Interview with Andre Chiang, Singapore

Becky Paskin - 05/12/2011

Taiwan-born Andre Chiang first arrived in Singapore three years ago to take the helm at Jaan par Andre, Swissotel, a restaurant that after just 18 months made the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list at number 39. Last year Chiang swapped the five-star hotel for a 1920s, three-storey townhouse in Singapore’s relatively quiet Bukit Pasoh area. With just seven chefs in the kitchen working a unique station set up, Chiang cooks his unique ‘Octaphilosophy’ menu for just 30 covers per night.

We’ve just passed Restaurant Andre’s first birthday – have you marked the occasion in any way?

I invited some of the chefs that I’ve most been inspired by to visit Restaurant Andre. In September I invited Pascal Barbot from Astrance in Paris, and last month I had Jacques and Laurent Pourcel from Maison Blanchein Paris where I started my career – I worked nine years with them. They were the most influential chefs in my career. We also just had Pierre Gagnaire for a private event. Now we’ve finished the three-month long celebrations of our first birthday we are getting ready for the year ahead.

How has business been in your first year?

It’s so amazing that since the first day we opened we’ve been overwhelmed with attention from guests, journalists, top food bloggers and even local gourmets. I never thought it would all happen this fast. Two months after we opened we were on the New York Times’s list of unmissable places to eat around the world. We really didn’t expect that to happen, but it allowed people to really notice the restaurant which was amazing. After that we thought it would take us a full year to get back onto the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and we were surprised again to see that in just a couple of months we were in the top 100. #

The cuisine served at Restaurant Andre is based on your ‘octaphilosophy’ – can you explain what that is?

The octaphilosophy came about while my restaurant was under construction. I wanted to show people what the philosophy of my cuisine is, but I wasn’t sure what that was. I wanted to find out so I pulled out all my sketches and notes from the past 18 years and went through every single note to extract out the essence of myself. And I realised that throughout all the notes and ideas I have had, these eight elements overlap every year in my cuisine subconciously, and I thought, this is Andre, this is me. They are Texture, Pure, Artisan, Terroir, South, Unique and Memory, and  I’ve been using them the whole time without knowing it. So we present eight different dishes to coincide with each of the eight elements, which are always there but not in the same sequence every day. We do not have a menu and never explain what is on the plate, but instead we explain what is not on the plate. We want our guests to realise what the intention of creating each dish is. I love art, and since I was little I have painted and sculpted and I think cooking is very similar in that with paintings there is a story, a message you want to tell. The dish should have a message too and that’s the beautiful part. Not just the food, but the techniques you use too.

Would you say your cooking has improved now that you have identified what defines you as a chef?

Yes absolutely. Some people say that it will stop me from doing something else but this is what I have already been doing for the past 20 years. Instead the elements give me a lot of flexibility - sometimes we even have two different menus floating on the floor during service because we don’t have all the quantities for all the tables, so we create a dish on the spot.

That must put a bit of pressure on such a small team?

My team are used to it so there’s no pressure. It’s something we do every day so they have to be flexible.  My sous chef Johnny Jiang has been with me eight years so he is used to it. Our kitchen is also organised in a very special way that is different to other kitchens. We have four stations, with one chef at each. One person looks after texture, another on seasoning, one on cuisson (temperature) and I am the fourth on the pass compiling the plate and the dressage. Because we are a very small brigade, if we separate into hot, cold and pastry then when say 15 guests come in at once the first one who gets the slam is the chef on starters because he’s alone. The way we do it is we look at the component of each dish: a gel, puree or mousse is made by texture; all the seasonings and sauces are made by seasoning; the poached pear or grilled beef comes from cuisson and I do the dressage. Every dish needs every station working on it at the same time.

When you’re compiling a new dish, what comes first - the artistic idea you want to portray or the produce?

It can be both ways. Sometimes when we see the produce we think it would make a perfect Artisan  or Pure dish, but you can work the other way, like when I’m inspired by a painting or a movie I saw and want to portray the message through a dish. I see this restaurant as a canvas and I’m painting it with food.

What is the most critical thing to your success?

Identity. A lot of people tell me it’s been really fast how I arrived in Singapore three years ago and had my first restaurant in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants within 18 months of opening, and now we’ve changed the location to here. In three years I’ve rocked it. But there are so many good restaurants around, and people ask me what sets us apart from others. I always say quality doesn’t equal identity - there are a lot of good restaurants with good quality produce, technique or setting, but now in 2011, to have high quality is not enough. You need to have an identity so that people will straight away tell you apart from the others.

Are you achieving that in Singapore?

I think so, and I hope so. I believe in sharing something good and unique with your guests and people can feel that passion in the food.  Restaurant Andre is not just a money making machine. A lot of people ask us to put more tables in so they don’t have to wait for one. We actually do have space but we don’t want to serve more than 30 guests at a time. We don’t want to turn it into a commercial restaurant. Instead we want people to spend more time in the space so they can enjoy their dinner. It doesn’t matter what time they want to come, it’s their table all night. We are trying to present something personal. I made most of the plates in my restaurant - it’s something really personal and that’s what cooking is. It’s intimate and we don’t want to turn that into something else.

You’ve been open for a year and had some great celebrations, but what are your hopes for Restaurant Andre this year and ahead?

We will conyinue to try and create a different option for the culinary scene. This is not just another restaurant but another concept. It’s like visiting Andre’s house – Andre’s there cooking and It’s an open house concept. People feel like they’re at home and they bring their friends. We dont have a menu - we only have octophilosophy. It’s another option and will be another movement. When people talked about fine dining five years ago it was about crystal chandeliers and silver cutlery. Nowadays it’s all about the senses, not just about the decor or what kind of cutlery can be called fine dining. I hope that in April Restaurant Andre will be amongst the World’s 40 Best Restaurants. I’ll definitely get further than I did with Jaan par Andre.