Born and raised in Leicestershire, England, Rikku Ó’Donnchü lands in Lancaster, Pennsylvania by way of Cape Town, South Africa where his acclaimed concept EXHIBIT A ultimately became a pandemic casualty. Musing the excellence of his mentors including Marco Pierre White, Ó’Donnchü, too is going above and beyond in the culinary field by not only running a 95% waste-free kitchen (and 0% waste bar), he creates truly one-of-a-kind dishes that are not only delicious, but are utterly thought-provoking as well.
Seeking to bring his whimsical and worldly cuisine back to the U.S., Ó’Donnchü landed in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County in June 2021. Ó’Donnchü served as the re-opening executive chef at the AAA Four Diamond, Two Glass ‘Best of Excellence’ from Wine Spectator award-winning Amorette on North Prince Street. With Ó’Donnchü at the helm, Amorette brings world-class, whimsical and immersive epicurean experiences to Lancaster, a centrally located destination to watch in the Mid Atlantic.
We caught up with the creative chef to learn all about his unique cooking style, signature dishes and why beetroot is his number one ingredient.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, including where you are today, professionally, and what got you here?
Today, I am the executive chef of Amorette in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. However, I was born in Leicestershire, England and grew up in the small town of Chilwell in Nottinghamshire. I got my start in the industry at Nottingham’s exemplary Hart’s Hotel and Kitchen, but really began my journey and growth working my way through the Michelin-awarded kitchens of Europe. I found myself working for the ‘Godfather of Modern Cookery,’ Marco Pierre White, in 2007 and staged at The French Laundry and The Fat Duck. These experiences locked in my culinary destiny and helped me realise that cooking isn’t just about making a beautiful plate, rather, food can be whimsical and full of hidden messages.
After travelling from Europe to New Zealand, Asia, the U.S. and Scandinavia, I returned to the UK in 2012 to found Merchants, where I was able to showcase some of the science and creativity I’d learned along the way, later recognised by Michelin, AAA and featured on the cover of the inaugural Great British Cook Book. In 2016, I was featured on MasterChef: The Professionals.
Following the competition, I moved to Cape Town, South Africa with the goal of opening a world-class dining experience on a world-class wine farm. After a year of developing, training and inextricable hard work, GÅTE on the Quoin Rock wine estate was born. Next came the opening of EXHIBIT A in 2019 with one of South Africa’s best modern fine dining chefs, chef Warwick King. Soon after the opening, the pandemic hit and EXHIBIT A shuttered and brought me to Amorette.
What or who inspired you to become a chef?
I think working in kitchens since my early teens just led me in this direction. It was definitely always the restaurant’s modernist cuisine that I strived to end up in.
Who has been your biggest influence to get you to where you are today?
The Adrià brothers of El Bulli, Heston Blumenthal and René Redzepi. Four completely inspiring individuals I grew up in awe of.
What’s your signature dish?
The bread-and-butter course, which is a really playful dish that looks like an actual cigar and ashtray. In reality it is black garlic, onion, onion seed and wheat featuring an ‘ashtray’ served to guests in a plume of smoke which is filled with ‘ash’ that turns out to be a powdered butter, which you intuitively dip your cigar-shaped breadstick into for the most mind-blowing bread course. It certainly doesn’t look like bread and butter put it that way, but it’s deep, intense, and visually provoking.
But ‘Levitate’ is a new signature… we literally levitate food, right in front of you. Yep, I said levitate.
What are the most important considerations when crafting your menu?
Waste nothing! Or as little as possible. We have to be conscious of the planet and give back some love.
We use the ‘waste’ products to make some amazing things to complete our dishes. You just have to be creative and put in the extra effort to make sure you’re not throwing away too much stuff. We’ve become obsessed with the idea of the ‘best bit’ – who decides what the best bit is? It’s time to change our outlook on food and how we consume, what we consume, once and for all.
Do your personal preferences influence the menu at all?
Yes, of course! But I’ll eat pretty much anything, and I mean anything. I prefer my menus to be vegetable and fish heavy. I only use one or two meats at a time if I can help it, as we take into account that we can’t waste anything, so pick the right protein!
How would you describe your cooking style?
Avant-garde, whimsical and immersive. It presents itself as a multi-sensory puzzle that can only be solved by following the white rabbit down the hole. But at the same time, bloody tasty! Flavour first, every time.
Do you have a favourite time of year or set of ingredients that you look forward to working with?
Autumn is my favourite season because some amazing game poultry is available, there’s a great selection of vegetables, things like soybeans, fantastic fish like mullet, swordfish and Bass are available. Plus, fungi, the best natural protein autumn brings about the colours of everything – browns, yellows, dark greens, golds, whites, oranges and even black!
What is your favourite ingredient to create with?
Beetroot. I’ll make you a ten-course meal out of it. Dessert included!
What would you be doing if you weren’t a chef?
Actor and musician.
What is your favourite dish to cook at home?
A good ‘ol chicken roast dinner!
When are you happiest?
When I can concentrate on a job and have time to do it well, while having enough time to spend with my family.
What is your favourite piece of kitchen equipment?
Thermomix every time. That good, you should have one at home.
When you’re not in the kitchen where can you be found?
At a gig/concert, near/in water, or eating out somewhere.
What’s your favourite takeaway or comfort food?
Curry! Japanese, Indian, South African (especially my wife Megan’s) – any curry! I love it. I can eat that kind of cuisine every day and not get enough of it.
Where is your favourite place to dine?
Like ever? In the world? That’s a really difficult question! Tickets, Diver XO, home?! Actually, Memsaab in Nottingham city centre in the UK. It’s a contemporary Indian restaurant, outstanding food, beautiful presentation, and great service.
What do you think is the most over-hyped food trend?
I’m not sure good food can be overhyped, but I’m not a fan of quinoa and raw kale in every dish. No thanks, sir!
What do your future plans entail?
Bring Michelin to Pennsylvania, of course! Ha! Look, they’ve got to notice what’s going on here, right? Fingers crossed.
How have the lockdown restrictions affected your work?
The pandemic has deeply impacted the industry as a whole, and it unfortunately claimed one of my projects. Prior to making my way to the U.S., I had a restaurant in Cape Town, South Africa – EXHIBIT A, which opened in 2019 with one of South Africa’s best modern fine dining chefs, chef Warwick King. The flashy, new concept became an overnight sensation and was featured in The Wall Street Journal’s Best Restaurants of South Africa for 2019. Shortly thereafter, the pandemic hit, and EXHIBIT A was ultimately forced to close.
What differences do you find working with local produce as opposed to non-local produce in terms of what you can create and flavour?
Absolutely no difference between the two in my opinion. It’s about being creative, so be creative. Don’t pick easy and obvious stuff, use foraged wild plants, fruits and mushrooms. Then build your menu around that.
How do you go about menu planning? What’s the process from picking the ingredients to getting them fresh into the kitchen and into dishes?
I look at what’s good and available locally, then see how I can celebrate them, turn them into something otherworldly in taste and presentation.
How would you describe the food you create at Amorette to someone who’s never experienced your kind of food?
A meal at Amorette, is an immersive and sensory journey. My menus boast an ever-evolving array of plates that are whimsical in nature and feature hidden messages behind every dish. I think we set out to create a transportive dining experience that transcends guests far beyond the boundaries of Lancaster County, sending them orbiting around an alternate culinary universe and returning them mind-blown, satiated and questioning the experience of dining as they knew it. Sounds crazy right? Ha ha.
What’s your favourite flavour combination?
Well, I do love duck, feta, mint and pear. I absolutely adore it. But, I think torched scallop, miso, foie gras and roasted corn ice cream with pickled kumquat, chive flowers and cilantro oil is a new dish I created and fell in love with. It’s definitely in my set of ‘signature’ dishes.
Address: 401 North Prince Street, Lancaster, PA 17603
Tel: 717 947 7710
Photography courtesy of Amorette