Taiwanese Chef-Restaurateur André Chiang on Why He's Not Afraid of Change
In Greek mythology, Achilles was one of the greatest of warriors, seemingly invincible until a shot to the heel felled him. For chef André Chiang, it was also a ruptured Achilles tendon that has slowed him down. Currently wheelchair-bound, the Taiwanese chef-restaurateur tells us that it will be a year before he can run or jump. Unlike Achilles who never rose from his fall, Chiang’s heel is a mere speed bump. A private person who speaks deliberately and listens intently, the 44-year-old multi-hyphenate is still moving fast, creating trends instead of following them.
Chiang’s ventures are always highly anticipated, and his painstakingly built-up reputation has much to do with it. As a chef who boasts work experience under the likes of Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and the late Joël Robuchon, he has been called a culinary prodigy. At age 18, he was invited to apprentice at chefs Jacques and Laurent Pourcel’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, France. Seven years later, he rose to become the chef de cuisine for La Compagnie des Comptoirs, an iconic bistro run by the Pourcel brothers. It was the beginning of a culinary career that has taken myriad interesting twists and turns.
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It was at the helm of the eponymous Restaurant André in Singapore, which operated from 2010 to 2018 in a converted 1930s shophouse decorated in the style of a plush home, that Chiang truly made his mark in Asia and the world. He offered guests a dining experience centred on “Octaphilosophy”, a term he coined to describe his culinary ethos and encapsulate the elements that shape his past and his inspirations. Through a mastery of classic and modern cooking techniques, he served seasonal degustation menus, each item a different interpretation of his philosophy’s eight elements: pure, salt, artisan, south, texture, unique, memory and terroir.
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While “Memory”, a whipped foie custard topped with a coulis of wild mushrooms and Perigord black truffles (the first creation Chiang could call his own while work-ing as a commis at Le Jardin des Sens) was a constant in the Octaphilosophy menu, every other element changed with the seasons. Salt could be a briny composition of Brittany brown prawns, oysters, caviar and porcini in one season; in another, it could take the form of a plate of squid ribbons with seaweed coulis and toasted wheat and barley grains. All of the dishes were always artistic in presentation, the execution precise, and the flavours pure and presented in surprising combinations.
Yet what made the restaurant different from other fine dining outlets was how it seemed to offer a peek into Chiang’s life beyond that as a chef, with diners enjoying a meal surrounded with ceramic ornaments handcrafted by him. Such a level of intimacy was not the norm in Asia at that point in time. Restaurant André was bestowed two Michelin stars when the red book launched in Singapore in 2016, and retained these two stars the next year. It was also ranked second on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 list.
With the opening of Raw in Taipei in 2014, Chiang sparked a new wave of contemporary Taiwanese restaurants. His establishment serves seasonal degustation menus that spotlight local ingredients via modernist creations inspired by Taiwanese classics. Think molten-centred quail eggs cooked in an earl grey-bay leaf concoction—an ode to the convenience shop snack of tea-braised eggs—or paper-thin slivers of sturgeon and a block of puffed rice served with steaming hot broth poured tableside, a riff on a local fish soup.
Moving on to his next chapter
Those who have followed Chiang’s career will see how he has evolved from a chef who has mastered French haute cuisine to a versatile restaurateur proficient in running both fine dining and casual operations, and a champion of Chinese culinary culture. Just as Chiang code-switches easily from Mandarin to English to Japanese to French, he morphs into these different roles effortlessly. His latest undertaking is perhaps the most different: a hotelier and curator of holiday experiences in Japan. It is somewhat a homecoming, having lived in Tokyo as a 13-year-old working with his mother in her Chinese restaurant there.
Set to be launched at the end of the year, this boutique bed-and-breakfast concept in Kanazawa, Japan targets travellers who seek “journeys that go beyond sightseeing and allow them to live and eat like locals”. Mitsuma-ya (which means “House of Three Spaces” in Japanese) is a hospitality project but also one that hopes to save historical houses and revive crafts in Kanazawa. Comprising six machiyas, or traditional Japanese townhouses, in close proximity to each other, Mitsuma-ya is designed to bring out the character of each house.
“Working with a local artisan who specialises in the restoration and reconstruction of machiyas, we started with a trio of tiny, interconnected Meiji period houses and finished with what we call an old samurai house,” Chiang says of the new property where guests can expect to pay $180 and $300 per person a night. “From accommodation for one person to a house large enough for a family of six or more, each house offers a different living experience and tells different stories.”
Guests will have access to Chiang’s personal black book, be it a breakfast nook known only by insiders or the studio of a local craftsman he respects. “Think of it as a degustation menu: instead of dishes, we present experiences tailored according to how much time you have to explore Kanazawa,” he describes. He laughs at the suggestion that he is creating something akin to luxury brand Aman hotels, which is famed for offering guests privileged access to rare sites and experiences. “It is more like living in the family home of a good local friend who is also able to share the best hidden restaurant to dine at and places to explore.”
Besides his new Japanese venture, Chiang has also been busy with André & His Olive Tree, a documentary about his life story that was two years in the making. Presented in eight chapters, inspired again by Octaphilosophy, the film is slated to make its world debut in Taipei in August and hopes to enter a film festival in Singapore.
Homegrown director Josiah Ng, who worked on the documentary, found Chiang to be an “astute and observant” individual with measured replies. But after spending more than two weeks with the chef, the filmmaker, who is also the head of film and social content at advertising giant DDB Group Singapore, got to see the softer side of Chiang as well. “We saw that he was no different from the man on the street and was, in fact, incredibly thoughtful, sincere and down-to-earth. There were moments when he was more vulnerable than usual; we also saw occasions where he was tired and seemingly zoned out,” Ng says. “We also saw the way he interacted with his staff. He’s firm when he needs to be, and direct and strict in various aspects. But it was evident that he wins the affection and respect of those who have worked under him.”
When Chiang picked Singapore as his Asian base after working in Europe, it was way before the slew of celebrity chefs descended upon the city following the opening of Marina Bay Sands. He made his debut in China via Chengdu—rather than Shanghai and Beijing—because he saw the city’s position as the place with the highest average spend in luxury brands in China, and possibly the world. Similarly, he entered Macau with Sichuan Moon last March because he saw greater unexplored potential there than in Hong Kong. For his first hospitality project, he eschews more obvious locations in Japan for Kanazawa. “It is a special place for the Japanese: they can lose Tokyo or Kyoto but not Kanazawa. That’s where many of the country’s crafts were kept safe during World War II, and where they are kept alive today,” says Chiang.
For one who is ready to venture off the beaten track, Chiang is cautious when it comes to following business conventions, especially when it comes to capital management. He doesn’t borrow or rent. Instead, through working with local partners such as Singaporean hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng (with whom he co-owns other popular restaurants such as Burnt Ends, Meatsmith and Bincho in Singapore), and the Ko family behind Taiwanese hospitality management company Ko Hospitality Group, he opens in spaces that he can call his own.
This seems like an unorthodox practice that seems counter-intuitive to growth. Yet having no mortgage to service or rent to pay takes huge pressure off the company’s cash flow. Chiang’s empire, however, was not unscathed in the global Covid-19 outbreak. As of July, Sichuan Moon remains closed until further notice. Chengdu and Singapore also implemented lockdown measures that prohibited dining out for months, posing a threat to his ventures that emphasised on selling a full dining experience. Still, as of our interview in June, the André Chiang Group has managed to maintain zero retrenchment and kept full pay for his staff. This is no mean feat, considering how the pandemic has ravaged the restaurant industry worldwide.
Anybody can easily get a mortgage from the bank or rent a place to open a restaurant. But is this the way to go?
—Chef André Chiang
“We don’t leverage like what many businesses might do, expanding as fast or as much as we can. Instead, we grow very carefully, taking three to four years to develop a concept,” shares Chiang. “Anybody can easily get a mortgage from the bank or rent a place to open a restaurant. But is this the way to go?” he says, questioning common business practices within the F&B industry.
“When you rent a space, you think short-term. You will pick a trendiest location and then move three to five years later. Buying a space makes you think 10 to 20 years ahead, you think much further,” he says. “If you want to survive, you have to think long-term—and this pandemic has proven our philosophy right.”
So if circumstances ever find Chiang losing everything, he still wouldn’t be lost. He will be guided by more than the fire that inspired him to leave for France as a teenager and with little more than the shirt on his back. “I have always thought I am more like my energetic, outgoing mum. But as I grow older, I find myself more like my dad, the man who worked in one job his entire life and who took delight in the simple pleasures of his Chinese tea set and stereo system. He knew right from the start what he wanted in life,” reflects Chiang. “At this point, I know exactly what I want in life—and that clarity will guide me.”
- PhotographyHedy Chang
- StylingDaisy Hsiao