The quote on Ryan Clift’s WhatsApp profile reads, “I need new enemies, the old ones have become my fans” — which pretty much sums up this rock-star chef and owner of the multiple-award-winning Tippling Club in the vibrant metropolis of Singapore. With his misleading “bad-boy” vibe, brilliantly creative madness, and appealing refusal to compromise, Clift is definitely the Wild Child of the international culinary ‘hood. The 40-year-old doesn’t actively promote the image, but he’s clever enough to flaunt it a little — and then carry it to absurd extremes with his own particular brands of humor and British politeness. At any rate, you never know what he’s going to do next.
“I need new enemies, the old ones have become my fans”
The charismatic hip-hop fan had an astonishingly early (and unexpectedly kitschy) start to his restaurant career: at age 13, he got a job washing dishes at Bel on the Green, a Michelin-starred restaurant in his hometown of Devizes in Wiltshire. After spending time under culinary luminaries like Marco-Pierre White, Peter Gordon, Emmanuel Renaut and Raymond Capaldi, Clift went “down under” in 1999 to become Shannon Bennett’s head chef at Vue de Monde, Australia’s much-celebrated number-one restaurant. From then on, Clift knew that he wanted to create his own unique style, a dream he fully realized when he opened Tippling Club in 2008. His restaurant has received countless awards already, and currently sits at number 31 on the list of Asia’s 50 best restaurants.
It’s not really a surprise, though, because Ryan Clift has taken the idea of food and cocktail pairings to a whole new level. He invents new flavor combinations and compositions, and then works with his head bartender to create cocktails so perfectly attuned to the dishes that they practically qualify as a religious experience. At any rate, the Tippling Club mastermind and his enormous creative potential set the culinary bar pretty high.
You might picture a kitchen rebel like Clift experimenting wildly in the Tippling Club test kitchen, zooming around like a fly on a sugar rush humming hip-hop tunes under his breath, with what’s left of his hair sticking out in every direction electric-socket style. You’d be wrong, though. Clift channels his creative genius with the meticulous care of a lab technician who makes up math puzzles to relax on the weekends. Clift’s “extremely simple” culinary philosophy is reflected in the Tippling Club’s logo: he creates a mind map for each new dish, with a single line in the center representing the focal ingredient and others extending off of it to represent ingredients that go with it, or culinary methods that would work for it.
“We analyze each new dish precisely, and if even one person on the team says they’ve seen something like it at a different restaurant or in a magazine, we chuck it and start over.”
Logical enough, right? And Clift’s aversion to all forms of imitation is so strong (“Copying someone else isn’t creative,” he says) that his team is not only allowed to weigh in on the new dishes, they’re required to: “We analyze each new dish precisely, and if even one person on the team says they’ve seen something like it at a different restaurant or in a magazine, we chuck it and start over.” The self-described “champion of originality and uniqueness” dislikes culinary trends as well; he outright hates the movement to copy noma, for example.
The Tippling Club master chef is only truly happy when he’s standing in his test kitchen, working on innovative projects. “It’s like my man-cave,” the 40-year-old smiles. “A place where I can play with all the newest great equipment.” Thanks to his ever-growing reputation, a variety of culinary-equipment companies keep him supplied with cutting-edge kitchen gimmickry to help him make his creative ideas a reality more easily. His culinary output is accordingly high:
every three months, Tippling Club rotates about 80 percent of its menu. That’s a lot of work, not least because Clift’s flagship restaurant offers a purely vegetarian menu as well as two “regular” menus, the Classic and the Gourmet. He also surprises his customers with a “snack cart” with a selection of nine or ten additional courses to choose from, along with seven or eight courses of “sweet treats” offered before the desserts.
All told, the Gourmet menu can include as many as 28 courses. When asked what his signature dish is, Clift just makes a face. “I don’t like the term ‘signature dish,'” he says. “If one dish is the star, it offends the others. My dishes are like my children. You can’t have just one favorite. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Exceptions prove the rule, though. A relatively basic creation comprised of poached scallops — or razor clams, depending on the season — in garlic soup with parsley crackers, fresh garlic and home-grown wild herbs has been on the menu for eight years now. Apparently, Papa Clift has a favorite child after all.
His culinary creations aren’t the only things that follow a precise mind map — the rest of Clift’s life is as regulated as an atomic clock, albeit one that’s running twice normal speed. Besides commuting back and forth between his home in Bali and Tippling Club in Singapore about once a month, Clift jets around the globe sharing his cooking philosophy with the foodie crowd at gastro-events like CHEFDAYS, Madrid Fusion, and Gastronomika in San Sebastián.
He also runs four other restaurants in addition to Tippling Club: Ding Dong, Open Farm Community, Open Door Policy, and Grow, which focuses on sustainability and local farming. To top it all off, he organizes pop-up restaurants all across Asia. Doesn’t this guy ever sleep? “No,” he grins. “People ask sometimes how I manage to be so creative, and I blame it on lack of sleep.”
Ryan Clift is also creative when it comes to new restaurant concepts. At the moment, he and his head bartender, Joe Schofield, are hammering out a kind of “new development” for Tippling Club. It’s a passion project for Clift, one he doesn’t want to reveal too much about yet. All he’ll say is that it will be opening in 2018 at several locations around the world, that it will be more “multi-sensory” than Tippling Club food- and drink-wise, and that each location will be more intimate than the original restaurant, with seating for ten in the restaurant and another 15 at the bar.
Revolutionaries like Ryan Clift are what keep the gastronomy scene alive. Good thing he’s already made sure he’ll have successors: first, the head chefs at his many restaurants are already graduates of the Clift school; and second, his two young sons have already shown a great deal of interest in kitchen life. “My older son could tell a white truffle from a black one when he was nine months old,” the proud father reveals with a wink. “He wrinkled his nose at the black one and smiled at the white one.” So Clift’s passing his legacy on in every sense of the world. Good!