How World Class Innovators Create the Unexpected
Chef Ryan Clift fuses:
- bar & restaurant, with world’s-first cocktail-entree pairings
- perfumes, beverages, & menus
- science, gourmet, & management
“A great choice for pre-dinner cocktail, and its perfume bottle is lovely, too. ‘How about a dinner cocktail to go with your entrée?”
“You choose — your pairings are always better than the wine pairings I get everywhere else.”
“Thank you. Will you have the cheesecake pills again tonight?”
“Absolutely! I love the pill bottle they come in, and I’d much rather have dessert than diet pills. :) ”
Although it sounds a bit odd, it’s a delicious experience in an artfully-crafted space with consciously-chosen art, music, and tableware. It’s all designed to delight the taste buds, nose, eyes, ears, hands, … and imagination.
What kind of a chef designs cocktails served in perfume bottles with a smell-stick menu? Or launches a fusion restaurant-bar with first-in-the-world cocktail-entrée pairings? Or offers dessert pills, made with cheesecake and a pill press?
One that started out as a 13-year-old dishwasher.
“I left school when I was 13. I wasn’t cut out for school life or discipline or authority. One afternoon, I saw a ‘Help Wanted’ sign and stepped into the back of a restaurant, just to earn some extra cash. I was only washing the dishes, but within 15 minutes, something clicked, and I loved it — the adrenaline, the screaming, the shouting. It was very aggressive — brutal — lots of slapping and punching from the senior staff, but somehow it fit. All of a sudden, there was structure and discipline in my life. Most people just walked out, but for me, the more crazy the kitchen was, the more it excited me. As a dishwasher, I was the lowest of the low in the kitchen, but every morning, I was excited to go to work.”
So off he went every morning — to the kitchen instead of school.
Within a couple of months, one of the staff quit, and the chef handed him an apron and jacket, telling him to start working in one of the sections. Ryan was stunned and would have been even more so had he known that it was a Michelin-star restaurant. One star in the Michelin rating system signifies “very good,” two stars “excellent cooking worthy of a detour,” and three stars, “exceptional cuisine worthy of a special journey.” His would be a very special journey, indeed.
Months later, two customers asked to see the kitchen staff who had plated the first course. Ryan reported to the table and had the shock of his life when found there his divorced parents who no longer spoke to each other. Back in the kitchen, the chef administered a swift kick to Ryan’s backside and informed him it was highly illegal for the restaurant to employ under-aged, truant staff.
Instead of firing him, however, the two of them returned to the table. The chef told Ryan’s parents he had talent, focus, drive, and passion, and should be allowed to pursue cooking as a career. Thankfully, they found that one-day-a-week culinary arts training would satisfy legal requirements for education.
The chef began to mentor Ryan and found him a school.
On the first day of class, 14-year-old Ryan (who had already been working for a year) joined a cohort of 18- to 23-year-olds who had never been in a professional kitchen. Ryan knew the name of every piece of equipment and had a surprizing grasp of procedures and techniques.
The instructor took Ryan into his office, found out where he was working, and said, “That’s a Michelin-star restaurant!” Ryan promptly replied, “What’s a Michelin star? I just wanted a job to earn some money.”
The instructor gave Ryan a series of tests, and he breezed through the first year’s curriculum in about 45 minutes. Tests continued, and Ryan was placed in the third year of the course.
His instructor got him a job in London at Claridge’s, an Escoffier restaurant, and after about a year, a young chef from France took over with his 25 staff — he had fired everyone but Ryan and another boy. Ryan worked with him for nearly two years and then moved on to one of the finest (and most volatile) chefs in the world.
Marco Pierre White, the youngest recipient of three Michelin stars (and Ryan’s new boss), has been called the first celebrity chef and the godfather of modern cooking. He trained future celebrity chefs, such as Gordon Ramsay, Shannon Bennett, Mario Batali, and Curtis Stone.
Life expectancy in Marco’s kitchen was 15 minutes to an hour. Staff were generally fired every half hour, with a queue of incoming staff out the kitchen’s back door. Ryan stayed 3 years.
“It was a psychotic place to work, but there was also camaraderie. At the end of the service you might be slapped, kicked, and screamed at, but then you’re in the pub at the end of the night having a beer together. Service is service, and what happens in service stays in service.”
Such work environments are common in “brigade” kitchens, a system that dates back to the late 19th century, when a French military chef named Auguste Escoffier brought the army into the kitchen. He organized his staff with military processes and new roles, such as chef de cuisine, sous chef, chefs de partie, and more. With natural ingredients and personally-judged cooking times, staff would work 20 years before being allowed to cook a critical item such as fish or meat. Ingredients and techniques were unique every time, and tempers ran hot.
Many years later, the gourmet kitchen would endure another invasion — this time, of scientists. Physicists and chemists joined forces with chefs to investigate the physical and chemical transformations that occurred in cooking and devise a modern style, dubbed in 1988 “molecular gastronomy” (a sub-discipline of food science). Also called experimental cuisine, culinary physics, modern cuisine, and modern gastronomy, new scientific and technical advances would lead the way to new creations and new methods.
One of modern gastronomy’s pioneers was Marc Veyrat, the first chef to earn 20/20 in the Gault-Millau guide (twice, actually) and considered by some to be the finest chef in the world. Ferran Adria celebritized the field, and Heston Brumenthal popularized some of its techniques, like liquid-nitrogen ice cream. However, Marc Veyrat had pioneered the methods decades earlier.
In 1996, Marc was running the most expensive restaurant in the world and personally introduced Ryan to a culinary revolution.
“It was a real turning point for me when Marc brought in a water bath where he was going to cook fish at 45°. I stuck my finger in, decided he’s never going to cook anything in that, but then he did. A light bulb went on. I thought, ‘Holy sh** — there’s more to cooking than medium rare.’ I started working in the lab, meeting food scientists, testing new techniques, and doing events with him around the world. It was incredible, and there was so much to learn.”
Ryan spent hours on end talking with people like Marc Veyrat and food scientist Harold McGee, asking what to read and how to learn more. He continually researched and learned from non-culinary fields, collected a massive array of cookbooks, ideas, contacts, insights, and experiences. Even today, he constantly scans and learns but doesn’t particularly like the Internet — it’s too easy.
In fact, throughout his career, Ryan worked well beyond the already-insane hours top kitchens required and volunteered to help out anywhere he could learn more and try out new techniques. He gave lectures on modern cuisine around the world and removed all possible errors and variability from his own cuisine. He no longer thickened sauces with butter, instead using hydrocolloid xanthan gum or guar gum — more stable and healthier. In his kitchen, an emulsified sauce can be boiled without splitting because of the way it’s stabilised. Soon, everything would become healthier and more stable.
Ryan moved to Australia and within 6 months became chef de cuisine at Vue de Monde, where he would remain for 8 years. It was his first time to run a complete restaurant operation, and he wanted complete control, to grow a healthy, new style and design new, stable operations. In the first year, the 3-chef restaurant was awarded 2 hats (an Australian Michelin-type rating system). In the second year, the growing 38-chef restaurant was awarded 3 hats. They maintained the hats all during his tenure and achieved the highest rating score in Australia (28.9/30).
Ryan developed the designs, the menus, and his own modern-cuisine style, taking ownership of everything. When a Singaporean customer (and new friend) at the chef’s table pointed out that he didn’t, in fact, own everything (he didn’t own the restaurant), the journey to real ownership began. She hired him as a consultant for one of her projects, paid him with a cheque worth 4 times his salary, and advised him to invest it in a restaurant of his own.
Ryan moved to Singapore, opened the Tippling Club, and began winning awards — 5 awards at the World Gourmet Series Awards of Excellence (including Restaurant of the Year and Bar of the Year), top-20 listing in The Miele Guide for Asia’s finest restaurants, and more.
“I would never treat my staff like that. My kitchen downstairs is basically silent. The guys play music all morning until 11.30. They can have as much fun as they want, but once service starts, service is everything. We have a counter in front of the kitchen — it’s the best seat in the house. People say it’s like watching theatre. Everything is organized, there’s no shouting or screaming, nobody’s running, and nobody’s breaking a sweat, because it’s all organized.”
Such organization also gives staff opportunities they wouldn’t have in a brigade kitchen:
“Everything is hundredth-of-a-gram precision. All our fish and meat are cooked in a water bath, so I no longer need a sous chef to cook for 20 years before he’s allowed to cook fish or meat. I’ve got an 18-year-old commis chef working downstairs in the sauce section, because it’s (for example) 57 degrees for exactly 12.5 minutes, remove from the bag, rest for exactly 3 min, sear at this temperature for 2 seconds, done, rested, served. You can’t mess it up.”
Although such a job sounds decidedly un-creative, precision performance enables Ryan and his staff to focus on creative design and people-development. In other words, downstream precision creates room for upstream creativity.
Ryan designs the dinner menu, and the lunch menu is a collaboration between him and the sous chef (he still uses the old brigade titles), with all staff encouraged to contribute creative ideas. He cares about his staff (all 39 of them) and offers them a chance to learn, create, and advance.
He generally takes a staff member with him each month to another country, cooking for someone or going to a congress or doing a science project. After two years of service, staff members receive a paid sabbatical overseas at a restaurant of their own choice (generally the best in the world at something), where they can learn for a month. Staff must define and maintain their own high personal standards, even when others in the industry drop theirs.
“In my last job as sous and head chef, there were limits to what I could achieve. Here, it’s the opposite. ‘No’ is not an answer — anything is possible. Here, you’re an artist. We’re told, ‘Be uniquely yourself — no limits.’ We explore, have fun, and enjoy what we do, and we work hard to create an experience for guests. We set a very high standard and always take pride in what we do. At service time, we’re totally on duty — total focus.”
- Ayo Adeyemi, Head Chef
Staff members work 4.5 days a week, always get a break in the afternoon, and days off are taken consecutively (most restaurants split the days). Instead of the brigade kitchen heads-down, “Oui, Chef,” Ryan creates a fun, collaborative atmosphere and believes happy teams create and perform better.
Staff members describe him as a good listener, trusting and trusted, happy, energetic, reliable, hands-on, strongly focused, always open to new ideas, highly observant, loud with a big personality, humorously sarcastic, and extremely hard-working, with a child-like sense of creativity & play that’s inspiring to see. He is empathic (emotionally, helpfully, and with understanding of other’s perspectives). Making others feel joyful gives him joy.
80% of the Tippling Club’s staff have been there since day 1 — nine years ago — an unheard-of tenure in the industry, especially in manpower-short Singapore.
When Ryan and his staff started the restaurant, they crafted new recipes by drawing them. That approach and process eventually became a new method (as well as their new logo):
“The chain of thought begins with a line. For example, fois gras becomes a line across the middle, and each line that comes down would be an ingredient. Based on my food knowledge, the first item I think of that works with fois gras is apple, and I’d write that down next to a line above the fois gras. Another one would be cherry, another would be cinnamon, I might include caramel, brioche, next one maybe grapes, and I can keep going as far as I want until I exhaust every ingredient I can think of or research. I don’t care if someone else on the internet has added carrot. I don’t think it works, so I won’t add carrot to my list. Once I’ve exhausted all my ingredients, I return to the first one, and the line that goes down is the chain of thought for that ingredient — this is the technique part. So, now, with apple, I can serve it fresh, dehydrated, turn it into a sorbet, I can make an essence, a granita, freeze-dry it — there might be 30 techniques. Then I’ll repeat for cherry and all the rest. Then we choose particular ingredients and techniques, based on what works well with the fois gras and works with what’s been chosen so far. We link up all the ingredient-technique combinations, and once that’s done (and only then), we begin to make the dish. I can tell one of the guys downstairs to freeze-dry an apple, another to make a distillation, another to make something else, and they all know how to do it. Within a day, we’ve made a dish, but we might take weeks to experiment with it, because we keep adding ingredients and techniques until we’ve got something we feel is amazing.”
Through years of collecting ingredients and combinations and techniques into his head, Ryan is lightning-quick to draft a tablet. It never occurs to him that certain combinations are odd or “don’t go together.”
“I don’t look at boundaries. I look at what I want to use. If I want to use this with that, I don’t care if it’s not been done and people don’t think it’ll work. You make it work. If it won’t, then I’ll try and try and try. I never take no as an answer. If it’s not working, then why isn’t it working? Does someone have an idea? You’ve got to keep trying something new instead of saying no.”
Each creation has a lifespan of only a few months in Ryan’s restaurant. (Staff stays, menus change.) He seeks to create the unique and the new, and if a young chef says he’s seen something similar, Ryan stops immediately and moves on.
For example, inspired by reading an old recipe from the court of King Rama V of Thailand, Ryan created a new version of charcoal candy (good for digestion and also for food poisoning). He loves psychology and surprise (such as the drink that changes color and taste as you drink), and has invited magicians to co-create new means of presentation.
“No-J,” a between-course palate cleanser served super-cold, is a jellified (and broken up) clarification of water with orange essential oils (made on-site), pulp, vitamin C powder, and hydrochloride. It tastes like “OJ” but looks like “No-J.”
Despite disorienting visuals like No-J, 90% of flavor comes through scent, and memories are often triggered by smell. Ryan’s scent-inspired concoctions include a cut-grass drink, marshmallow-campfire dessert (roasted on a table candle), and “Rain.” Petrichor is the fragrance produced by rain on soil after hot, dry weather, and the cocktail — served in an edible-clay vase — will include the restaurant’s own natural distillation bearing the fragrance (along with sugar and gin).
Ryan collaborates with the International Flavors & Fragrances, co-conceiving and testing new cocktail flavors in their lab and, in turn, providing natural substances for some of their projects, e.g. different varieties of pork stock with meats from Spain, France, etc., for their flavorists to try to replicate. Not only can fragrances and restaurant food emerge from the collaboration, but so can food and drinks that are pre-mixed and grocery shelf-stable — gourmet for everyman.
Now that Ryan has enough chefs in the restaurant kitchen, he spends most of his time in the test kitchen. He loves new challenges. Each natural ingredient is unique, every day is different, all his creations are novel, and he’s truly happy.
Ryan has 4 unique award-winning restaurants in Singapore: Tippling Club (modern gastronomy/avant-garde), Open Door Policy (bistro), Ding Dong (modern Southeast Asian), and Open Farm Community (rustic).
Frustrated throwing away spoiled produce imported from Europe, he bought three rooftop farms where he harvests herbs & produce. Open Farm Community is a fusion of farming, restaurant, and community — a place for people to gather and eat, play lawn bowling, learn how to grow their own food at home, and enjoy the farmer’s market, pop-up garden shops, culinary training, kid’s area, takeaway café, and (soon) chickens, quail, & beehives.
The restaurant menu changes daily, serving what’s ready to be picked. The 10-level charcoal oven where 10 different things can cook at 10 different temperatures is a first in Asia.
Ryan has opened another farm-to-table restaurant — Grow — in Bali, Indonesia, as well as a 120-guest rooftop bar overlooking the whole of Petitenget, Indonesia (and its sunsets). He’s taking over a 50-bedroom hotel, listed in Leading Hotels of the World. He’ll redesign the entire façade of the hotel and open a 50-seat cocktail bar and 90-seat restaurant, offering three meals a day to guests and the general public. He’s also setting up the accompanying farm so the restaurant can focus on healthy eating. Afterwards, he’s looking to open something further afield — in Amsterdam.
Oddly, although the brigade system didn’t bother Ryan, many other things do. A half-hour into his interview, he asked to be excused, moved the dried flowers to the far side of the room, and said, “Thank you — the smell of those things has been bothering me for a half an hour.” I couldn’t smell a thing.
“I get very finicky and upset about things. You know, the leg on that chair is not quite straight at the moment. I wonder why the bottom hasn’t been cleaned. I’m looking at things randomly, and I’m always picking up on stuff. I see dust on that chair, and it’s annoying me. I saw an orange when I walked upstairs earlier, and … yes, it’s still there. In the restaurant, I’ll walk in one day and see a flower that annoys me. If a chair’s not straight, I’ll have my staff go around the room with a ruler and make sure everything’s perfect on the table — every fork in the right position. It’s about perfection. And I’m the same at home.”
Open to smells, sights, and everything around him; open to new ideas, experiences, and people (even difficult ones); open to learning and crossing boundaries — Ryan encourages his staff to be open and creative, too. He’s open to trusting and relying on others. The only things he seems to be closed to are taking no for an answer, lowering his standards, and giving up.
He’s worked hard to become one of the world’s top chefs and still remembers to tell his staff to respect not only each other but also the boy washing the pots in the kitchen. Without him, no one else can cook — the system falls apart — and astounding careers have begun (well, one, anyway) with washing pots.
What have you begun, starting at the bottom?
What did you learn, and where is it leading?
Is it time wash another pot?
1. one who innovates across domains of industry, field, country, social class, etc.
◦ s radical innovator, interdisciplinary creator, T-shaped person, borderless freethinker, boundary-crossing integrator, oddball;
Chef Ryan Clift is one of the world’s finest chefs and owner of the Tippling Club, Open door policy, Ding dong, Open Farm Community, Grow, and Ryan Clift productions. He’s “from” Australia, Greece, Indonesia, Singapore, and the UK (lived 6 months+, countries listed in alphabetical order). For more information on his work, see: LinkedIn and Tippling Club.
I thank the participants in this study (Fusioneers and Friends) for your insights, sharing, help, and patience. You inspire me, and I am honoured to know you. Special thanks go to Gladys Lee for her marketing excellence and video- and podcast-production brilliance, as well as the host of creative professionals involved in producing the videos and podcasts (you’re all listed on YouTube, iTunes, etc.). I extend a warm thanks to Fusion Research Assistant Dr. Lee Poh Chin for her continually-wise and dedicated contribution to this research, as well as i2i Executive Shareff Uthuman for managing the rats-nest of global research travel and budgets. I thank Nitish Jain and the S P Jain School of Global Management for supporting this research — you’re the foundation that enables the whole project. You are all God-sends. It takes a village to write a paper.
Photo/video cuts courtesy of Chef Ryan Clift, Depositphotos, and our own creative team
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