Kuala Lumpur's Kaiseki Chef
Kuala Lumpur-based Michelin-starred chef Jeff Ramsey on the inspiration behind his Japanese tapas—or "japas"—and how sushi changed his life. BY MARK LEAN.
Published on Jul 26, 2016
THE SON OF an American air force officer and a Hiroshima bomb survivor, chef Jeff Ramsey knows the many nuances of delicately navigating cultures. The finesse extends to Ramsey's innovative multicultural cuisine, which earned a Michelin star in 2008 at Tapas Molecular Bar in Tokyo's Mandarin Oriental. In Kuala Lumpur, he runs Babe, which opened last November 2015, and creates riffs on tapas-style dishes with Japanese accents.
Jeff Ramsey finesses fish. Courtesy of Babe.
After spending his childhood in Washington, D.C., at the age of 19 Ramsey became an apprentice to Masataka Kudo at Tako Grill in Kudo's hometown of Kuroishi, Japan. "He was my Mr. Miyagi and I was his Daniel-san," Ramsey recalls. In addition to teaching Ramsey the basics of Japanese cuisine, Kudo also gave him lessons in discipline, assigning tasks like building and painting a bamboo fence and Japanese water garden using five tonnes of bricks to adorn his house.
With its stories of passion and appreciation of nature, The French Laundry Cookbook, written by Michelin-starred chef Thomas Keller, motivated Ramsey to learn how to cook at a high level. His understanding of cuisine had extended only to sushi and Japanese food. The book, he says, brought about an awakening.
While Kudo taught Ramsey restraint and subtlety, Morou Ouattara, former The Next Iron Chef contestant, taught him to run with it at Signatures in Washington, D.C. "He helped me express my creativity in not just sushi, but by using the stove as well," Ramsey says. "We developed wild combinations of flavors together, even African sushi, inspired by his home continent."
Sea bream with rice puffs is a home run. Courtesy of Babe.
Ramsey's own roots in Japan are still his biggest source of inspiration. "I spent some time in 2014 at Miyamasou, run by chef Hisato Nakahigashi, which has a restaurant and an inn that sits at the top of a mountain an hour outside Kyoto," Ramsey says. "The experience was both formative and inspiring." A mountain spring runs just 100 meters away from the restaurant, and that fresh water is diverted into a small pond where carp are kept for sashimi. "This is most intimate connection between a restaurant and its surroundings that one can imagine," Ramsey says, "and my dream is to create my own version of this place one day."
At Babe, Ramsey is beginning to fulfill this vision, with a creative menu that is largely locally sourced. The Manga Crab, a tasty and surprising dish, is styled to look like a page ripped out of a Japanese comic book, depicting a crispy soft shell crab sliced by a samurai sword, made with a coriander sauce and turmeric aioli, all market fresh.
Ramsey's comic book-style Manga Crab. Courtesy of Babe.
Ramsey says that Kuala Lumpur's restaurant scene is finally finding its edge: "It's like being in at least three different countries at the same time." No wonder he feels perfectly at home.