In Conversation with Chef André Chiang

Unique. Pure. Texture. Memory. Salt. South. Artisan. Terroir. Octa-philosophy is Chef André Chiang’s personal quest for identity, and every dish at his restaurant is presented through one of these prisms, often plated on ceramics he has made or designed himself. Pure, for instance, explores the essential nature of ingredients, undisturbed by any seasonings, and could be an exquisite creation that looks like a clear pond, composed of leek water, snow pear and stone crab.

The multiple award-winning restaurant, currently ranked #2 on the San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list has earned 2 Michelin Stars, and is housed in one of Singapore’s heritage buildings, where Chef André Chiang, who trained with some of the legendary chefs of our time –Pierre Gagnaire, Joel Robouchon, Michel Triosgros, Pascal Barbot and Jacques and Laurent Pourcel –cooks like he would for guests he has invited to his own home, and his wife, Sudarampai, leads the service. The unique wine list, personally selected from small producers, is presented between the pages of an antiquarian book.

Kaveri Ponnapa returns to Andre after four years to find the menu as thought-provoking as ever, and that fermented potato juice pairs beautifully with Foie Gras Royale.

Kaveri Ponnapa- In search of your culinary identity, you have blurred the lines between cooking, science, art, design and ways of viewing an ingredient. Three of your restaurants, each with a distinctive character, now feature on the Asia’s 50 Best list. How have you achieved this? Andre Chiang: Cuisine has to be memorable. Why do you remember certain dishes? It’s because they trigger certain associations in your memory. My biggest challenge with all my restaurants is to find the true identity of each of them. It is like finding the right language or vocabulary to describe a cuisine. It’s not so much about technique as about finding that identity. If you look at a dish, you should be able to see the identity coming through Every time we create a new restaurant I spend a lot of time getting this correct. For example, at André, we have Octa-philosophy; every time we create a new dish, we relate it back to these eight elements; is it not because you like a dish; or it looks good; or it’s the trend. When you have this frame of reference and the dishes you create are put up with thousands of other dishes from other restaurants, they stand out.

KP- Lunch menus at Restaurant André are often created in less than two-and-a-half hours –depending on the produce available –while maintaining the same very high standards of creativity your guests have come to expect of you. The dinner menu changes more subtly, perhaps two courses a day –but it still adds up to a very large number over the year. In both, there seems to be an acknowledgement of nature, of continuous change, and enjoying the transient, which requires a great deal of reflection and thought. Where do you look for inspiration? AC: There are two sides to this question. Every successful creation needs to have soul in it. Not every perfect dish has soul and when it does not, you feel the imperfection. I like to put myself on the edge, push myself. That’s one side. The other side is: what is the best restaurant? It is the best brigade. I could have thousands of ideas, but I need perfect execution, and that is my team. Whenever I have an idea and they achieve my vision, when they deliver it with consistency, then I go higher. I take suggestions from my team. My head chef has been with me for 13 years. We want to cook you something that is honest. The original idea is the purest. You realize that much of the embellishment that often goes onto a dish is unnecessary. If you have only three seconds to answer a question, the answer comes from your heart. In the same way, when you have only two hours to cook a meal, that meal is from your heart, the best way you can work the ingredients. The instant is the fire.
About creativity, you have to be curious about everything, about the possibilities. Inspiration comes from every moment that you are curious about things around you; about colour, shape, smell. We have a very small kitchen, and sometimes, while I am working on a dish, I can smell what the next station is cooking, and different possibilities of combinations come to mind. Sometimes I take a picture of something that attracts me, look at the shape, structure or lines of an object. The picture has already registered in my memory. While we are doing the plating, working with stripes or dots, or a particular shape, that memory comes back, and becomes a source of inspiration. That snapshot in your mind begins to nurture your creativity.

KP- Your work reflects a very deep understanding of the interdependence of all things in nature. This results in some of your most spectacular –and thought provoking –dishes such as the combination of kelp, abalone, oyster and seawater that was created for the Four-hands dinner in Tokyo. Did this awareness evolve from working with some of the legendary chefs of the world and the way they view produce, or was it a more personal journey? AC: Before I went to France I worked in my Mom’s Chinese restaurant. We worked very little with seasons, so you saw the same menu 365 days. You could have all the dishes on the menu anytime. When I went to France I was 15, and my chef took me to the market and said we need to create a menu. I felt very restricted –it was winter, and the ingredients were limited. There were only root vegetables to work with. But then you realize that things grow at the same time for a reason. To come back to the dish –the abalone grows on the kelp, that’s Nature. Once, I was at a grape farm in Japan. They had fantastic white grapes. People were talking about the grape, while I kept looking at the ground. I found green wood sorrel growing all around the farm. I picked a grape, and some sorrel, and asked them to taste it. It tasted like mango. They were very surprised that it tasted so good. The logic of Nature is that things that grow together are meant to be together.

KP- Octa-philosophy, which appears complex at first, is in fact an exquisitely simple way of looking into the essence of things. It also demands a complete knowledge of ingredients. The concept of Jus des Idées, for instance, requires many months of attention devoted to refining the process of fermentation that results in concentrated juices that may be experienced as just a hint of a flavour on the palate or more unusually, in a pairing. You seem to be quite unafraid to invest so much effort in such subtlety, such minuscule details. AC: While cooking, you are always looking for that perfect experience. There is always the thought of new possibilities. There’s no fixed notion of how things should be. When you start to pair food and wine, you need to have thousands of labels for that perfect pairing. Sometimes you cannot find the match because the flavour of the wine is fixed, you cannot alter it. If I can create a jus that is the perfect match, then I can fill in the gaps with exactly what I want.

KP- RAW, your all-Taiwanese restaurant marked a return to your roots, in a sense. The entire team is Taiwanese, the inspiration for the menu is local and you have even bought and developed a farm that supplies fresh produce to your restaurants. When you began to explore the culinary landscape, were there any surprises in terms of techniques or local produce that you have now incorporated? AC: RAW is very unique. I left Taiwan when I was 13. But the more I get into the cuisine and ingredients, the more I re-discover myself, my roots. All the flavours that I remember come from my childhood memories. It makes me realize the connections between cuisines and people, and how they are linked to our memories.
Since before RAW was started, I was very into the 24 micro-seasons, the calendar that was used in ancient China; people lived, worked and ate around the 24 micro-seasons. Every micro-season, there were different things to eat. Now, 365 days of the year we eat the same potato, the same carrot. We speed up the production so that we can have them all through the year. We squeeze out the rest of the vegetables. If you follow the calendar, you plan during this micro-season, because you know what will be ideal to harvest seven micro-seasons down the road. If we wait, we have the best ingredient at the next micro-season. This calendar is for me, the example of a perfect world. I have followed it for the menu at RAW, where every micro-season, we pick 21 ingredients, and create a menu accordingly.

KP- The wines offered at André are natural and biodynamic, chosen from small productions. How are the selections made? What are some of your most memorable discoveries? How do you develop a relationship with growers and winemakers? AC: At some restaurants, they will serve you small production, organic vegetables; on the other hand, they serve commercially produced wines that have chemicals in them. I do not understand this. For me, whether it’s a carrot or a bottle of wine, I know where they come from, I know how they cultivate it. We have had 100% French, biodynamic wines from small producers, from the very beginning. You want the character of the wine according to what the seasons were that particular year, not temperature controlled wines. Sometimes I go a bit deeper, to see how they have been cultivated. Then you see a clearer picture of what you should pair it with. We create a platform as Restaurant André where small producers will want to have their wines on our list. They know we select only the best of small wine productions; they don’t want to put their wine next to a mass produced, commercial wine on a wine list at a restaurant. We go by reputation, they know that this is our philosophy.

KP- It may come as a surprise to some guests that wine pairings are taste-driven, rather than label driven and the sommelier will only reveal the identity of the wine after it has been experienced with the relevant course. Sometimes the dish may be paired with a jus. What made you choose this way of presenting wines? AC: We started this restaurant from scratch, and I wanted everything in this restaurant to have a reason. Wine pairing –it’s a psychological thing. If I give you a glass of wine without telling you what it is, you pay more attention to it. Then you have the wine, eat the food, and you really focus on pairing, matching the flavours. You don’t have any other information to distract you. I almost feel that introducing the label is secondary. The priority is matching. The label is distracting. What’s important is what is in the bottle, not on the bottle. The perfect match could be an inexpensive wine or a jus.

KP- – You have spoken of Didier Dagueneau as ‘the master of the Sauvignon Blanc grape’. Please elaborate on this. AC: The story of Dagueneau is in the way he produced wines. Every Sauvignon Blanc was always a signature. The way he produced it was much clearer, much more concentrated. You can taste the difference. Sometimes the taste of biodynamic wines is not so pure as it should be. But his purity is exceptional. Asteroid is a wine about which you can find almost no information on the tasting notes, despite his being so famous. This is because it was a wine he made for his family. After he passed away, his daughter sells or gives this to friends personally. You need to go there and pick it up from her directly. That is a very special experience –there’s no more Asteroid from Didier Dagueneau, no one is going to make this wine anymore. We are very lucky to have seven bottles –we sold one on a very, very special occasion.

Some special bottles at Restaurant André

La Sénéchalière 2014 Vin de France ‘La Bohème’

Athénaïs de Béru 2014 Vin de France ‘Amphore’ Chardonnay

La Ferme des Sept Lunes 2013 Saint-Joseph ‘Chemin Faisant’

Les Dolomies NV Macvin du Jura

Domaine des Hautes-Glaces 2010 Single Malt Organic Whisky ‘Flavis’
Only 352 bottles produced for this vintage. 54 months aging in French oak barrels.

Restaurant Andre
41 Bukit Pasoh Road
Singapore 089855

This article appeared in Sommelier India Magazine, Issue 3, May-June 2017

Image Credits: Restaurant André

Kaveri Ponnapa

Kaveri Ponnapa is a widely published independent writer on food, wine and heritage, based in Bengaluru. Her features appear in leading publications. She graduated with a Master’s Degree in Social Anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.