In the critically-acclaimed Oscar-winning animated movie Ratatouille in 2007, there’s a scene where the unforgiving restaurant critic Anton Ego gives a surprisingly glowing review of Gusteau’s restaurant despite learning that a humble rodent, Remy, has been the astonishing culinary genius behind his glorious meal. Ego remarks: “In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, “Anyone can cook.” But I realise, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
That thought-provoking message is epitomised, in my humble opinion, by the man seated across the table from me, exuding a sober disposition. Initially at least. “The place where I grew up was a little bit rough round the edges. Most of my friends were getting into trouble, nicking cars and crime was quite bad around there. Eventually I was beginning to fall into that crowd,” recalls British chef Ryan Clift in a rugged English brogue that probably reflects his Wiltshire countryside roots. “I look back at my friends who remained in that town. Most are in prison, dead or overdosed on drugs. But I discovered cooking instead. I say it saved my life and saved my future for sure.”
It’s a past that is incongruous to his present, suggesting a remarkable journey that saw him rise up the ranks in the culinary world. Clift and I are having a chat amidst the elegant confines of The Brasserie at St Regis Kuala Lumpur. The luxury hotel had invited him to take over their kitchen for four days as guest chef to showcase his distinctive style of modern gastronomy. For some reason, I am reminded of the English movie actor Jason Statham. Perhaps it’s the closely shaved head that the chef is sporting, or the tattoos inked along his muscled arm. But then it could also be the straight-faced expression with a hint of intensity. That slightly gravelly voice and British accent is so reminiscent too of Statham who is famed for his action roles and tough persona.
The 40-year-old chef-cum-restauranteur has clearly come a long way since his troubled teens, proving that talent and artistry can bloom from any origin.
When a young Ryan strutted into a one Michelin-starred restaurant at the age of 13 after seeing a “Help Wante” sign, he was already displaying a confidence and tenacity beyond his years. The only food-related experience he possessed was savouring his mother’s home-cooked comforts like roast dinners and pies.
Clift humorously recalls the job interview with a smug grin. “The guy asks me ‘How old are you?’ I brashly reply ‘How old do I need to be?’ ‘Sixteen’ ‘Okay, I’m 16!’” Fortunately, he was tall for his age. So he was handed an apron and gloves, and was promptly shown the dirty dishes. The highly-charged working environment grabbed his attention — just what an academically-disinclined truanting teenager needed. The first restaurant service that he worked was akin to being thrown at the deep end of the pool.
“I’m talking about an old school French kitchen with an old-school military way of running it. Men were scared and crying like babies because the chef was screaming at them so much.” His voice crescendos with exuberance while his eyes mist over, as if he’s there again amidst the commotion. “You can feel the energy in the kitchen building up. I got addicted immediately to the adrenalin rush of it. They need the pots now! If they don’t get it, then BOOM! A large pot gets thrown at you from across the kitchen!”
He chuckles before pointing out how people don’t realise that the pot washer is probably the hardest job in any fine dining kitchen because without that person doing that job, “the entire kitchen breaks down.”
It was the chef there who recognised a potential talent-in-the-making, and eventually helped secure a job for him at the best hotel in London at the time, the iconic Claridge’s. From then onwards, Clift worked only at two or three Michelin-starred restaurants, learning from some of the world’s top chefs including Marco Pierre White and Peter Gordon.
“Now in my kitchen, I always want to support the little man, the new guy. I don’t care if a chef comes to me and tells me he’s worked at places like the Fat Duck or elBulli. Half of them are full of crap anyway. I prefer taking kids with zero experience. They’re young, they’re hungry to learn, and I always respect my dishwasher!”
CREATIVITY AND CONCEPTS
His career trajectory took an international leap when he decided to move halfway across the globe to take on the role of Head Chef at one of Australia’s highly acclaimed restaurants, Melbourne’s Vue de Monde. After excelling there, Clift’s next venture was inevitable.
Tippling Club located in Singapore is one of his proudest achievements, being his own creation. Since beginning operations nine years ago, it has earned numerous restaurant and bar awards and just recently, ranked number 27 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017. Undoubtedly, that achievement helped get him more noticed in the industry. A few years ago, Clift was recognised by 10 of the world’s greatest chefs as one of the gastronomic superstars of tomorrow in a cookbook by Phaidon titled Coco.
At Tippling Club, his role now involves more creativity and design where he develops new creations in the lab above the restaurant. They’re getting ready to launch a new dinner menu plus a new sensorial cocktail menu called Dreams & Desires which took about nine months to develop. This avant-garde experience will have customers ordering their cocktail based on a choice of 12 different-flavoured gummy bears, except that the confectionary flavours are associated amazingly with words like beauty, knowledge or holiday.
“That’s kind of where I am at the moment. I like developing new concepts and just using my creativity and artistic flair to drive things forward,” shares Clift before continuing earnestly: “Every time there’s a new menu, we go the whole hog. It’s not just about putting out plates and a menu but it’s also very much about the cutlery, the glassware, the tableware, the floral arrangements.”
GROW-ING IN BALI
His Singaporean baby may be a high-end restaurant that attracts top spenders but its owner remains grounded and driven by creativity and originality. In his candid style and colourful language, Clift asserts: “I didn’t want another starched-tablecloth restaurant! I’m not interested in (expletive) Michelin or anything like that. I don’t give a crap. I just want to be happy with what’s on my plate and in my glass, and Bali has allowed me to do just that.”
He’s referring to of course, the well-known Indonesian island which has become his latest gastronomic playground. Clift had opened his first Balinese dining venture, Grow, in the heart of Seminyak less than a year ago, offering an authentic farm-to-table concept with a sustainable approach. Not only are fresh products selected directly from the island’s lowland and highland farms, but Clift also sources seafood from local waters and hand-makes his pasta using local semolina.
Clift’s passion for this project is very evident in the way he waxes lyrical about Bali’s humble artisans — everyone from cutlery makers and woodcarvers, to farmers and fishermen. Like a kid in a toyshop, the abundance of choice gets him excited. “I like to be able to have unlimited ideas so Bali makes me very creative.”
On the menu are mind-bending dishes like Chocolate Quinoa Porridge, Lombok Oysters with pickled cucumber and parsley, Strozzapreti pasta with 48-hour braised oxtail ragout and steak tartare finished with Balinese sambal instead of tabasco. Grow complements the refined cuisine with a matching environment and exceptional service, yet does not inflate the prices.
“It’s what I call ‘bistronomie’— casual fine dining without the hefty price tag,” declares Clift who shares with total candour his observation that some restauranteurs in Bali are becoming too profit-hungry when it’s unnecessary.
“Things are so cheap in Bali that it’s ridiculous! To the point where I’m trying to explain to the locals that they need to be charging more for what they’re giving because there are people taking advantage of that. So I’m trying to do something about it as well personally, by trying to educate farmers for example, and trying to put more money in their pockets.”
Once again, Clift is trying to support the little man, the ones who lack the voice or experience, but who possess tremendous potential. Armed with tonnes of will and boldness, there could be a new role for him in helping change perceptions for the better.
“What I say is true — anyone can cook. but only the fearless can be great.” — Chef Gusteau from the movie Ratatouille.