More than a decade helming one of Singapore’s best fine-dining restaurants has not mellowed Ryan Clift.
The Chef-Owner of Tippling Club has more tattoos than when he first started in 2008. He still curses in every other sentence, and his cooking has gotten even more brazen.
But the progressive restaurant on Tanjong Pagar Road is not grandiose. Instead, it has evolved to become more refined. There is now only one degustation menu for lunch and dinner. Dishes no longer brag about their science-y techniques, even though they’re there. The flavours are now lighter, more focused, seasonal, and sublimely elegant.
Despite its progress, Tippling Club has strangely has been ignored by the prestigious Michelin Guide for the past 14 years. Their cocktail programme continues to be highly rated by Asia’s 50 Best Bars, but the last time the restaurant made it to the list’s regional food ranking was in 2017.
And it’s Bibendum’s missing plaque that continues to rankle Clift, as we find out when we spoke with him and Head Chef Ayo Adeyemi on how the restaurant has grown up, the need for work-life balance, and why 50 Best is not all that.
How has Tippling Club changed over the years?
Ryan Clift: I think Tipping Club has grown up a little bit more over the years. Now it’s really chef (Ayo) and me working together to come up with new stuff. Two minds are better than one, right? Also, I think just a change towards more seasonality than before. We are in Singapore, I got a little bit snowblind here at first, like, there’s no season here. So your brain dies a little bit as a chef. You can use all these beautiful winter vegetables, but are you going to serve it with a braised, stewed piece of meat? Not in this climate. Now it’s really trying to work with those seasonal items a bit more. Fuck it, let’s make a hearty dish. Let’s make something that tastes good. Because it gives satisfaction at the end of the day.
Ayo Adeyemi: And the general feedback from our regulars is that the menus are a lot lighter and a lot cleaner. We stay away from things like heavy jus and focus more on like lighter dashi and infusions.
RC: We don’t use a lot of butter. We don’t use a lot of gluten. We don’t use a lot of dairy. We’re using modified starches and stabilisers and oil. We’re thickening things using sound waves, as opposed to heavy dressings. So our food has become this very clean, pure flavour product that I’m quite happy about that.
What was it like during Covid?
RC: The first week (of the Circuit Breaker), I wanted to fucking hang myself. I only have one partner, and all the money we make goes back into the business. There’s very little profit margin in this kind of restaurant. But we just put our heads down and rattled on. No excuses. Every day is a new idea. We changed our delivery menu every week. We were doing cocktail masterclasses. Every week we did an online cooking masterclass. As the word spread, we were busier and busier. But all that work to make 30 percent of the revenue we normally make in a month.
RC: It was challenging, but it was fucking character-building. We actually tapped on a new database of customers that didn’t know about us until then. They came through purely because of they’re liked during those events. So Covid, in a way, helped a lot of businesses, the ones that were smart and thought out the box. It also killed a lot of businesses, even the ones you think would be successful, because they just didn’t have the drive, the wit, or the humour to change it up a bit.
You mentioned earlier that the restaurant has grown up. Does that apply to your cooking as well?
RC: I’ve been labelled molecular (gastronomy) since I opened but I got sick of it, to be honest. Nobody ever labelled my food (at Vue de Monde in Melbourne) molecular. And it was the most famous restaurant in Australia for 10 years. I came here cooking exactly the same food and I got labelled molecular. So, I think I’ve grown up in the sense that nobody thinks I’m molecular anymore, which is great. But the food is evolved to a degree that it’s gotten…honest?
AA: Simple, honest, but not that simple because there is still a lot of technique in there.
RC: Yeah, the technique now is really hidden to the guest. It’s four words on a dish. It leaves you not knowing what you’re getting. It’s always pretty much been like that, but now we don’t use words like rotary evaporator centrifuge, all this bullshit, right? That fluff. Now it’s about the product. It’s about the ingredients, and how we accentuate them is hidden behind the scenes. We choose to use a lot more Japanese produce purely because it’s closer. Less carbon footprint. It’s also better than anything you will ever get from Europe. And I hate to say that as a European, but just the quality, the attention to detail, and the fact that in Japan, 99 percent of everything is biodynamic or organic, to some degree. So it’s better for the environment, the foods are produced by individual people, not the mass companies, and we can have a bit more of that farm-to-table feel in Singapore.
If not molecular gastronomy, what term do you prefer?
RC: …modern gastro, yeah. And I think in the last year, it’s the best we’ve ever done. We’ve had a few guests come in and say, ‘Oh, it’s not as fun as it used to be.’ But everybody has to grow up eventually. And my business, compared to what it was before, is better. We have a year-and-a-half’s lease left on this building, I should start looking for a new spot. But I think I’d like to redo it one more time. There are things we want to do with the kitchen. I want to give (Tippling Club Head Bartender) Andy a bar he wants, and I want to him to design it. I want to make the bar bigger, because right now we are turning away people at the bar every night. And possibly separate the restaurant and the bar further to go even more fine dining in the restaurant and still keep the bar casual.
Richard Ekkebus is out the top 20. While some fucking chicken noodle soup joint in Bangkok is higher.
Your bar has been getting quite a lot of recognition, particularly on the Asia’s 50 best list. But the restaurant has not been awarded a Michelin star since it opened. The last time it was on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants was in 2017. How do you feel about that?
RC: Look, 50 Best is a list that is has always been a little controversial in terms of how it’s run and how it’s organised. I believe that they jump from shop and shop. Whatever suits them to get more money from investors or whatever market is good. You look at this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants; personally, it’s a fucking joke, man. Like Richard Ekkebus (of Amber in Hong Kong) is out the top 20 for the first time in 10 years. He’s number 83. While some fucking chicken noodle soup joint in Bangkok is higher. And then the amount of restaurants from Japan that are on the list; who the fuck has been there? You couldn’t travel to Japan. But oh, they still made a list because (50 Best owner) William Reed wants to make fucking money and get paid. Then there’s certain restaurants that aren’t even in the fucking list that you like, ‘How is that even fucking possible?’ And you compare that to some little joint that’s making, I don’t know, sour salad? So I’m glad Michelin came to Singapore and to Asia to say fuck you.
RC: Why don’t we have a star? I have no idea! It’s become quite personal. Our guests believe we deserve it. My peers believe it. I want Michelin. I fucking worked my life for this. I remember in 2009 somebody said Michelin was coming to Singapore. I was so fucking excited, I knuckled down, new place, new uniforms – I went fucking mad! And then [the award] never came. I was so disappointed. Not that I gave up. Each year we get better, the food gets better. So why hasn’t Michelin awarded us? I’d love them to tell me so we can work on it. But also, I’m not the kind of person to email them and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’
Ryan, you said in a Channel News Asia story that you stopped drinking late 2020s because alcohol was preventing you from having drive and creativity. Do you still feel this way?
RC: Yeah. I needed to get off it for a while. I did for nine months. Then I worked out a way to manage it. Now I’m drinking again, but nothing like I used to.
How do you both find balance today?
AA: Personally, fitness was a real big drive. I’m very active in terms of my sports outside of work. I do amateur boxing and other activities as well. And I find that an even balance. I let all that steam out before I come in to work.
RC: So he doesn’t punch me!
AA: All that stuff! Even for us now, to touch back on how we adjusted during Covid, it kind of benefitted us in terms of working hours and lifestyle for the team. We’re not here 100 hours, 120 hours, like back in the day. The guys have a really good work-life balance here.
RC: That’s what we’ve discovered. The importance of having healthy staff, really pushing them to get out early, forcing them to start later. We went to a four-and-a-half-day workweek. We didn’t sign up to be here till three o’clock in the morning, and that’s what it used to be. And then you have those issues of drinking more, and going out after because of the job. I could feel the adrenaline go through, especially after a busy service. I’m jacked, like I need a downer! So for me, when I stopped drinking, I discovered stand-up paddle boarding. And that changed my life. I fucking love it.
Does the pressure to keep Tippling Club performing come from external forces, or is it self-imposed?
AA: Sometimes you want to push and strive to be better every day. And touching back on Michelin and all these accolades, as a chef, you certainly need a little bit of self-doubt for like, a week. ‘Am I good enough to deliver?’ But when we get great feedback from the guests, then we know, ‘Yeah, we are doing really, really great.’
RC: But also like the international people that come through. So many big fucking names, and I look up to these people. They’re coming in as paying guests, and they’re raving about it. They’re not doing it to blow smoke up our arses. They’re saying, ‘You should be doing this in Europe.’ Well, we’re here. We chose to do it here. So we’re gonna stay here. This is the 14th year. Long fucking time.
Tippling Club is located at 38 Tg Pagar Rd, Singapore 088461. Book here.