Hubert Burda Media

Chef André Chiang talks food and family

André Chiang demonstrates how a full heart and empty mind are the ingredients behind his genre-bending culinary feats.

André Chiang. Photo: Until Chan
André Chiang. Photo: Until Chan

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 four-hands 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.

Botan Ebo "Chaud-Froid"

“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 mom, 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.

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 he 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.”

Octaphilosophy is an eightcourse 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 published 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 Paris, then moved to the Seychelles for the express purpose of “not drawing inspiration or recipes from right and left”, and “to empty myself”.

Clams, leek, noirmoutier potato

Clams, leek, noirmoutier potato

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 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 of Taiwan. “Taiwan has so much great produce, great people, great artisans, a lot of local food,” he says,” 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.”

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 over-extend 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).

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 over-extend 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).