Singapore's Andre Chiang is staking his claim on the international culinary scene with his octaphilosophy cuisine. He tells Joanna Wood all about it, and why you don't always need salt to season food
There's a perceived wisdom that says chefs are either artisans or artists. But in talented chefs, these lines of distinction are blurred. Such is the case with 35-year-old Andre Chiang. Taiwanese-born, but based - and making a name for himself - in Singapore, Chiang is a skilled craftsman, but also, most definitely, an artist. You only have to walk into his exquisite office, located above his eponymous restaurant, to clock that.
There's nothing utilitarian about the office. It's light and airy with ecru walls, lined on one side with shelves containing a few telling photographs of family and books of all kinds (cookery and others); on the other, with a painted quotation in French and some delicate clay-modelled vegetables.
The vegetables were sculpted by Chiang. The quotation roughly translates as: For art there is no destination, it can be transformed into any medium. "It would be silly to give a destination to what you want to achieve - that's why I have a free menu and use cuisine to tell a story. But I tell stories through clay and sketching sometimes," he explains.
Chiang's office is, as you might expect, merely an extension of his restaurant on the floors below, which he has also designed. Wallpaper to tableware. Kitchen to front-of-house. He views it as an extension of himself. "I want you to feel like you're invited into my home - and to have an open mind when you come to eat here," he says.
Given this, it's no surprise that his menu is idiosyncratic, both in structure and the way it's written. Its cover is long and white and inside there are eight, single, interchangeable words covering each dish level of what is, essentially, a tasting menu. These are: pure, salt, artisan, south, texture, unique, memory and terroir. Chiang calls these eight categories his "octaphilosophy" and he cooks dishes freely within each themed parameter according to what produce is available to him at any given time.
At its most basic, octaphilosopy is Chiang's marketing tool, his USP: a licence to cook what he wants for his diners, who pay a high premium for the experience. But like the rest of the restaurant, it's also intensely personal - and thought out to the nth degree.
"Before I opened the restaurant I went back to my recipe book and looked at all of my sketches and recipes - and tried to extract the essence of 'Andre' not a duplicate of any other chef, but what is MY style: and I realised that there were eight elements constantly repeating themselves in my menus," he recalls.
So what exactly do these eight labels mean in Chiang's culinary language? And how do they translate on to the plate, as it is set before his diners? The first thing to point out is that, contrary to expectation - given his cultural and national heritage - Chiang's cooking is fairly-and-squarely rooted in modern and classic French cuisine, although it has Asian nuances. This style is thanks to the 15 years he spent working in some of France's most iconic restaurants.
He began his gallic sojourn at the tender age of 15, not speaking a word of the lingua franca. "It was very, very tough," he admits - but he was determined to be the "best" Asian chef cooking French food, so failure wasn't an option.
In case you're wondering, his burning passion to cook in the French style sprang from a stage with Japanese chef Hiroyuki Sakai at the latter's La Rochelle restaurant in Tokyo, where the celebrated Japanese chef put out classical French food.
Until that Damescene moment, Chiang had assumed that he would eventually take over his mother's successful Taiwanese restaurant in the Japanese capital (opened in Tokyo when Chiang was 13, hence his presence in Japan).
Returning to Chiang's culinary terminology, most of it is self-explanatory but the detail is what defines it. So for him, "pure" means a dish that is true to the flavour of its central produce but also one that often doesn't use salt or any "energy" (eg, electricity) in its preparation and cooking. While "salt" can actually mean a dish which doesn't even use its titular condiment to achieve a briny tang.
"Artisan" translates to dishes with a simple, direct flavour-punch frequently achieved with cheaper or under-utilised ingredients; while "unique" is used to showcase special, sometimes rare and heritage, produce; "texture" and "memory" need no real explanation, but "terroir" translates to dishes containing produce specifically linked to their place of origin (Welsh lamb, Anjou pigeon, etc). And "south" equates utterly to the flavours of the South of France.
"Although I worked in other places in France, all my inspiration and source of influence is from Le Jardin des Sens," Chiang reveals. "For me, that means freshness, fruit, seafood, acidity, lemon, tomato, fresh herbs, olive oil."
When you actually eat Chiang's food, you are struck by three things: its beautiful presentation, the cleanness and intensity of its flavour; and Chiang's skill in balancing tastes. It's obvious that he's a perfectionist, an attribute he was clearly born with, but one which he honed while working in France - culinary perfection, he learnt there, starts with a knowledge of raw materials.
"I learnt to listen to produce in France. Chinese kitchens are all about technique, not flavour," he says.
Chiang, however, doesn't limit himself creatively to his past experiences, either in France or Asia. Like his good friend Jason Atherton, he has his finger on the pulse and is well aware of what trail-blazing chefs around the world are doing - from Rene Redzepi in Denmark to Alex Atala in Brazil. Like both of these chefs he is curious about food and interested in new ingredients.
And he's also interested in wider issues, such as the destruction of the rainforests in his part of the world. Last year he became involved in a project to help preserve the endangered rainforest in his corner of the globe, called Rainforest Kitchen.
As part of that, he took off in to the jungle for a couple of weeks, searching out edible wild plants to use in his dishes.
The idea is that the ingredients he unearthed - including durian flowers, wild orchids, figs and berries, wild tree mushrooms (on the menu in an "orangutan" salad) - will in future, if championed by Chiang and his fellow Singaporean chefs, command a premium and, as he says, "show that you don't need to cut down forests and plant them with oil palms" to get an economic return. "I don't want to expand my restaurant, I want to expand my ingredient usage," he insists.
That said, like any aspirational Francophile chef, he wouldn't half mind a Michelin star. "It's every chef's dream, so I hope that Michelin will come to Singapore soon!" he laughs.
The best way to understand Chiang's concept of octaphilosophy in culinary terms is to go through an actual menu.
Snacking - Including crispy chicken masala and potato bravas on a bed of garlic cacao soil, popcorn vanilla, onion tart and fish sandwich.
Pure - Scallop ravioli. Scallop and crab tartare paste wrapped an wafer-thin scallop carpaccio, surrounded by a purple cauliflower consommé with a sprinkling of scallop roe to give the seasoning - the result is an intense, but extremely refined, hit of scallop.
Salt - Oyster wrapped in seaweed, with a sea water jelly, pickled apple and cucumber, (also made utilising sea water). No added salt in the dish - the freshness, the iodine of the sea produce would be blunted.
Artisan - Aubergine anglaise. Aubergine, duck tongue and coxcomb braised together until their juices and flavours mesh to form the basis for a silky, flavour-charged anglaise. "For me aubergine has a mild flavour, but it's a sponge - this way, as an anglaise, although you're eating a vegetable, it's full of meat flavour," says Chiang.
Texture - Squid risotto with black crackers: When the dish comes to the table, the natural assumption is that the risotto will be the rice and the crackers the squid element (by utilising squid ink). Actually, the risotto is made up of squid, the cracker of rice. So you get soft and crispy textures, but not in the way you expect.
South - For this course, Chiang use the freshest deliveries of fish from France with tomatoes, white peaches, long seaweed and coral, drizzled with fig vinaigrette.
Unique - Rock salt-baked blackbone chicken egg, flavoured with cardamom, thyme, cinnamon and star anise. Blackbone is a luxury chicken like Bresse in France, traditionally used in Chinese cuisine, but its eggs, slightly larger than those of the quail, are mostly ignored by Asian chefs.
Memory - Foie gras jelly served with a black truffle coulis. One of the few dishes in Chiang's repertoire that has remained the same since he first cooked it 14 years ago. "My all-time favourite," he admits, "and also memory for all the people who have dined with me over the years."
Terroir - Anjou pigeon with garlic "soil" - dried, ground olives.
Pre-dessert and dessert - Strawberry sorbet, followed by chocolate variations - chocolate "soil", single cocoa couverture chocolates bombe.
● Alium family - onion, garlic, chives
● Citrus fruit and juice - lemon, lime, yuzu
● Condiments - eg, soy sauce, Thai fish sauce, vinegar
● Spices such as cardamom, caraway seeds, paprika, turmeric, sesame seeds
● Parmesan and pecorino cheese
● Fresh herbs (eg, oregano, savory, thyme)
● Cinnamon (particularly in fruits)
● Seaweed (kelp, nori, etc)
● Sea lettuce
● 1976 Born in Taiwan
● 1990 Moved to Tokyo (where his mother, a chef-restaurateur, opened a successful restaurant)
● 1992 Aged 15, moved to France for 15 years. Worked for some of France's celebrated modern culinary masters, including Pierre Gagnaire, Pascal Barbot, Michel Troisgros and the Pourcel brothers.
● 2008 Moved to Singapore. Opened Jaan restaurant at Singapore's Swisshotel, putting Jaan on the island state's culinary map in three months.
● 2010 Restaurant Andre opens to great local, and growing international, acclaim in Singapore's Chinatown district
Where? Located in Singapore's Chinatown area in an old three-storey colonial building, next to the Majestic hotel, which owns the lease on the restaurant site
Design style Minimalist but textured neutral colour palette in wall and soft furnishings. Woolly black sheep handbag rests. Black and white marbled flooring.
Cuisine style Modern French haute cuisine with Asian accent
Average spend per head Approximately £200 (including wine)
Restaurant manager Stepan Marhoul
Opened October 2010
Awards Include: Tatler Singapore Best New Restaurant 2011; Second Best Restaurant in Asia, Miele Guide 2011.
41 Bukit Pasoh Road, Singapore 089855
Tel: 00 65 65348880
Published by: The Caterer