The Yak meets Ryan Clift, celebrated chef behind restaurant Grow, offering modern gastronomy without the airs and graces. Portraits: Saskia Koerner.
Ryan Clift is a chef with very definite ideas. He’s also a force to be reckoned with, transforming, recreating and transforming and recreating the dining experience into an immersion in flavour, texture, scents . . . creating dining experiences without whimsy that are serious fun.
Clift has eaten with some of the best, and cooked with many of them as well. Having the chance to open his own restaurant in Singapore, The Tippling Club, brought all his experiences into sharp focus and now the man is unstoppable.
Picture a bar where there is no menu, instead a collection of scented sticks are presented, each with a flavour that sparks a memory. You choose your cocktail based on the scent that gives you the greatest joy. This is not a science fiction movie, this is Sensorium, part of the bar experience at Tippling Club.
With a research and development kitchen above the restaurant that allows him and his team of chefs to create intense flavours that begin with a single ingredient, months of work go into every element. In the case of Sensorium, even longer . . . but this is only the beginning.
His latest venture, Grow, in Bali, is a culmination of all that he has learned, pared down to a simpler dining experience that uses only local ingredients and aims to make fine dining more accessible with realistic prices.
A conversation with Clift is like sitting in a windstorm, you emerge exhilarated and exhausted but far wiser and often hungry for more.
So Ryan, how did it begin for you?
I worked with some amazing chefs, many of them using modern techniques. Then I got to dine at El Bulli. My first dinner there left me sleepless and floating. I could not believe what had just happened. By the third time I ate there, they knew who I was and where I worked, so I got an invitation to the chef’s table in the kitchen. Here you get an extra 10 courses, added to the 40+ courses served in the dining room. I started to realize how genius it was; essentially simple dishes, much of it prepared in advance; the way they kept up the momentum and the build up of flavours, the tiny plates that kept coming, it was incredible. Three hours passes in no time at all, and all you know is that you have been on an incredible journey that begins and ends with flavour. Great ingredients that have been intensified and perfectly balanced, one after the other, and I thought, I can do this. You don’t get full, everything is calculated and it seems so simple on the plate.
What do you call your cooking style?
At Tippling Club the food is really Modern European but I use a lot of Japanese ingredients and techniques. I love their attention to detail; how they farm, grow and handle the ingredients. I get a box of tomatoes from Japan and they are wrapped in tissue and marked with the farmer’s name. They are outrageously expensive but careful handling can raise the taste of a single wedge of tomato to intense flavour proportions and you only need a little. I serve it with wagyu that is simply prepared (also from a specific region of Japan), and the dish is perfect. The diner has no idea of what takes place or the months of planning involved, they get a fairly simple plate with fantastic flavour.
Your Tippling Club logo has a very specific meaning?
The logo is based on the train of thought and the process each ingredient goes through. The team has three months to create 18 new dishes. I will give them a list of ingredients: milk, beef, foie gras, carrot etc and then they start to list all the possible flavour combinations. Then the different techniques we can use on each ingredient: poach, dehydrate, sous vide, caramelize. Three chefs will read, test, experiment, and then I come in and we test the possible flavour combinations and complimentary textures and play with the plating of the final dish. Those three chefs then go back to the kitchen and it’s their job to teach the staff to prepare it, while another three chefs go into the lab to begin the process with another list of ingredients. The process is reflected in the logo and is an important part of our research and development for each dish.
Where does GROW fit in?
I love being in Bali, I’m much more creative here. Grow is a lot more like my other restaurant in Singapore (he has four), Open Farm Community, where all the ingredients are local. Here the ingredients are different and I am loving the discovery part, finding new ingredients, working with farmers and fishermen. Similar to Tippling Club, each item on the menu starts with a single ingredient, or flavour. Then we build. The kitchen, run by Italian, Daniele Taddeo has picked up the techniques really quickly, so now we can start to add new equipment, start to play more with the flavour profiles and the techniques. At Grow I call our style Bistronomy, it’s fine dining without the price tag.
What’s new on your menu?
There are a few things I’m playing with. Once I believed that a sweet course in the middle of the meal gave the palette a break. Now I am using a lot more vegetables. Cooked to accentuate their sweetness, so the mind says I’m eating vegetables but there’s a sweetness that is completely natural, just intensified. I am also cutting back on salt, instead I have discovered an ancient Japanese ingredient called shiokoji, which grows on rice. It is almost like a natural MSG, it is so intense, you don’t need salt, it’s genius. I’ve also discovered an ingredient I call white truffle, it grows in young coconuts that have fallen off the tree. It’s local to Bali but most locals have never heard of it. I get excited about this kind of stuff. It’s nature and it’s next level.
You have a book coming out?
It is actually two books. The art of food and drink. They go together and the Tippling Club logo is part of how it works, matching the drinks to the food. Chefs, and especially young chefs, will buy it. They can learn a lot from it, about building flavours, about matching flavours, what works with what. About different techniques you can use. It’s almost 10 years in the making and we’re finally ready to go. There are also stories about me, about the process, about how we run the research and development. There is a timeline in there for chefs to create their own recipes. They can load it up to my website with their name recorded and it will be theirs forever. I do a lot of lectures and interviews, I think chefs should share, it’s the best way for the industry to grow. I hate plagiarism though, so I want to give credit where it’s due and have original recipes signed and recorded.
How do you see Bali’s restaurant scene, with so many new openings, is there room for everyone?
Bali is becoming a food destination, with so many great chefs coming to Bali to open new restaurants, there is a big push on Bali becoming a food destination. Not all will survive but the environment now is very exciting and it’s also working for local farmers and fishermen, who are working with chefs to create a supply of amazing ingredients that are local, sustainable and affordable. The food scene here is really creative right now and that’s inspiring us all to do it better.