André Chiang has arrived. At just 42 years old, the Asian-cuisine titan can already look back on enough success for two lifetimes. Chiang is Asia’s most influential culinary leader, a guy who’s cooked his way to the top of international haute cuisine’s Mount Olympus. His restaurant, Restaurant André, has redefined fine dining not only in Singapore, but throughout the entire continent. In 2013, he was the first Chinese chef to score a spot on the World’s 50 Best roster, coming in at number 38. Last year, he jumped to number 14, and his culinary temple hit number two on the 50 Best in Asia list. The two Michelin stars Restaurant André received in 2016 are a pretty clear signal, too. With his meticulous perfectionism, his pioneering reinterpretations of New French cuisine, and his inexhaustible courage to create new and exciting things, Chiang has become a beacon of light on the Asian city-state’s culinary horizon. At Restaurant André, he managed even the smallest details with almost neurotic care: every chair was placed at an exact 45-degree angle to the table, and each table was precisely two finger-widths away from the wall. Chiang and his restaurant manager went through the reservation list each day and practically agonized over who ought to sit where. Although that now-legendary restaurant closed its doors at the beginning of 2018, it left Chiang free to turn his attention back to RAW, which he opened in Taipei in 2014. There, he’s redefining culinary adventures with the help of ancient traditions. In a way, RAW is Chiang’s way of really getting to know his home country for the first time. As a teenager, he moved to Japan, where he became a cook at his mother’s Chinese restaurant… but Mom refused to let him make even the smallest changes to any of her recipes, and fifteen-year-old Chiang wanted a challenge. “If you want to cook at the very highest level, you have to go to France,” he realized. So even though he didn’t know a word of French, he set off for the home of Nouvelle Cuisine— specifically, for Le Jardin des Sens, the three-Michelin-starred culinary temple run by twins Jacques and Laurent Pourcel. Chiang often thinks back to what he describes as his most formative experience there: the twins took their new protégé, who still spoke zero French, to the market with them. Chiang was accustomed to the Japanese philosophy of assistants being there to listen and obey, so he could hardly believe his ears when one of the Pourcel brothers handed him a vegetable and asked, “What do you think of that one?” “That was the moment my eyes were opened,” Chiang recalls, “the moment I realized that restaurants aren’t factories. They’re places of self-expression, places where you take inspiration and turn it into food.”
Back then, Chiang was still restless, almost obsessive about absorbing every scrap of knowledge in the world’s great kitchens and executing it with absolute perfection. “While I was in France, I had a moment where I realized I was blocked. I understood that I would never be able to do French cuisine better than the French, because they grew up with it. And me? What did I grow up with? I grew up with ginger, coriander, tea, and spices.” Chiang was torn. “In France,” he says, “I learned 100 percent. But the question is, how do you do anything better than 100 percent? The answer’s pretty self-evident: you learn the 100 percent that you have to be able to do—and the rest comes from you and you alone. I took my 100-percent France and added in my own personality, and especially my cultural heritage, which there was just no space for within that framework of French cuisine.” Thinking back to his own roots drove Chiang onward… and smoothed his path to success. “I think that everyone has a different mission at each age, in each phase of their lives.” And Chiang’s mission was clear: he needed to break camp in France and return to his home, to his own identity.
Artist or craftsman?
He went to Singapore, which wasn’t exactly returning home. The logic behind the move was fascinating, which is a motif that reappears a lot in Chiang’s biography. In 2010, Chiang and his wife, Pamela, opened up Restaurant André in the Asian city-state, and began interpreting New French cuisine in a revolutionary, deeply personal way. One question, in particular, drove him to open the restaurant: “How do I define myself as an individual chef, separate from all the strong personalities I’ve worked with?” He wove his answers to that question into a unique culinary concept: Chiang’s restaurant had no set menu. He simply ordered ingredients from the best producers in the world, and trusted them blindly. He’d order ten kilos of seafood a day, without knowing in advance whether he’d get lobster, crab, or octopus. And Restaurant André didn’t have appetizers, main dishes, and desserts—it simply had dishes, absolutely equal in status. As Chiang was working to define his restaurant, the years of experience he’d gathered in France seemed to coalesce naturally into what he calls his “octophilosophy”: eight elements that form the core of every dish he creates. The octophilosophy isn’t a complete concept so much as a stringent eight-part toolbox Chiang uses to channel his culinary curiosity. Each course at Restaurant André was dedicated to one element, or “characteristic”: Unique, Texture, Memory, Pure, Terroir, Salt, South, Artisan. That last one is something Chiang has spent a lot of time considering. Artisans are craftsmen—not to be confused with artists. Chiang is adamant in distinguishing between the two. “A lot of people think that chefs are artists. But artists do whatever they want. There are no boundaries on their ability to create. They can work without thinking about why things need to fit together. Chefs, on the other hand, are craftsmen. They need to be creative, of course, but behind that creativity, there needs to be precision—precise, realistic execution. Believing they were artists has been the downfall of a lot of chefs, because they didn’t think about cost, or how realistically feasible certain things would be.”
Chiang’s octophilosophy has been more than just functional: Restaurant André earned two Michelin stars in 2016; in 2017, it was number two on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, making it number one in Singapore
Those major successes made it clear to Chiang that he’d finally achieved that “unrealistic moment of perfection” that he’d spent 30 years yearning for. In 2017, Chiang announced that he would be closing the restaurant. Vicious rumors abounded that it had something to do with him not receiving the third star. But Chiang was having none of it. “My decision to close Restaurant André had absolutely nothing to do with any awards,” he says. When asked his opinion on such accolades, Chiang quickly makes it clear that he takes a differentiated view in that regard, too: “To me, Michelin stars are all about pure ego, nothing else. It’s different with the 50 Best. They really have made a difference, because they create an environment where the 50 best chefs come together, get to know each other, share experiences with one another. And they give chefs from all over the world a chance at greater visibility, a way to do something good for their own countries.” Chiang brings up an important point there, because one big reason he decided to close Restaurant André was that he had decided it was time for him to head back to Taiwan. Like everything else, of course, he’d prepared his return with great care: by the time he closed Restaurant André, he’d already been running RAW, his restaurant in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, for nearly four years. RAW has now received one Michelin star, was twice voted Taipei’s best restaurant, and has made it onto the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for three years running. The philosophy Chiang practices at RAW is as simple as it is revolutionary: every product he uses is 100% organic, regional, and biodynamic. In keeping with ancient Taiwanese wisdom, Chiang divides the year into 24 microseasons, and creates a menu for each one using 21 seasonal ingredients. “Microseasons are an ancient tradition that couldn’t possibly fit better into the future,” he says.
A long shadow
No matter how fully this culinary titan devotes himself to rediscovering his roots, he’s always got an eye on the future as well. Chiang says his next big project will be to develop a Larousse Gastronomique about Taiwan— a culinary encyclopedia for the country, in other words. “So people understand where we come from, what’s in our cultural DNA. Because even today, we still don’t have anything concrete.” Another upcoming project will be a blend of old and new as well: the three-Michelin-starred Swedish chef Björn Frantzén announced this past summer that he will be opening his own restaurant, Zén, within the hallowed halls of what was once Restaurant André. Chiang will be assisting his colleague and friend in a consultant capacity. “Björn won’t need my creative support,” Chiang says. “What he’ll need is my network of suppliers and my knowledge of customers and data. I’m sharing what I know about Singapore.” Chiang isn’t itching to open another restaurant any time soon. He’d rather focus on the next generation, on helping young chefs develop self-confidence and understanding of their own culture. “The young generation here feels lost right now. Especially because nobody’s teaching them basic knowledge that’s been around for centuries. I plan on doing my part to help them. I’m happier when I’m supporting them rather than being in the limelight myself. I’m happy to be their shadow.” Well, one thing’s for sure: rarely has such a long shadow been such a blessing for a new generation of Taiwanese chefs.