Ramael Scully

Ramael Scully

Ramael Scully

Ramael Scully's vibrant dishes reflect his Malaysian roots, Australian upbringing and European training. After moving to London from Sydney in 2005, he struck up a culinary bond with Yotam Ottolenghi, shaping the brand's menus and heading up fine dining restaurant NOPI. In 2018, he opened his debut venture Scully St James's as a celebration of his colourful cooking.

While most chefs take inspiration from their heritage, there are probably few whose influences are as diverse as those of chef Ramael Scully. Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and brought up in Sydney, with a mother of Chinese and Indian descent and an Irish Balinese father, he has, in his own words, a ‘truly eclectic palette’. ‘I have been lucky,’ he smiles. ‘Mum had lived in the UK so when I was growing up she would cook Western-style food as well as Malay, and my aunties would cook Indian and Chinese.’ The family relocated to Sydney when Scully, as he is best-known, was a child, exposing him to the country’s vibrant culinary cultures. Though he always loved food, it wasn’t until his teenage years that he really started cooking (the original career plan was, he says, marine biology), preparing dinner for his sister while his mum, a nurse, was working, picking up kitchen porter shifts at an Italian restaurant and, at seventeen, starting catering college. ‘I started thinking ‘I could really do this’,’ he says. ‘I wanted to see the world and thought maybe it was the best way to do it.’

Scully says he owes a lot to Australia’s four-year apprenticeship system. By the time he was twnty-one, he was already firmly embedded in the industry; roles cooking aboard showboats in Sydney, at a casino restaurant, another at Fox Studios, a French-Asian fusion spot (where he turned his hand to baking and pastry) and the beachside Bathers Pavilion had exposed him to different team cultures, cuisines and dining styles. There were, he says, plenty of lessons learned along the way, some general (time management and the competitive nature of professional kitchens), and others more specific (the importance writing down recipe notes carefully and responding to head chefs quickly). ‘I was potty trained young,’ he laughs, ‘and was mature by the time I turned 21.’ With the foundations built, it was in his mid-twenties that Scully first started exploring the ingredients which would become pillars of his cooking style. ‘I had worked in the game for six years, but had never really worked with Asian flavours,’ he says. ‘I started thinking ‘if I did this with mum’s cooking that would really work’ or ‘if you used tamarind instead of this ingredient, it would be great’.’

In 2005, Scully packed his bags and moved to London, spending the first year finding his feet (and learning, he laughs, to never arrive in the capital ‘with empty pockets’) until he landed at job at Ottolenghi Upper Street. At the time, the Yotam Ottolenghi empire was in its early years, and Scully had little idea of how influential its growth would be on his career. A few days into the job, he had the opportunity to impress his new boss, serving him portobello mushrooms braised in white wine, and what Yotam has since described as the ‘crispiest pork belly to ever enter my mouth’, with a plum, rhubarb, chilli, ginger and star anise compote. Scully had made a good impression. Over the coming months, his style and beloved Asian flavours were increasingly blended with Ottolenghi's Middle Eastern taste, and it wasn’t long before the chef had become a crucial part of the business. Yotam, writing in The Guardian, once said: ‘In short, Scully showed us how to do ‘restaurant’, we taught him how to do ‘Ottolenghi’, and the result is this hybrid set of dishes that are now ‘Ottolenghi haute cuisine’.

Things were, it's fair to say, going smoothly for Scully, until a visa blunder saw him banned from the UK for two years and suddenly in need of a job. Biding his time until he could return, he took on a consultant chef position across six restaurants and three canteens in Russia's capital Moscow, before heading back to Australia to work with chefs including Peter Gilmore and Matthew Kemp. Back in London, meanwhile, Yotam was preparing to launch NOPI in Soho as the fine dining answer to Ottolenghi's café-style fare, and Scully says when the call came asking if he would head it up, it was an easy answer. In 2011, with a green light to enter the country, Scully landed back in London, detecting a shift in the city. ‘I noticed a change in London then,’ he says. ‘You could get ingredients like curry leaves more easily, and more Asian products were coming into stores. In around 2010 and 2011, London had started changing. Up to that point I always felt that somewhere like New York would start a trend and the rest would follow, but by that point London was starting trends.’

As head chef, Scully's blend of traditional training and creative flair created vibrant menus, earning the restaurant a glowing reputation and its cookbook (NOPI: The Cookbook) a James Beard award for Best International Cookbook. It was in 2016, while promoting the cookbook in America, that conversations around Scully spreading his wings and going it alone first began. Two years later, the chef bid a fond farewell to the Ottolenghi kitchen and took the helm at Scully St James's, his debut solo venture and a celebration of his diverse roots and informal yet refined style. Keen to both dramatically reduce food waste and make vegetables sing, fermentation, dehydration and pickling take centre-stage – jars of preserved lemons, dehydrated carrots and pickled cherries line the walls, while a room downstairs has effectively become a fermentation room, a focus inspired partly by his travels. ‘In Russia, before the winter comes the mothers will go to the market, buy vegetables and pickle or ferment them,’ he says, ‘to feed the family during winter.’

It's clear that, after cooking around the world since he was a teenager, Scully has settled into his culinary niche, and is decided on what he wants his cooking to achieve. 'I want to strip everything back,' he says. 'I want to do simpler, but yummy dishes. A lot of Michelin-starred chefs hate the word yummy, but what's wrong with it? It's good, delicious food. To me, opening my first restaurant at 37 was perfect. If I had opened it at thirty, I would have failed. After twenty-five years of cooking, two cookbooks, a James Beard award and working with – and still meeting – really great people in my career, I'm happy.'