Japas’ cuisine, a commingled word of Japanese fare and tapas.
Having trained under star-studded chefs such as Japan’s official Sushi Ambassador Masayoshi Kazato, Chef José Andrés of the legendary Catalonian, Spain, and Chef Ferran Adrià of elBullí, Spain, it comes as no surprise that the Japas cuisine he’s been developing and steeping himself in is the fruit of his culinary journeys invested in the two cuisines.
Having also been born in Japan and raised in Maryland, USA, the two heritages he grew up in inarguably contribute to his two-culture intuitions. Thereby merging culinary traditions into one seems more or less of a natural thing.
If, like us, you were sitting in the front row watching Chef Jeff and his team whip up an array of Japanese-accentuated tapas at the bar — yes, not the kitchen — as part of his dining pop-up at the Allium Bangkok (formerly The Reflexions) we would reach the following agreement. The intimate guest-chef interaction is the heart of Chef Jeff’s approach to fine dining, bringing about a true ‘fun’ dining experience, contrasting largely with the usual formal sit-down dinners commonly found in haute cuisine dining.
Following the success of this pop-up, there’s little to no wonder that we welcome Chef Jeff’s comeback to Bangkok with his new Bangkok-based restaurant, Kintsugi. Situated within The Athenee Hotel Bangkok, the progressive kaiseki-style Japanese restaurant will wow all diners with vivacious Japas fare, and a theatrical yet honest dining experience. Recently, we got to sit down and chat with Chef Jeff in a special foodie talk. Read all about his insights and thoughts in this full and exclusive interview with Chef Jeff Ramsey.
I was looking for a term that will best describe and characterise the type of food I’m cooking, which is a cross between Japanese food and tapas. So ‘japas’ makes perfect sense.
Fun dining is not about adding theatrical elements; it is cooking and serving up fine food in a casual, relaxed environment. It’s also all about interacting with the guests, making them feel at home, and letting them engage with your cooking and your food. [smiles] If no one feels comfortable then there’s no point doing it.
I started working as a dishwasher when I was in middle school. Later on when I realised this is the path I wanted to pursue, I knew I wanted to train to become a sushi chef. This Japanese restaurant said I had to start as a dishwasher. I said I would do anything so I started as their dishwasher and slowly I worked my way up in the kitchen, picking up all the tricks and tips from the chef. In a Japanese kitchen, it’s an observational style of learning. You need to train your eyes to pick up little details.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be inspired by a lot of people that I work with. I learn a lot from the people I admire. And by people, I don’t mean just chefs; they are chefs, businessmen, speakers, and everyone that I find fascinating who can help me to grow as an individual in this field.
It’s not really a meal that made me want to be a chef. It’s more of a memory. I remember when I was in boarding school, my Korean roommate who had lived in Japan and I would always talk about the food we wanted to eat and every night we would just talk about food until we fell asleep. [laughs] That’s where my passion for food started.
Uni. It takes a while to get used to, but then you fall in love with it.
Tampopo. It’s a food-focused Japanese movie, mainly about ramen. The movie does a really good job of showing how obsessed Japanese people can be when it comes to food. [laughs]
Bangkok is a great city; sophisticated and energetic. People want to go out and really explore the food scene and I really like that.
My pantry essentials are all Japanese ingredients and condiments. Soy sauce, sake, mirin, miso, yuzu kosho — these are my must-have items.
Sushi, all the way.
Water. I’m not a good drinker. [laughs]
It’s fine. Pineapple on a pizza is no problem for me.
Potato chips. It has to be the classic salted or sour cream and onion.
Rarely — usually just breakfast. My wife is a very good cook so she cooks a lot for me and the kids.
Common sense — it is the best tool and is much needed in the kitchen.
Creating, to me, is not challenging. I could sit down and think of a new dish when I focus. Inspirations can also always be found around me — in a book, in a movie. What is challenging to me is to have my staff understand and coordinate with how I want each dish to be. That’s why it’s good to work with people who know you and your style.
Coming to work late. I really place great importance on being on time to work.
I wish I took more time to meditate when I was younger to really explore a sense of self. It takes a lot of maturity — emotional maturity — to be a chef in the restaurant.
My advice is to find the food that makes you happy, even though it might not fall within any trend. In the restaurant, everybody must strive to find their own voice. Follow what’s in your heart and find the food that you love to eat and cook. Let’s face it: being a chef, with all the long hours and hard work, you won’t have a normal life, so you’d better make sure you’re happy cooking what you love. And don’t be afraid to do what people say is weird or stupid because along the way, you’re bound to find someone who truly sees your value and recognises your work.
You know what’s really good? [Chef Jeff’s eyes glow here] Grilled Fugu (pufferfish) Sperm. I can have that as my last meal. Or maybe I can have my last supper at Sushisho Masa in Japan. It’s an incredible, incredible restaurant.
We are going to Eat Me!