Andre Chiang: Appetite for Style and Creativity
“Is there a story behind that?” Andre Chiang takes a gander at the long scar on his left arm and casually replies, “I was involved in a car accident when I was seventeen. It was five o’clock in the morning after a Karaoke session with a group of chefs – I was walking along the street and the car did not see me.” If Andre were in his typical Chef’s attire, the scar would have been carefully concealed, unbeknownst to me. Instead, he sports a navy blue t-shirt with an iconic Michelin Man logo and dark wash denim jeans. Andre divulges that the t-shirt was a gift and I joke how I wouldn’t be surprised if he has other colours in his closet. After all, he used to work under quite a number of Michelin-starred establishments back in Paris – a list so impressive, he could easily pass off as one of them.
Andre carries himself with an air of gravitas. He is soft-spoken yet poised and controlled. When I ask him how many stitches were required, he answers without flinching. “One hundred and twenty. I have a big arm so sixty inside, sixty outside.” My jaw almost drops but I recover swiftly with a one-word reply, “Wow.” He laughs warmly, and suddenly seems more approachable.
If you’ve ever seen Andre behind the kitchen, you know he is a man with an artistic flair for creating food that is visually captivating. Presentation matters, obviously. But underneath his Octaphilosophy lies extreme precision without a smattering of grandiosity. At his level, food just doesn’t taste good – it goes beyond that, with each mouthful – forcing you to reexamine preconceived notions of how eating for sustenance isn’t quite the same as the interplay between your five senses. That is why Andre isn’t just a chef. He reinvents ingredients without any smoke screens, making him a visionary with the sole purpose of delivering a gastronomical journey once you step foot into Restaurant André.
WY-LENE YAP: You were born in Taiwan. How did you land up in Singapore?
ANDRE CHIANG: I left Taiwan when I was 13 and stayed in Japan for 2 years. Thereafter, I moved to France and from the age of 15 to 31, I was based there. When I spent my 30th birthday in Paris, I knew that it was time to make a decision on how I should live my life and explore doing something different. As an Asian, I always felt that Asia was a missing part, having lived overseas for so long. I didn’t know much about Japan or Taiwan in terms of the (fine dining) scene and market. Singapore was a little different as I had prior experience: from 2003 to 2006, I was invited to be a guest chef at Raffles Hotel and they were always keen on some form of collaboration so that’s how everything got started.
WY-LENE: How did your love for food begin?
ANDRE: I grew up in a very artistic family: my mother is a chef; my father is a calligrapher, my older sister is a fashion designer and my brother is an actor. I wanted to go to Art school but my father wasn’t supportive because my brother and sister were already in Art school. Furthermore, artists were not known to make much money. So he told me to do something that could ‘feed myself’ and I took his advice literally. [laughs] My mum had a Chinese restaurant in Japan so I went there to learn from her.
WY-LENE: Why did you choose to specialise in French cuisine?
ANDRE: There were two main reasons. At that time, I had the impression that the best cuisines in the world were: Chinese, Japanese and French. I grew up eating Chinese food and I was already living in Japan – plus I had access to the best Chinese and Japanese cuisines. French cuisine, on the other hand, seemed so untouchable and far away from me. Hence, it made sense to go to France for 2 to 3 years and learn something different before coming back to help my mum. The second reason was because of Iron Chef– it was very big in Japan and everyone watched it. On the show, there was this chef called Sakai [Hiroyuki] who always won by cooking French cuisine. Although he did not receive any training in France, he incorporated the Japanese Kaiseki concept into French cuisine and that was the coolest thing. As an Asian, I always thought that I would only cook Chinese food and I could never do better than a European chef in terms of European food. But after watching Iron Chef, my perception changed altogether.
WY-LENE: What are some of the greatest lessons that you have learnt working under French chefs like Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse?
ANDRE: All of them have inspired me in a very different way. I worked under the Pourcel brothers for 9 years (at the age of 32, they were the youngest ever to receive 3 Michelin stars) and they don’t use ‘luxury’ ingredients. I learnt that you can cook a fantastic meal with humble ingredients like tomatoes, onions, etc. For Pierre Gagnaire, he is a real artist, who kept changing the dishes all the time. He would say, “Andre, let’s do this.” And a while later, he would walk back and say, “Let’s change it.” He’s seventy now, and he is still full of ideas. Every time he tells me he has an idea, it is the scariest thing. [laughs]
WY-LENE: He really knows how to keep you on your toes!
ANDRE: That’s exactly what I’m doing right now. We don’t have a fixed menu and it changes almost every day.
WY-LENE: How about Alain Ducasse?
ANDRE: He represents the history of French cuisine. He uses the best ingredients and produce and prepares it in the most perfect way possible. Normally, you only see that in books but not in real life and sometimes, I feel that it is not realistic.
WY-LENE: It’s a surreal experience.
ANDRE: Yes, it’s like watching a movie. After two and a half hours, you are back to reality.
WY-LENE: Was going to Seychelles a crucial period in your life where you rediscovered yourself?
ANDRE: Yes. I was there for close to 2 years. Since I arrived in France, I have been working for all the best chefs and I spent every single second producing the best dishes or the best meals. Being a sous chef, I didn’t have a moment to stop and think. I had to also anticipate what was on their minds. Up until a certain point, I was cooking an egg in Alain Ducasse’s style, but if it were left up to me, I would put ‘A, B, C’ not ‘C, D, E’ into the dish. In that moment, I realised that I needed to find my own identity by disconnecting from everything – in order to find out who Andre was and what my cuisine was all about.
WY-LENE: What kind of ingredients excites you?
ANDRE: Common ingredients like onions, carrots, and potatoes. Let’s use potatoes as an example – every cooking method has been used already but what else can I do? And that excites me.
WY-LENE: The challenge is to present a potato in a revolutionary and unexpected way.
ANDRE: Yes. Nowadays, diners won’t be surprised by a spoonful of caviar or 3 slices of truffle.
WY-LENE: Apart from saltiness, what else are you obsessed with?
WY-LENE: What about charcoal?
ANDRE: The smell. I use charcoal for everything. I feel that it is a flavour that humans cannot resist. Till today, there is no modern equipment or technique that can replace a real charcoal grill.
WY-LENE: Where does your culinary inspiration come from?
ANDRE: Everything. I do pottery and read fashion magazines. Sometimes, I use my phone to take a picture of a pattern from a leaf or the texture of felt and it’s like a snapshot – while you are taking a picture, you are also taking another picture in your brain. So when I am creating a dish, it will come back in different ways like a structure, line or even a colour contrast.
WY-LENE: It’s already in your subconscious mind.
ANDRE: That plays an important part for me. I stopped reading cookbooks as they influence you to cook in a certain way. When you think of smoked salmon, the next afterthought would be: a boiled egg, capers, onions and dill. Why not corn, vanilla and cucumber?
WY-LENE: Do you have a particular chef that you look up to?
ANDRE: It’s hard to name one because there are so many of them. Christian Puglisi of restaurant Relae in Copenhagen and Alexandre Gauthier of La Grenouillère. They are the real geniuses.
WY-LENE: Is the fine dining scene dead in Singapore?
ANDRE: No. Let’s put it this way – we tend to associate fine dining with luxury. The way that we define luxury is different today than it was before. To me, luxury is simplicity and pure. Fine dining has evolved in a different way and it is no longer a crystal chandelier, silver cutlery, or people wearing white gloves.
WY-LENE: Will you do a Reality TV show down the line? Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsey, Alvin Leung have jumped on that bandwagon.
ANDRE: I don’t think so. I am not good on TV.
WY-LENE: How about a cookbook?
ANDRE: Yes, I think I will write one. A cookbook is good way to share with people your philosophy and thoughts.
WY-LENE: What are the hallmarks of a good chef? Does he or she need an extraordinary palate?
ANDRE: Nowadays, being a chef is a very tough job. Not only do you need to be a cook, but you also have to be a scientist, farmer, and designer. Persistence is also necessary.
WY-LENE: Most memorable meal that you have eaten before?
ANDRE: Eleven Madison Park.
WY-LENE: What’s your comfort food?
ANDRE: Everything that you can cook in one pot, which includes starch, protein and vegetables. It can be fried rice, porridge or even a hot pot.
WY-LENE: When you hire sous chefs, what sort of test do you give them?
ANDRE: I don’t look at CVs. I talk to the person and see how they work. I construct a team in a very different way as compared to others. The person needs to have a good strong point and a bad point. You can’t be mediocre. For example, he can be super creative, yet very lazy. But more importantly, the person has to be a good fit for the team. We don’t have superstars here.
WY-LENE: How many people do you have in the kitchen?
WY-LENE: You have Burnt Ends, Raw and Porte 12—are you planning to open more restaurants?
ANDRE: Well, it comes naturally and I never think about having many restaurants. For me, space is very important. I don’t think about opening an Italian restaurant first and then start to look for a location. It always starts with a space. That is why we never have the same concept—each restaurant has its own DNA, cuisine and design. The magic will only happen when everything is right: the right people, food, concept and even what’s on the street will have an effect. You cannot put a square box into a round space.