Chef André Chiang is one of the most talked about chefs in the world: for being named Rising Chef of the Year in 2009; for his eponymous Restaurant André being listed as the Best Restaurant in Singapore and placed no.14 in World’s 50 Best Restaurant 2017; and few weeks ago, for the closure of said fine-dining establishment in February 2018. We chat to the Octaphilosopher at this year’s Hong Kong Wine & Dine Festival about his decision, his future plans, and what he’ll miss most about Restaurant André.
Words Iris Wong
1. Can you tell us about your involvement with Hong Kong’s Wine & Dine Festival this year?
This is only my third time in Hong Kong. I was really looking forward to this event. I also know Curtis [Duffy], Janice [Wong] and Maxime [Luvara] personally, so it was nice to catch up with chef friends. I didn’t know that the theme would be “memory”, and I thought, “that’s perfect!” since at Restaurant André we have a dish called Memory [warm foie gras jelly with black truffle coulis]. It’s a very special dish as we’ve been cooking it for the past 20 years. Everywhere I go, I bring this dish with me.
2. What do you think about the Hong Kong restaurant scene? Would you consider opening a restaurant in Hong Kong?
The Hong Kong dining scene is very fast[-paced]. Everything is very fast. It’s not something I’m used to, but it’s part of the culture. I’ve opened restaurants where I know what the place needs. I don’t open restaurants for the sake of opening one, or as extensions [of current restaurants]. I would need to study more about the city to see what it’s missing, so we can create something for that particular space or city. I guess I’ll have to know Hong Kong more to create something for Hong Kong.
3. What was the first dish you’ve ever cooked?
Ketchup fried rice. I think I was eight. At that time, I was in Taiwan. My mum was in Japan, and my father was working. I stayed at my grandparents’ house. Every day when I come back from school I had to cook for myself. I like fried rice, so I’d grab a stool and stand on the stool to reach the wok in the kitchen.
4. What is a dish/food item that reminds you of childhood?
Our house was at Shilin night market in Taipei and has been there for three generations. I grew up in the night market. I would eat along the street until I reach my house. So night market and street food are all part of my childhood.
5. Was there ever a defining moment when you thought you were going to become a chef?
I have older siblings – my brother is an actor and my sister is a designer. And my mum was a chef. When I realised my brother and sister won’t be taking over my mum’s business, I thought I could be the one to help her. So it’s been on my mind. But I like it. I feel comfortable in the kitchen, and thought I could give it a try, so I left Taiwan when I was 13, and that’s how everything started.
6. What is the most difficult thing about being a chef-owner? What is the best thing about it?
I think the most difficult thing for chef-owners is consistency, and the chef’s involvement at the restaurant. For the majority of restaurants, the chef-owner would be there for the first year, the first six months, but after that you don’t see them anymore. So the consistency is never there. To constantly evolve, on top of consistency, is also very difficult. Restaurant André is coming to its eighth year, since 2010. That’s something I insist on doing – that I need to be in the kitchen – since day one until today. I’m either in the kitchen or on the floor. There’s no other way to deliver consistency and commitment.
The best thing about being a chef-owner is to discover and nurture young talents. And when they’re ready to have their own platform, we support these young talents. You get to train them, and you can provide them with a good environment and a good platform for them to shine.
7. You’ve decided to close Restaurant André on February 14 next year. Was this a decision related to your Octaphilosophy? Eight elements, eight years of legacy, 2018 – are we reading too much into it?
Well, it’s not something planned. I grew up in an artist family, and I have always been very into pottery and sculpture since I was a kid. That was my first passion. When you’re creating a masterpiece, you start with a blank canvas, and you paint your vision onto the canvas. There will be a moment when you feel it’s complete. You don’t need any more strokes. You sign your name in the corner and it’s done. For me, every restaurant is like a canvas. When it’s done you don’t need to hold onto it.
8. What do you think you’ll miss most about Restaurant André?
Cooking with all my friends, inside of Restaurant André and outside of Restaurant André. Last year, we published the book Octaphilosophy. It documents everything we’ve created and served in our restaurant within one year. In 365 days, we created 186 dishes. It’s huge. We didn’t know we’d create so many dishes in that one year. Last year was my 40th birthday. My birthday wish was to publish a book, and to cook with my 21 friends around the world. So for my book tour I travelled to 21 countries in seven months to cook with my friends… all the top chefs around the world. I think that’s something I’d miss the most.
9. Restaurant André has always known to be difficult to book. How’s the waitlist looking at Restaurant André?
Normally our waitlist is about three months. After the announcement, the next day we got 7,000 requests, so the restaurant is already booked out till its closure.
10. What plans have you got for RAW?
I don’t really have plans yet. We’re just gonna continue doing what we do. RAW is created for Taiwan, and we want to highlight the culture and the cuisine, and the ingredients – everything about Taiwan. I guess what’s next would be to explore something deeper about Taiwan and travel around more.
11. One piece of advice for young aspiring chefs?
Be patient. Be kind. Take your time with everything you do. Everything is fast now. But knowing how to cook mashed potatoes and understanding potatoes are two different things.
12. If you were not a chef, what would you be?
I’d be back to my first passion and be a potter or make sculptures. At the upcoming event at RAW, we’re doing a special crossover dinner inspired by art. We’ve selected eight artists and created dishes inspired by their art pieces. I did one of those pieces myself. It’s a 150kg wood sculpture.
13. Where’s your favourite place to eat in Singapore? What about Taipei?
In Singapore, there’s a restaurant called Hachi. A Japanese restaurant, very casual, but I think it’s one of the best. No one has talked about, and I hope no one talks about it so I don’t have to wait! I go every week.
In Taipei? Gotta go to RAW! [laughs] And Lin Dong Fang for beef noodles.
14. What’s next for you?
I simply want to go home. I left Taiwan when I was 13, and I’ve spent almost 30 years away from Taiwan. I want to first understand my homeland, my own culture, and what I can do. Something in the pipeline is to meet all the top master chefs of different Chinese cuisines – Shanghai, Yunnan, Chengdu… I want to have a big dialogue about the essence of each cuisine. Not going to make it an event, but purely to exchange, and learn something that I don’t know.
15. What keeps you going?
Creativity. I enjoy finding better solutions to everything in life. That’s what creativity is about – finding solutions. It’s nothing abstract. If I cook the same thing, I want to find solutions to bring out the best [in a dish]; if I’m on the floor, I’d look for ways to do table arrangement better, and to make guests happy.