Photos by Edmond Ho
The last time I saw chef Andre Chiang was during the 2017 Michelin Guide dinner, held to announce the restaurants that made this year’s list. He didn’t look too pleased and an acquaintance told me it was because he was gunning for three stars this year. Instead, his eponymous restaurant had to make do with two stars for the second year in a row.
For any other esteemed chef, retaining their reputation and their stars would be a momentous achievement. After interviewing chef Andre, I began to think that my acquaintance’s words might hold some weight.
The head chef of Restaurant André will be returning to Australia after a hiatus of five years to showcase his skills at the Margaret River Gourmet Escape 2017, alongside other local talents including the award-winning mixologist Vijay Mudaliar behind Native bar. So we decided to pick chef Andre’s thoughts over email and gained more in-depth insights into the man who is arguably Singapore’s best chef.
From his thoughts about the current state of the food industry to the best dish he’s ever eaten, chef Andre takes no prisoners.
How did this partnership with Margaret River Gourmet Escape come about?
In fact, I get invited by Margaret River Gourmet Escape (16 to 19 November) every year but because of schedule, I couldn’t make it. But this time round, they invited me very much in advance and persuaded me to join them! I think it was eight months in advance, so we cleared our schedule for this event.
This is the second time I’m going – I was invited for the first festival in 2012.
How would you say you have changed in the past five years?
Oh wow! I guess for us there have definitely been a lot of changes. First of all, Restaurant André moved up from number 39 to 14 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurant in the past four years.
Our cuisine has definitely evolved a lot. Within the past four years, we have come across a lot of great produce from Australia so the understanding of Australian ingredients has grown. We have more knowledge about which are the best Australian ingredients we can use and apply at Restaurant André.
What can we expect from your dinners and appearances at the Margaret River event?
It will be something totally new for people who already know Andre’s cuisine or have already been to Restaurant André or are familiar with Western Australian ingredients. It will be a debut of a new creation only for Margaret River Gourmet Escape. I will taking part in one panel session, one demonstration and The World’s Best Chef’s Table, Feasts Package, and Octaphilosophy Meets Wills Domain.
Tell me about your famous Octaphilosophy approach to food. Could you describe it in layman’s terms?
Octaphilosophy is a formula – it’s how I create a dish within these eight elements and it’s always inspired by the produce. If we move these eight elements to Tokyo or Margaret River or to London, we will create a different cuisine because once you put a, b, c, within that formula, we come up with a different creation. These eight elements are always there, but it is never the same dish. That’s the exciting part of it.
Last year, we did a world tour of 21 countries around the world with Octaphilosophy and, obviously, we saw dishes never seen before, we tried the things we had never done before. In every city we travelled to, we had to have something that connected the people there with the new interpretations and new flavours, combined based on our principles.
I guess through Octaphilosophy we give a complete different perspective to the ingredients or the environment that people already know while bringing something totally unique with the DNA of André.
Let’s talk about Michelin stars. What do they mean to you, if anything at all?
A lot of people ask us about World’s 50 Best and Michelin – these are completely different systems and completely different clientele. You have about 3,000 Michelin Starred Chefs around the world and you have 50 Best Chefs on the list.
Michelin has a check-list of what needs to be there to qualify as a Michelin Star Chef while the World’s Best doesn’t have particular criteria so it can be super-casual or super fine-dining, as long as it’s what people want now. To sum it up, one is more of a trend indicator whereas one is more quality control. So it’s a very different way of selecting great chefs.
I guess we are very lucky. I’m the only Chinese chef to be included in both rankings – the World’s 50 Best and Michelin Guide. We are very happy to be on both lists that have completely different criteria. This gives the diners a very different selection of which restaurant to dine in.
Honestly, I think now because the Internet is so accessible and people travel intensively for food, everyone has their own ranking in their heart. The Michelin Guide and World’s 50 Best are a good reference but they are not as strong as before. Before, people didn’t travel that much and when they did, they relied on these guides to give them direction. But these days, if you look at some Instagrammer – they eat out more than these guides, so you get more information from them, more than what you can find in the guide books. So while the guide books are still very important and influential, people now have more access to information.
What’s the best dish you’ve ever eaten in your life, bar yours?
I used to dine at a very small restaurant called Saturne in Paris. One day, I just arrived in Paris, back when I had a restaurant in Paris. I had just gotten out of the train station, retrieved my luggage and went straight to Saturne. I know the chef, Sven Chartier, well and I sat down at the bar counter and the chef asked what I wanted. I told him to prepare anything since I had just landed.
In front of me, he ground the veal tenderloin, added a few pieces of raw bitter almond, crushed black pepper and opened one raw oyster and put it on top. That was the most amazing thing I have ever had. It was a combination I never had before and I don’t know how it worked, but it worked amazingly. This is one dish I will always remember – there is no garnish, no sauce but it worked beautifully. It was spontaneous and he prepared it in front of me and it worked!
Note: This dish is not on the menu. It was prepared for Chef Andre on the spot and when Andre returns to Saturne, when requested, this dish is still prepared for him.
What do you hate most about the food industry now?
That everyone has a say what they like and don’t like about food. Whether you like a dish or you don’t, it’s your opinion.
I feel their opinions about how to cook a dish right is very personal. A simple example is that when you go to a museum and you see a painting, you don’t say that I think there should be a flower here, the colour should be brighter. You don’t, right? You choose a painting that you appreciate and like, sit down and enjoy it. It could be minimalism or Monet. But for some reason, food is something that everybody has a say about. Comments like, “You could have done this and it would have tasted so much better.” I feel that food is just like painting. Everyone has their own preference v- it could be the same colour but everyone has their own of painting, the way they envision it. I hope people can appreciate this.
What do you love most about the food industry now?
Firstly, the fact that food connects people together. Sometimes, people from completely different industries meet because of food. I have met so many people – artists, architects and from so many industries because of food. You end up doing a lot of collaborations and projects and that’s the beauty of it.
Second thing is for our generation, we are able to cook with all the great chefs arounds the world with no boundaries. Think about the last generation. All the chefs had never done any cross-overs, four-hands dinner or for example, a Japanese chef with an American chef – they would never cooked together. But for my generation we share. We can have a collaboration everywhere, every second, even with a completely different cuisine and we can work together. I guess the beauty of it is that we don’t see each other as a competitor.
At Restaurant André we have cooked with all the best chefs from around the world – Chef Daniel Humm, Chef Albert Adria, Chef Eneko Atxa, Chef Virgilio Martinez, and the Roca Brothers. That would not have happened 30 years ago.
What would you like your legacy to be?
For me, this is very important. As I’ve said, I am the only Chinese chef to be on the lists – Michelin Guide and World’s 50 Best. I represent millions of Chinese chefs working in this industry so I hope to be their role model and show them how to step out and be creative. As they start in different corners of China or Taiwan, they don’t just want to be Gordon Ramsay, I want them to think that they can be Andre Chiang, this is something important for me – to be their role models, to show them that it’s possible if they work hard.