By Yali Chen
All Photos Courtesy of Restaurant Andre
A career in cooking was not Taiwan-born chef Andre Chiang’s original plan, but a few words from his father changed his life.
“I loved art and architecture in childhood, and I knew I wanted to be an artist or an architect,” Chiang says.
But after he finished his secondary education, his father discouraged him from entering the Fu Hsin Trade and Arts School in New Taipei City.
“My father told me, ‘You should do something to feed yourself,’” Chiang notes.
With a broad smile spreading over his face, the 36-year-old chef adds: “Now I really do something to ‘feed’ myself.”
In 2008 Chiang finally found a place in Singapore’s lively Chinatown district to open his restaurant.
The much-anticipated Restaurant Andre welcomed its first guests on October 10, 2010. Local gourmands now call him “Chef Andre.”
Without a doubt, chef Andre is wowing the world of French cuisine with his incredible cooking skills and artistic talent. His success story has also inspired many young people in his hometown to pursue their dreams.
On September 10, 2011, Chiang appeared at Taipei Zhongshan Hall in his chef’s apron, presenting a talk on the original intentions and creativity in his cuisine.
“As we get older, we gradually lose the original drive and imagination inside us. Sometimes we just forget why we want to cook or why we want to be artists and architects,” Chiang said.
Having spent 14 years training in France, Chiang is fascinated by the first story in the first chapter of The Little Prince – the novella written by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and published in 1943.
The first drawing looks like a lumpy blob with two flat lines tapering off to the left and right. Most adults thought it was supposed to be a hat. But the picture is actually a boa constrictor swallowing an elephant.
Inspired by this example that viewers must have the imagination to spot that non-literal meaning, Chiang says: “One day I realized that the most beautiful part of my experience was the intention, the process and story behind my cooking.”
Why is the original intention so important? The marquee chef explains: “When a boyfriend tries to figure out how to use a microwave in an effort to cook something for his girlfriend, his intention is beautiful. You don’t want to know what will come out of the microwave. So it’s important for me to know why I created this dish.”
To describe the principle and vision of his French cooking, he has coined a new word: Octaphilosophy. This philosophy is comprised of eight basic elements – unique, pure, texture, memory, salt, south, artisan and terroir (land).
Diners in his restaurant are treated to an 8-course meal that combines these eight characteristics. Offered a definitive holistic gourmet experience, they gain a better understanding of the thought processes behind his cuisine.
Chiang’s restaurant features two prix fixe menus – the Menu Classic and Menu Octa. Popular dishes such as “Forgotten Vegetables” and his interpretation of the “Snickers Bar” will continue to evolve on the former menu. Dishes on the latter faithfully represent his culinary principles. He uses only the freshest select produce in his kitchen.
“I think my cuisine is very natural. It’s all about the fresh produce, not my technique. It does matter how I enhance the produce to its best,” says the young chef whose career has taken him to some of the world’s top French restaurants including several acknowledged masters of nouvelle cuisine – Pierre Gagnaire (3 Michelin Stars), Paris; L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (1 Michelin Star), Paris; L’Astrance (3 Michelin Stars), Paris; La Maison Troisgros (3 Michelin Stars), Roanne; and Le Jardin des Sens (3 Michelin Stars), Montpellier.
Now considered one of the world’s best young chefs, Chiang grew up in an area near Taipei’s Shilin Night Market, regarded as one of Taiwan’s best-known night markets. He could not speak French before embarking on his trip to France at the age of 20 and received his training from Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, the twin brothers who opened Le Jardin des Sens in 1988 in Montpellier with their friend Olivier Chateau. Ten years later the restaurant was awarded its third Michelin star in recognition of its elegant, creative Mediterranean cooking.
“They were my mentors as I embarked on my career in French cooking,” Chiang replied in an e-mail. “Seven years at their establishment gave me a lot of experience in cooking and management. They trained me from commis (junior cook) to chef de cuisine (kitchen chef) in a 3-star Michelin restaurant.”
In his newest book titled “Education Should Be Different,” Stanley Yen, Chairman of the Alliance Cultural Foundation and Ritz Landis Hotel in Taipei, cited the hard-working chef as a shining example to prove the importance of concentration and passion.
During his first seven years in France, Chiang worked 20 hours a day, 365 days a year. He did a lot of chores from washing vegetables, peeling potatoes and clearing tables to cleaning up the restaurant.
“Even now I still work eighteen hours a day because I enjoy doing what I love,” Chiang says, adding that working under pressure helps to keep him focused.
At the age of 16, the young boy worked as an apprentice at Restaurant Paris 1930 of the Ritz.
“I have known Mr. Yen since he served as the hotel’s general manager,” notes Chiang, who became a chef for the French restaurant at the Sherwood Taipei when he turned 20 – the youngest-ever French chef in Taiwan.
Chiang’s mother had worked in a restaurant in Tokyo’s Chinatown district for one decade.
“She’s a good cook. Lunchtime was the most satisfying moment when I studied in junior high school. My mom’s cuisine always completed my day,” he says, adding that he’ll never forget the taste of her specialty – meat and skin from a pig’s head with chili oil.
The original intention behind her cooking helped Chiang learn the true meaning of cuisine and has driven him to be a distinguished chef.
Embarking on his career in the culinary arts, Chiang dreamed about owing a small, intimate place like a little house with a small kitchen. His dream came true last year when his three-floor restaurant opened on Bukit Pasoh Road in Singapore.
The intimate space offers only 30 seats because its chef hopes to serve food to each guest personally. It also functions as a showcase for the owner to demonstrate his artistic talent, a penchant for pottery in particular. His delicate, hand-made plates and artworks as well as his favorite books are on display throughout the restaurant. The cellar features a small collection of boutique wines from France, including rare wine labels selected by Chef Andre.
“Quality doesn’t equal identity. Even if you have good quality produce or products, it’s not enough. I believe that you must still develop your own identity,” Chiang noted.
Asked about the future of Taiwanese gourmet cuisine, he answered in the e-mail: “I think Taiwanese produce has already reached world-class standards, but (the question is) how to let more people know about and relate to that quality in Taiwanese gourmet foods. That will be something that we have to work on.”
By Yali Chen