Jeff Ramsey | RobbReport Malaysia

Jeff Ramsey

The importance of being earnest and playful

Nowhere in Kuala Lumpur is there a restaurant more serious about having fun than at Babe, at Work@Clearwater in Damansara Heights. Under Chef Jeff Ramsey’s creative direction, Babe’s signature ‘Japas’, or modern Japanese tapas, have been entertaining waves of curious Malaysian gourmands, all of whom have eagerly cavorted through his playground. His cooking is as much a feat of discipline as it is of imagination – the Japanese-American chef won a Michelin star while at the helm of the much-feted Tapas Molecular Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Tokyo. With that achievement firmly in hand, Chef Ramsey continues to dream up edible marvels such as wagyu puffs, reinterpreted onde-onde kuih, and ‘Mick Jagger’ buns with black karaage.

On creativity in the kitchen
Ironically, I need structure in my kitchen to be creative. It’s only with a starting point as a frame of reference that I can begin to stretch boundaries, which I very much enjoy doing. I’m very focused on developing a ‘kitchen culture’ at Babe that’s egalitarian and gives each team member the freedom to explore new ways of expressing themselves through food. Everyone in my kitchen is called ‘chef’, across all rankings, because every position is earned and should be recognised.

On teamwork
Teamwork is key in a good kitchen. I’d rather coach my team than dictate how to do things – they are driving their own careers, and I’m here to help empower them by providing the resources and a support system. You’ll see and feel this sense of passion, pride, and ownership in Babe’s food.

On his Japas
‘Japas’ is my personality on a plate. I’ve applied everything I’ve learnt up until now to Babe’s concept, from my Japanese background to working with the Spanish chef José Andrés of elBulli, as well as falling head over heels for the izakaya way of eating.

On being in Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur is exciting to me because I feel the time is right to introduce a new way of food appreciation. With my experience, knowledge, and exposure, I hope to introduce Malaysia to a higher level of heartfelt service, a new quality of produce, and an approachable, inclusive dining experience.

My former playgrounds – Chicago and Tokyo – are amazing, inspiring food cities. Chicago is extremely underrated: the only outlet that creative types have in this Midwestern, blue-collar city is through the F&B industry, be it a hipster coffee shop or a high-end steakhouse. Food is a way for them to express themselves. The Japanese are perfectionists and have such a genuine commitment to providing incredible service. Whether it’s a little izakaya or a hotel restaurant, you get the best service all the time. They present you with something using both hands – small heartfelt gestures like that make all the difference.

On the Michelin Star
When I earned my first Michelin star, I was extremely thrilled. At the time, I was a young chef shooting for the stars. It was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life.

On the ultimate ingredient
The most decadent ingredient I’ve ever handled has been white bamboo shoots from Miyamaso, which is outside of Kyoto. It’s known as the original foraging restaurant – they’ve been doing the ‘farm to fork’ concept for the past 45 years, way before Noma. I worked there for one surreal week, and they would harvest these shoots, which had never seen sunlight, then roast them in a fire pit while they were still encased in a thick layer of soil. These were the most tender, super-sweet and succulent morsels of white bamboo.

On his idols
If I could cook with any chef in history, I’d join Kitaōji Rosanjin’s kitchen. He was Japan’s own Renaissance man, who had many talents and passions – besides ceramics, calligraphy, and art, he was also a restaurateur. Rosanjin was supposed to be designated as a Living National Treasure by the Japanese government, but declined the honour – that’s as real as it gets.

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Published April 30, 2016