Food & Drink
Saturday, 16 October 2010 06:55
Hilary Ambrose’s "apprenticeship" – in his grandmother, Ernie George’s baker shop and his Aunt Eva’s kitchen – is serving him well in some of the world’s toughest culinary markets. The young Antiguan, at only 26, is executive chef at Avalon, one of the trendiest new eateries in China.
It’s a long way from Cedar Grove, Antigua – where he grew up after his birth in the US – to Shanghai, China. But Chef Ambrose credits his success so far to “hard work, determination, and (being) willing NOT to be patient.”
Clearly, he’s someone who believes in being aggressive about going after what he wants. But the fact that he’s not an adherent to the slow-and-steady philosophy doesn’t mean that he’s into cutting corners, nor does it mean that he’s let his early success go to his head. “To my standards, I haven’t achieved much yet,” the young chef said. “But where I’m at now took a lot of hard word. You just have to be good at what you do. Being here has nothing to do with my age. I just really love what I do.”
In fact, he talks about cooking the way a rock star might talk about standing in the spotlight and captivating an audience. “It’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “You have this stage to entertain someone, make them happy, and make them smile.”
As noted, that love was nurtured early, and Ambrose talks fondly of what he learned from his mother, grandmother, and aunt, as well as the men in his life; such as “my father’s mysterious ‘thyme omelet’, which at the time was amazing but I totally have a much better one now!”
His story is a fitting reminder, as well, that every youth is not destined to take the same path to glory. “I wasn’t the best person at school,” Ambrose admitted, noting that he had his bouts with distractions and delinquency, “so I was very fortunate to just one day wake up and realise what I was good at.” Once he did, he said, “I just ran with that and never looked back.”
His time at Carlisle Bay, where he started out as a trainee cook and worked his way up to commie, was pivotal. “People like Chef Clyde ‘Bishop’, Chef Dezzy, Chef Mathew, Chef Leroy, and my home boy Gregory… those guys really pushed me, kept my head on straight… schooled me to the game,” he recalled. He was full of praise for the hotel’s trainee programme in which he was the only male among five participants at the time.
He later worked at Jean Georges Spice Market in New York, where he said he started as a regular sauté cook, working his way up to chef de partie of his station. Not one for false modesty, Ambrose boasted that they were the best at what they did in NYC. “(We had the) busiest kitchen and I was running the toughest station, which really made me think I was unstoppable,” he said, adding this dose of reality, “I know now, from my disappointments, everyone can be stopped at some point.”
But whatever disappointments he’s had along the way, he’s also managed to land cooking assignments with Chef David Bouley in New York, also in kitchens in the Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, Macau, Ohio, and, as of 2010, Avalon Wood Grill and Wine Bar in Shanghai as the star attraction. The Avalon advertising features him and, in particular, his innovative techniques in the area of sous-vide – molecular gastronomy. “It’s basically cooking with science,” Ambrose explained, “…the use of scientific principles and practices in cooking and food preparation… taking power and making vapour or cooking tough meats for 48 hours until it’s a perfect medium rare.”
Ambrose is also a fan of the "nose to tail" eating philosophy, a very Caribbean way of looking at food, with every part of the animal finding its way onto the plate. “For us, it’s the butchering of pigs, goats, and chickens in my back yard… we grow up on that stuff,” he remarked, “brains cake (cow or pig brains), rice pudding (intestines). So, to cook with innards is nothing new to me.”
Avalon is reportedly making its name on its uniqueness and adventurousness. “Almost everyone is new to what I’m cooking and how I’m cooking it, which excites them and also excites me as well,” the young chef said, noting that they are "breaking down doors for others to follow.”
Does he have a cooking philosophy of his own, we wondered, a question that gave him a chuckle. In the end, he said, it continues to evolve from the days at home when he was just trying not to mess up too badly, to his NYC days when his sous chef told him “you need to be the best food and…” well, something else we can’t print but which like his love of cooking suggests something of a rock star approach to the culinary arts.
These days, he said, “I always tell my cooks one thing: treat every customer like it’s your last customer ever. Treat them like you will never get another chance to make them say how good the food is.”
This attitude he attributes to the Caribbean in him; “I approach food with love and a passion to make it taste good. Can’t get any better than that, si or no si?”