He is handsome and tall with casual-chic attire, and has a winning smile, but when he talks about food his visage changes to reflect a serious regard for his art and passion.
Although still a young man André Chiang has had a lifetime filled with food and restaurants. His Mum was a chef and had a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo. His brother and sister were not interested in the food industry, so from being a small boy he knew he would be the one eventually to take over his Mum’s business. “I was born in Taiwan and left when I was 13, and worked with my Mum for two years in Tokyo.”
André says that there were disadvantages working with his Mum. “She didn’t allow me to change anything about her recipes, but I had lots of crazy ideas. I loved watching Iron Chef, which was very popular on Japanese television. I saw Hiroyuki Sakai, who specialised in French cuisine, and thought this guy was amazing. I told my Mum that I wanted to train in his restaurant, and she managed to arrange for me to work there one winter vacation. I had believed that myth that only the Chinese could cook Chinese food, only the French could cook French cuisine. Here, I realised that he cooked French cuisine beautifully, with his own twist. That was what I wanted to do – finally I saw the light!”
The teenager left Tokyo, aged 15, and arrived in France not knowing what to expect. He worked 16 hours a day like all the other chefs and assumed that was how French people worked. He evidently found his path and stayed for 17 years, nine of them in Montpellier in the south of France. He graduated from apprentice to chef-de-cuisine, and then André moved to Lyon and Paris. “I had thought that I might work in France for a few years, as everyone does, and then return to Tokyo with a different concept, to help my Mum and evolve her restaurant. But once I arrived in France I fell in love with it.”
In 2003 André was invited by Raffles Hotel to go to Singapore for a week as a ‘guest chef’. He returned each year for four years, but was still happy to continue his career in France, until his thirtieth birthday. “Suddenly I looked at my future and wondered whether it was time to go back to Asia. I realised I had been away for a long time. I had been to Singapore on several occasions and people seemed to like what I did. So I thought maybe I should contact Raffles. We worked together for a couple of years, and I began to understand Singaporean culture and the cuisines that they liked. People there are very open to different cuisines – they don’t see me as Taiwanese or French, they see me as Singaporean.
“From the first day I arrived I tried to cook the food that I believe in, that I like. There’s no day that I feel that I have to make compromises for the local palate, and I think I’m very lucky in that regard. If I was in, say, Taiwan or China I would have to think about local tastes – maybe it’s too spicy or too heavy for those people; but looking back I see that in Singapore I haven’t had to adjust anything. People are open to different ideas, different ingredients, and they want the cooking to be as unique as possible.”
André Chiang is famed for his ‘Octaphilosophy’. The eight elements are Unique, Texture, Memory, Pure, Terroir, Salt, South and Artisan – all perfect culinary concepts, but what is ‘South’? Why is it 8, not 7 or 9? “When I first started, before the restaurant opened, I asked ‘Who is André, what is André’s cuisine?’ I went back over everything I had done up to that time, the things that I like, the things that I create, and I realised that I was evolving every day, every year. I’m very ‘freestyle’, so there is not a single dish that represents André. I saw that these 8 elements kept repeating every year, in many different forms, and I said, ‘This is it, these 8 elements are me.’ ‘South’? Well, I spent those 9 years in the south of France, and the South was the source of the inspirations that influenced me most – regions, flavours, my foundation. So you will find a lot of southern French touches in my food.”
Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe is a painting by Manet; it inspired André to think about Spring and how people enjoy food, dining together, with the season’s changing produce. “You have to be emotional when you deal with food in my restaurant. We have ‘concepts’ not ‘menus’. In the picture we don’t see so many colours or flowers, but different greens, everything starting to sprout – that for me is Spring, and we create a lot of dishes around the season. In Singapore many people don’t understand which ingredient is Spring, which is Summer – you can see pumpkin in Summer in Singapore, though in Europe it’s more associated with Autumn; and asparagus, which is a Spring vegetable – all the ingredients together on one plate. I would like to use a different approach to remind people ‘This is Spring’ or ‘This is Summer.’
This chef is very open, inspired by many things. “I don’t force myself to create, to say ‘This season I must find something to talk about.’ The inspiration can be anything – last night’s news, a sad story, a love song. I’m a chef so I like to take the produce as my alphabet, to tell the story that I want. The produce has a message. The most beautiful part is the intention, the story, behind the dish.
Last year André went to the Borneo jungle, because he had heard that every year 5% – 12% of the jungle vanishes. “It is the oldest rainforest in the world, with a history going back 13 million years, but it’s disappearing every day because of global warming and people cutting down the forest. So I decided to make a trip there to see how bad it was. When I came back I made a dish called Orang-utan Salad.” André stressed with a laugh that it’s not a salad made of orang-utan meat but rather a salad of all the wild herbs and fruit that the orang-utan eats. “Because of the deforestation the orang-utan is getting less and less in number, and those that remain can’t find a home. There is so much illegal logging, and clearance for palm-oil plantations, and that kills the ecosystem. I came back wanting to do something, not using the foods from the rainforest, but orang-utans eat wild eggplant, wild baby figs, so I use those as a medium to explain to people my experience in Borneo.”
Recently André created his Rainforest Cuisine Movement, which will launch in June. “It’s about how we can help local tribespeople to use the rainforest, to make some money from it without selling their land to businessmen, so that they will see the value of their environment. I don’t need to source from France or Australia, Borneo is right next to Singapore. We are small individuals – I run a restaurant of 30 covers – but we chefs are the people in touch with natural elements every day. We can tell that ingredients are different from year to year, that for instance as the sea gets warmer the crayfish quality is changing. We are part of the chain and I feel we should do something to protect the Earth. I arrived in Singapore 3½ years ago, and I didn’t know where to source things. I spent a lot of time travelling the region – people said I could easily get things from the UK, Spain, France, it’s so simple, but you forget to look locally. Nothing grows in Singapore but buildings – and they grow really fast. But the project is bigger than just sourcing food – it’s saving the rainforest and the people, plants and animals that live there. I want to tell my restaurant guests all about what I’m doing, but 30 people each night is not enough – I need more people to know about this.”
Restaurant André in Singapore remains an icon of contemporary regional cuisine, and continues growing in popularity, as does André’s reputation for quality and innovation.
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018