Din­ner at Eight

An­dre Chi­ang demon­strates to christina ko how a full heart and empty mind are the in­gre­di­ents be­hind his genre-bend­ing culi­nary feats

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

it should sur­prise few who’ve seen and tasted his food that An­dré Chi­ang was born into a cre­ative fam­ily — his fa­ther a cal­lig­ra­pher, mother a chef, brother an ac­tor and sis­ter a cloth­ing de­signer. It’s ev­i­dent in his con­scious and bla­tant dis­re­gard of culi­nary rules, his at­ten­tion to pre­sen­ta­tion, even the metic­u­lous way in which his food is pho­tographed for his new book, Oc­taphi­los­o­phy (not to men­tion the fact that he ac­tu­ally has an of­fi­cial food phi­los­o­phy).

What’s a lit­tle less ex­pected is that the only man with three restau­rants on the Asia’s 50 Best list this year is a bit of a mama’s boy.

While his flag­ship Restau­rant An­dré only opens when the chef him­self is present, Chi­ang has taken a few week­ends off to pro­mote his book across Asia for Phaidon, which is fast estab­lish­ing it­self as the world’s pre­mier pub­lisher of culi­nary vol­umes. On the side, while in Hong Kong, he’s de­cided to take part in a fourhands din­ner as part of the Friends of Am­ber se­ries along­side Richard Ekke­bus. But while the two chefs hold deep re­spect for each other, Ekke­bus is not who Chi­ang names as his favourite culi­nary col­lab­o­ra­tor — nor is it Joan Roca, nor Daniel Humm, all of whom he has worked with.

“We had planned a Taipei din­ner [at Raw, and] sud­denly I re­alised it was sched­uled for Mother’s Day. It has been many years since I cel­e­brated Mother’s Day with my mum, so I fig­ured in or­der to be to­gether, I should in­vite her to cook,” he says.

While Chi­ang is known best for com­plex dishes in­flu­enced by his 16-year ten­ure in France un­der some of the coun­try’s best chefs, the menu for the Mother’s Day menu in­cluded foods she served him when he was young: The potato cro­quettes he and his sib­lings would snack on af­ter school; the pa­per-thin braised and smoked pork ear that he says was al­ways his favourite.

Mama Chi­ang (aka Tina Lin) how­ever, was not so im­pressed by the op­por­tu­nity to en­ter the kitchen for her son’s pa­trons. “Why do I have to cook?” she asked. “Be­cause it’s the only way you’ll get to see me,” he an­swered.

Chi­ang also asked his mother to pen the in­tro­duc­tion to his book, es­chew­ing the typ­i­cal kitchen lu­mi­nary. What she drafted was a touch­ing let­ter to her son that will bring tears to many eyes: “Re­mem­ber to stay hum­ble,” she writes. “Never for­get your orig­i­nal in­ten­tion with sin­cer­ity and en­thu­si­asm: To in­spire and lead the young gen­er­a­tion, treat them as your own chil­dren and to con­trib­ute to so­ci­ety.”

It’s these raw, real mo­ments that have made Chi­ang a dar­ling among me­dia, food­ies and chefs alike. So when Chi­ang first in­tro­duced his oc­taphi­los­o­phy, an idea that dishes are driven by eight key el­e­ments, it wasn’t con­sid­ered as the pre­ten­tious doc­trine of an ego­tis­ti­cal chef, but as the sim­plest way to ex­plain what one of Asia’s lead­ing cre­atives had on his mind.

“When I was pre­par­ing Restau­rant An­dré [in 2010], I said: ‘How am I go­ing to tell peo­ple [what I’m serv­ing]? Be­cause I don’t have a fixed dish or style. I just cook spon­ta­neously.’ So my wife looked at my notes and said: ‘An­dre, that’s you. These eight words, it’s you. So just tell peo­ple that’s oc­taphi­los­o­phy, that’s the way you cook. You don’t need to

fol­low any rules.”

Bro­ken down, oc­taphi­los­o­phy is an eight-course tast­ing menu that changes daily at whim, with dishes that fall un­der eight cat­e­gories: Pure, Salt, Ar­ti­san, South, Tex­ture, Unique, Mem­ory and Ter­roir. Come again?

“These eight el­e­ments just help to high­light the char­ac­ter of each dish — so in fact, it’s eas­ier than you go­ing to any restau­rant and be­fore you reach your first course, you have to make 15 choices,” he says. “It’s not to make peo­ple feel dizzy. In fact, it’s very sim­ple.”

Part of Chi­ang’s need to cre­ate his own vo­cab­u­lary is his con­sis­tent re­fusal to ac­cept the culi­nary sta­tus quo. Al­though he’s just re­leased his own book, he steers clear of read­ing oth­ers’. It’s sort of un­der­stand­able for a man who spent a decade and a half in the food cap­i­tal of Paris, then moved to the Sey­chelles for the ex­press pur­pose of “not draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion or recipes from right and left” and “to empty my­self”.

To­day, he says: “I rarely read culi­nary books. I feel like some­times it’s dan­ger­ous, be­cause that kind of com­bi­na­tion is stuck in your head and then you can­not get out of it. For ex­am­ple, if I said ‘smoked salmon’, you would think of ca­pers, onion, sour cream and boiled egg. Why? Why not vanilla, lob­ster and pump­kin? The more cook­books you read, hon­estly, for me, it doesn’t give me more ideas. It makes me stuck. So I read about fash­ion, pho­tog­ra­phy, ar­chi­tec­ture.”

One of the snacks served at the Friends of Am­ber din­ner was a clear prod­uct of this quest for the un­usual. A mini taco-like bite is con­structed of salted duck-egg yolk, vanilla and but­ter­nut squash. “I didn’t know how it was go­ing to turn out, but it was great: One has the tex­ture, one has the taste — the sweet­ness and the other one has the aroma.”

If he doesn’t take in­spi­ra­tion from cook­books, though, why pub­lish one? “It’s more than a cook­book,” he ex­plains. “It’s a tool book for cre­ativ­ity and ideas. It con­tains 150 recipes but it doesn’t end as 150 recipes — in­side, we have how we an­a­lyse the dish within the eight el­e­ments. In fact, I want to demon­strate how flex­i­ble we can be just based on these eight words and how many dishes we can come up with in 365 days. We can ap­ply this idea to any cre­ative process, whether it’s a pot­ter or a de­signer or an ar­chi­tect, how to find your oc­taphi­los­o­phy, your own eight

“I rarely read culi­nary books. I feel like some­times it’s dan­ger­ous”

— An­dre Chi­ang

words. Hav­ing said that, if you are a housewife and you want to cook some­thing out of it, you could.”

With this kind of ded­i­ca­tion to his craft, it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine Chi­ang grow­ing his em­pire past a sin­gle restau­rant, though he did that a cou­ple of years ago with the open­ing of Raw in his home coun­try. “Tai­wan has so much great pro­duce, great peo­ple, great ar­ti­sans, a lot of lo­cal food, but you can’t think of one iconic dish, it’s al­ways just do­ing other peo­ple’s cui­sine. So from the be­gin­ning, I said it has to be an all-tai­wanese team, from the gen­eral man­ager to the dish­washer. I want all Tai­wanese pro­duce. Tai­wanese artists. So we can cre­ate a 100-per­cent Tai­wanese prod­uct in a global way,” he says.

That said and though he has own­er­ship of a few other restau­rants, in­clud­ing the lauded and meaty Burnt Ends in Sin­ga­pore, he doesn’t seek to overex­tend him­self (eas­ier said than done, surely — af­ter host­ing din­ner in Hong Kong, he’s on a flight to Sin­ga­pore that will get him back to Restau­rant An­dré for lunch ser­vice the next day).

“I’m not a busi­ness­man,” he re­minds — though so many global top chefs grow to be­come quite savvy at play­ing that game. “I’ve never dreamed about hav­ing my own em­pire. Ev­ery restau­rant came or­gan­i­cally. I think that for ev­ery chef, they want to have their own restau­rant. They want to have their own cook­book. They want to have their own Miche­lin stars and af­ter that...i don’t know. Maybe I’ll re­tire and do pot­tery.”

Pot­ters best be­ware.

this page: Botan ebi ‘Chaud­froid’. op­po­site page: Clams, leek, noir­moutier potato

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