Chef Jeff Ramsey
Sereechai Puttes/Time Out Bangkok

Time Out meets Jeff Ramsey

The celebrity chef gives us a sneak preview of his highly anticipated modern Japanese venture in Bangkok

Time Out Bangkok in association with The Athenee Hotel

When it comes to modernist cuisine, Jeff Ramsey is by no means a stranger. The Japanese-American celebrity chef spent decades working his way up from dishwashing at Tako Grill in Maryland to working for globally-renowned culinary master Hide Yamamoto at Michelin-starred Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo. Ramsey later moved to Kuala Lumpur and, since 2016, has been shaking up the Malaysian capital’s dining scene with Babe, the “fun dining Japas [as he puts it] hotspot” where Japanese ingredients and theatrical whimsy merge.

Bangkok is the latest city to benefit from Chef Ramsey’s progressive touch as he establishes his latest venture, Kintsugi, at The Athenée Hotel. While waiting for this new restaurant to open its doors on 16 October, the chef is serving Babe’s signature dishes in a limited-time pop-up, including some plates that might make it into Kintsugi’s menu.

Time Out Bangkok was invited to an exclusive chat with Chef Ramsey, who gave us a sneak peek of his new restaurant, and shared with us his plans for winning over Bangkok’s gourmet diners.

Tell us a bit of what Kintsugi is all about.
Kappo or the less formal version of kaiseki [Japanese multi-course meal] is the focus of what we’re doing here. It’s fine dining with surprising and innovative [elements], but also making the food as simple as possible. That’s sort of the Japanese aesthetic. The flavor base is Japanese but I also use other Asian flavors. I like using other Asian flavors as I believe [that to] reach people’s hearts, you have to serve food closer to home. But it’s not [simply] putting sesame oil and fish sauce, and people are going to like it. The food could be good
but it may just taste like casual food. People may say, that it’s not kaiseki, but kaiseki is the art of hospitality in a broader sense. I want to go back before the customs were set, to the core of kaiseki, and work from there to create my own version.

How would Kintsugi be different from Babe?
Babe is not necessarily as Japanese as Kintsugi. We have an omakase experience at Kintsugi. Tsugi means “to connect,” and it’s this interaction that I have been missing at Babe. I miss the connection so much, as I learn a lot from the customers about food and cooking. Kin means “gold” and signifies luxury, where Babe isn’t exactly fine dining. We’re following the basic structure of kaiseki. We will also stick to the Japanese palate here so we can make a nice pairing with sake. Some of the items in Babe will also make it into Kintsugi. There will be a lot more fish, seafood and meat as well.

Kintsugi refers to the art of repairing broken porcelain. How is the idea significant to you and your cooking?
I love Japanese artisanal ceramics. I love how they look like they are carved out of a rock. They are also austere things. They are not painted in gold and scream, “Look at me!” It’s also a way of taking something priceless and putting them together when they are broken. We plan to use high-end ceramics from Japan and, of course, when they break, we can fix it. That’s kintsugi for you. It’s also a metaphor for hard times. When you grow older and become broken, then you think of the concept of kintsugi and you have confidence to go
out there. You have wrinkles and scars, they just make you stronger and more beautiful.

Jeff Ramsey

How do you think Kintsugi will stand out from the other modern Japanese restaurants out there?
I have confidence because I typically just stand out. I am always different, I think, because I didn’t just study [traditional] Japanese food; I also studied a lot of modern techniques, plus I incorporate techniques that don’t really belong in the kitchen. I guess I am more of a director than a chef. I love magic and like to “perform” in front of other people and do surprising things. I try to create a roller coaster [of an experience]. We have something pure and plain, then something hot, cold, then surprising and just really tasty. I try to make something with many elements represented in one dish.

Would you consider using local ingredients in your dishes?
I definitely want to; because 'local' means 'fresh.' But there’s a certain expectation at a Japanese restaurant. In Malaysia [at Babe], we dealt with some backlash when we started doing that. People were not happy to pay a lot of money for Malaysian stuff. But we would definitely want to do that over time [here] though that’s not our main selling point. But we will see. I will go with my tongue and my guts.

What impression would you want to leave on your customers?
I want people to think that no one does modern Japanese better than us. I want it to be very special. We definitely put our heart and soul into everything that we do. It’s Japanese, but I didn’t hire any Japanese chefs. It’s all about the local team. Because I want to relate to [the locals] as much as possible. We want to do Japanese, but different. I want it to be a new style that they have never seen but will like.

Kintsugi will be on the 3rd floor of The Athenee Hotel on 16 October. The Babe pop-up will be operating until 15 October.

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