I have so many feelings about Singapore. The beautiful flowers and trees lining immaculate roads leading to and from the airport gave me the feeling that I had just arrived in Hawaii on a tropical holiday. The busy streets packed with businessmen and women in suits rushing to grab coffee before hailing a cab to get to work made me feel like I was in New York City on a Monday morning. The outdoor markets filled with beautiful citrus, fresh fish, and the largest zucchini I’d ever seen in my life brought me back to mornings at the market in San Francisco. And the food and drinks in Singapore made me feel as though I were in a dream.
After a 16 hour flight plus a 6 hour layover from LA to Singapore, I was sleep deprived, jet lagged, and in desperate need of a shower. I didn’t have time for any of that though because: food.
A woman on a mission, I hopped into a cab (a brand new Mercedes, which, according to my cab driver, would cost about $300,000 USD in Singapore) to grab my friend Lauren and meet chef Ryan Clift at Tippling Club. We arrived early, and strolled around an outdoor market down the street where an odd man shoved a large fish into Lauren’s hands and motioned for us to take photos with it. After a short, but awkward and smelly photo shoot with the fish, we exited the market as quickly as possible, never looking back. Somewhere in between the airport and the market, my phone had gone missing and suddenly we both decided that we really didn’t like Singapore all that much.
After calling my husband in the US and having to admit that I had already broken the first rule of my trip (don’t lose anything important), I begged him to cancel my phone plan, and we continued on to meet chef Ryan at Tippling Club. Upon walking in the door we were greeted by a well-dressed and friendly woman.
“Hi, I’m Karen. Did one of you leave your phone in a cab?”
I scream “YES!” and Karen replies, “The cab driver is on his way to bring it back to you.”
And just like that, I love Singapore again.
We were given a tour of the restaurant, starting with the bar area where at least one hundred bottles of hard liquor are hanging from the ceiling by metal hooks. The restaurant is incredibly beautiful, unique, and intriguing and, though it was only 9am, I really wanted a drink. We continued on past the kitchen where we met Ryan, who was in the process of instructing a man about how to fix the stove.
“And make sure to clean the side of it before you put it back. It looks like shit.”
I can already tell I’m going to like this guy.
Ryan takes us past a small private dining area and upstairs to a beautiful lounge. Loud ambient music plays through the speakers, and Ryan apologizes for it being a little messy; one of the judges from Master Chef is filming there later, and the crew has already started setting up. We pass under a gorgeous chandelier made of empty wine bottles and into where the magic happens: the test kitchen. I felt as though I should be wearing a lab coat and glasses as we entered the room, everything was meticulously well-organized which is very dangerous for someone who hasn’t slept in 24 hours. The shelves along the walls are lined with apothecary jars that are labeled with numbers and words, some of which I’m familiar with, others that seem made up, or special code words. I am especially afraid of knocking those ones over, so I keep my distance.
He then leads us into a room where there’s a table filled with giant cylindrical canisters that are labeled with just the Tippling Club logo. He mentions that these are the kitchen knives that he has worked with an ancient dagger maker in Indonesia and a couple of investors in Germany to create. They are the most beautiful knives I’ve ever seen. I briefly consider spending $10,000 to purchase a set of the knives, but considering my husband was already upset with me for losing my phone I decided it would be best to not give him any more reason to worry about my mental state.
Listening to Ryan talk about the kitchen is like listening to a child talk about their favorite toy, or their first trip to Disneyland. He’s full of excitement and passion. All of the high-tech machines around us mixed with chef Ryan’s complicated knowledge of the scientific aspect of food, one would assume that his parents must have been either chefs or scientists. Naturally, I ask the question that everyone is probably wondering at this point:
How did you get into all of this?
Chef Ryan: I was 13 years old, living in England, and one day I was walking down the street when I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in a restaurant window, saying they needed help in the kitchen. I walked in, told them I wanted the job, and became the dishwasher. After three or four months, the chef came to me with an apron and told me that I was going to be replacing one of the guys he had just fired. Not too long after I started handling the food, I knew I wanted to be a chef.
You were 13 years old? What did your parents think about that?
My parents didn’t know I was working in a restaurant. I was only 13 and wasn’t legally able to work but, because my parents were divorced, I was able to avoid telling either of them what I was doing during the day. One day, some customers showed up at the restaurant and asked to see the person who plated the first course (which was me). I walked out the doors and there’s my fuckin’ mom and dad sitting at the same table. They don’t even speak to each other. As I walked through the restaurant, I basically felt the chef’s boot up my ass, kicking me into the dining room. He said, “What the fuck are you doing here? You’re thirteen? Do you know how much trouble I could get into?” And I said, “Soooo… this is what I want to do.” He turned to my mom and dad and told them that they should let me do it. I had talent, I had focus, I had drive, I had passion. So they found a loophole in the law that said I could go to culinary school one day a week and that would be considered my education. So that’s what I did as I continued to work in the restaurant.
So what was culinary school like, since you had already been working in a Michelin Star kitchen?
I showed up to culinary school on the first day and I’m surrounded by 22 year olds who are probably doing drugs every day. The instructor held up a chef’s knife and asked the class what it was. Then a paring knife. Then a bread knife. None of the other kids in the class knew anything and by the end of class I was called into the instructor’s office. He asked me where I learned everything I knew so I told him I worked in a restaurant already. He handed me a book, had me take the tests for the end of each term, and within a couple of hours, by the end of the day, I was finished with the two year course.
So, what happened next?
I went to London. Worked in a restaurant where the chef fired his entire staff within the first week. We ended up getting two Michelin stars, but the chef wasn’t satisfied and he quit. I then went to work in a three star Michelin restaurant under the most famous psychopath chef in London, and lasted a surprisingly long time compared to most people who normally didn’t return after one shift under his management. We got along surprisingly well and I learned a lot from him, and to this day is one of the best chefs I’ve worked with.
After working for someone like that, what approach have you taken while running your kitchen?
I’ve chosen not to treat my staff in certain ways. I don’t allow lots of shouting or really any forms of swearing in the kitchen. I have a mostly silent kitchen during service. During prep, they can joke around and be as loud as they want, but the moment our guests come, when the first plate comes up, they better be on the fucking ball, and they know that. I rule my kitchen in that way. They know I’m good to them, so they have to be good to me in return. I’ve learned lots of life experiences from the chefs I’ve worked with.
What brought you to Singapore specifically?
I worked in Australia for nine years, within two years I went from having three chefs in the kitchen to having thirty-eight chefs in the kitchen. We had to relocate to a bigger kitchen so all of us fit. There was a very lovely lady from Singapore that would dine with us at the chef’s table, and very often approach me to ask why I wasn’t the owner of my restaurant. Everything was my idea from the design, to the menu, and she was very passionate about me owning my work. She told me she had a few projects in Singapore that she needed help with that she would pay me to consult on and, if I liked Singapore, she would invest in a restaurant for me to open out there. At the end of my consultation in Singapore, she cut me a check for what would be four years salary in Australia, leaving me with advice to invest it in a restaurant of my own. She has taught me a lot about business.
So is the Tippling Club a result of that generous investment?
I came here and saw that there was an opening in the market. There was a lot of fine dining and French cooking, but nobody doing modern gastronomy. We moved to Singapore, and about six months later we opened the Tippling Club. First year, we got really good recognition. I was flown around the world, doing events, and each year we got stronger and stronger. It’s been a long road. It’s not as easy as I thought it would be. I think I came here a bit cocky. It took a while for the locals to understand the concept of the food and the drinks. This was totally out of the box for Singapore back then, but I stuck to my guns and didn’t change anything. Every guest that came through the door was one on one with the front of house, educating them, talking to them, explaining why we were doing what we were doing. All these people needed was to understand why we were different, and it slowly paid off.
Any challenges now that you’re established?
Finding good service in Singapore is hard. There are a lot of talented chefs and people to work back of house, but finding a good front-of-house is really difficult.
What brought you into the world of modern gastronomy?
Almost twenty years ago I worked with a chef Marc Veyrat. He was one of the pioneers of modern gastronomy. That was a turning point for me, going from cooking the food I’d been cooking, and then having him bring in a water bath where he was cooking fish at forty-five degrees. I stuck my finger in, and thought, “You’re not going to cook anything in that.” And then it cooks, and you think, “How is that possible?” And then using all of these patterns to emulsify the sauces and getting different textures, bringing liquid nitrogen into the kitchen, and the way the food was presented was so abstract compared to what I’d seen in the books. It was fascinating. Then, they put me in the lab and I was meeting food scientists and testing different techniques; I immersed myself in it and thought, holy shit, there’s actually more to cooking than ‘medium rare’. There are all these techniques that nobody was using, and there’s so much to learn. I’ve engrossed my life in science, to the point where I’m giving lectures about it around the world.
So, what’s next for you?
I’ve got three restaurants here in Singapore, Tippling Club, Open Door Policy, and Ding Dong. Three very different styles of food. Modern gastronomy, Bistro style, and modern Southeast Asian. In January I’m opening up one more restaurant and then I’m done with Singapore. I recently bought three farms on the roofs of shopping centers, where, starting in January, we will be harvesting all of the herbs and produce for all of my restaurants. We’re growing lots of wacky herbs for Tippling Club, like salty fingers, Okinawan Spinach. In Dempsey, we’re building a massive terrace farm, but we’re putting a cafe in the middle of it. So it’s going to be like a farm to table kind of concept. We’re going to have a beehive, lawn bowls, a beautiful kids play area, so I imagine it being a family oriented destination on the weekends. Everything will be very rustic, we’re getting a really cool charcoal oven, but all of the greens will be grown by us. We’ll have a little stand where people can buy the vegetables from us as well as some local products made my people here in Singapore, sauces and things of that sort. That kind of culture doesn’t exist in Singapore, so I’ve been trying for seven years to get people on board with it, nobody has, so I’m doing it myself. Then, next year I’m opening Tippling Club in London, and then in 2016 I’m consulting three hotels in China, and the goal is within the next nine years to open a very small version of Tippling Club in Melbourne, and I’ll relocate back to Melbourne. That’s my ultimate goal, to move back to Australia.
A man with big dreams and an impressive resume, chef Ryan Clift has made waves in several countries and isn’t stopping any time soon. Hungry and inspired, Lauren and I thanked Ryan for sharing his story, and immediately went over to his other restaurant, Ding Dong, to devour a spectacular three course lunch and a cocktail made with elderflower, strawberry, and yuzu.
I felt as though I were dreaming.
38 Tanjong Pagar Road, Singapore 088461
Learn more about Ryan Clift