Chef André Chiang
I guess in everything we do we want to show that there’s a beginning and an end.
On a day like any other, Chef André Chiang stepped into the pastel glow of his Michelin-starred dining room and made a decision that shook the culinary world. He named the day Restaurant André would close its doors forever. Unlike other gourmands whose robust legacies have balked at the pressures of financial struggles, scandal or change in concept, André blamed only one thing – the restaurant’s sheer faultlessness. In the same breath, the forty-one-year-old resolutely returned his Michelin stars to the revered institution and bade farewell to the eight-year legacy of Restaurant André. “I found the last piece of the puzzle”, he explained, “it was all exactly how I wanted it, even down to the scent of the room”. For most, this would represent a comfortable end point to an illustrious career. But for André, it represents the beginning of a brand new era.
In the hallowed halls of haute cuisine, going against the grain doesn’t come easily. With food as a reflection of our cultural values, cities evolve quickly and tastes often follow suit. Increasingly, it is the consumer that is in the driving seat. Menus and palettes often describe the tides of change; health conscious millennials are forging the path towards plant-based eating, and a spotlight on food wastage and sustainability has encouraged the rise of nose-to-tail and farm-to-table trends.
He explains “the world and the palette of the diner changes so fast, we have to keep reminding ourselves to stay relevant”. Beginning life with 5 staff and 4 tables, his small restaurant started in a shophouse on a quiet lane in Singapore’s Chinatown district in Bukit Pasoh. Now, Restaurant André counts itself as one of the best in the world.
Chef André Chiang
You have to stay relevant, you have to push as hard as you can, but then you need to have that courage, to change.
“I’m not afraid of breaking everything down to build it back up again”, he declares. As Picasso put it, “every act of creation is first an act of destruction” and, to keep evolving implies a perpetual forward motion. After decades in the industry, the chef has embraced this continuous cycle of destruction implicit in the ritual of creation. Drawing the restaurant’s shutters and renouncing his Michelin stars, the wunderkind of Asian gastronomy has closed a chapter behind him, to usher in a chapter to something new, and most importantly, something different.
Until the the kitchen hits a rhythm and the puzzle pieces start to click together, every day is a hive of motion, a lesson in tinkering and tweaking. “Until, there’s that day when you walk in and everything is perfect.” Like a school-teacher on the last day of rehearsals he adds, “I would just sit there and watch, because there was nothing more to do”.
Chef André Chiang
I don’t think that any artist should hold on to one single masterpiece for his entire life.
“Every 10 years you just have to start again”, the chef remarks. “To me, every restaurant is a masterpiece and, there comes a moment when you complete it. When it’s complete, it’s complete, you move onto the next and start again. I don’t think that any artist should hold on to one single masterpiece for his entire life. And, I don’t think I can only create one masterpiece in my entire career.”
As a man who doesn’t consider “comfortable” as a word in his vocabulary, he maintains the eccentric practice of never hanging onto old recipes. The moment a dish is perfected, it is erased from the menu. He explains, “If you hold onto recipes, one day when you’re out of ideas you’ll say ‘okay why don’t I just do this’, and you’ll never move on”.
Chef André Chiang
Even if I open a new restaurant next week, I still don’t want to be in the (Michelin) guide.
“When you are 10, 20, 30, 40, your priorities change,” muses the chef, “I just wanted to be better, and better, and better. But I realised that it’s not about the accolades. It’s about the moment I felt I could continue on my own”. For André and his team, perfection is a matter of personal taste, and passion remains their true currency. “I don’t want, my staff to come here by the same route each day, wear the same t-shirt and do the same thing for ten years”. Alive with the clamour of creative energy, his kitchens lie at the epicentre of a bright new future for Asian cooking. The curious, creative attitude that he inspires in his own staff has inspired high-ranking chefs around the world to rethink their own approach to food.
Chef André Chiang
“ I remember…Massimo Bottura said.. “you’re the Bruce Lee, you realise that you’re the only Chinese chef on the ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurant List’”.
As the years ticked by and he found himself occupying the limelight as one of China’s culinary figureheads, Bottura’s words continued to loop over in his mind. He woke up to the fact that his social responsibility was specific to his homeland and the next generation of Asian chefs. By handing them the tools and courage to curate their own identity, he has the power to affect real change and shake up an antiquated system.
He adds, “For so many young Chinese chefs the Octaphilosophy book is like their Bible. Very few great cookbooks have been translated into Chinese so this is the best they have. For this reason, I want to share more of my experiences an Asian, as a Chinese chef.” His decision to return to Taiwan, and refocus on RAW marks his first step, in bringing Asian haute cuisine to the global stage.
Throughout his career, the underlying message of his work has been one of honouring the past whilst cultivating a unique and promising future. He explains, “people ask me why I think being a chef is a social responsibility and I tell them to think about the fact that nowadays 60% of the population are eating out. We are the people who decide what the planet eats, what the farmers grow.”
Brushing off the drive to be number one as “pure ego”, Chef André defines success not as packed restaurant, but as a restaurant that answers a cultural need. This idea echoes an earlier conversation we had with Chef André when he spoke about the responsibility of the chef in shaping the palette of a society. “We want to create a successful restaurant that represents the city,” he explains, “not simply running a great restaurant that makes a profit, but one that makes a statement about the DNA of a city.”
For André, giving back the Michelin stars was partly a symbol to the world that his ambitions lie beyond the kitchen, beyond his own motive. Although securing a third would have been the picture-perfect final chapter to his story, he is devoted to a bigger mission. Whilst there are still new flavours to be uncovered and new stories to tell and cities without a culinary voice, there is always still work to be done. Just moments after he closed his restaurants doors, he announced a new passion project, in collaboration with The Bridge restaurant in Chengdu, China. Lamenting the steady decline of the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, he has vowed to make Chengdu “the city of slow food”. To counteract the public’s dwindling interest in the origin and cultural value of the food on our plates, he issued a clarion call to the next generation of Chinese chefs to work in harmony with nature and the seasons. This new venture is part of a personal longing to reconnect with his birthplace and reset his understanding of local Chinese culture.
Sharing a word of advice that could be applied to us all, André adds, “You have to learn to take time to focus on one thing. Take time to stay in one place, to learn one technique properly. Expect it to take ten years to this master one technique. You can’t just watch a video and know how to do it, you have to take risks, step out of your the comfort zone and most importantly, take it seriously.”
After watching the story of the the poverty-stricken 85-year-old ice-cream hawker Ng Teak Boon on CNA Insider, he, as many did, made a promise to help. Inspired by his character and his craft, he created an upscale version of the roadside ice-cream for his own menu, putting aside a cut of the proceeds for the old man. Then, the day before he closed his restaurant, he visited him with a life-changing cheque. After all the media attention and promises, the uncle turned to him that day and said “you are the only one that came back”.
Arriving on the Singapore restaurant scene in 2010, Chef André Chiang was a breath of fresh air to the city’s nascent fine dining scene. He explains, “when I arrived in Singapore, I saw that the city needed its own iconic restaurant. We were not trying to duplicate a French restaurant experience you could find in New York or Paris or London. There would be no point coming to Singapore for that. It had to be something that was completely unique, something that represented the city and its people.” As a businessman and an innovator, part of what makes him stand out is his ability to recognise potential, not only in his students, but in cities and cuisines. Convinced that Chinese cuisine holds an important place in the world, he has now turned his attention to putting Sichuan cuisine on the gastronomic map and redefining the flavour that belongs to this generation.