From The Straits Times Archives: The Monday interview with Andre Chiang

Award-winning chef Andre Chiang of two-Michelin-starred at Restaurant Andre.
Award-winning chef Andre Chiang of two-Michelin-starred at Restaurant Andre. ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

He has worked with the world’s best chefs, and now, Andre Chiang is in the same league as them

This story was first published on Aug 23, 2010.

The logo for new restaurant Par Andre says a lot about the man behind it, Taiwan-born chef Andre Chiang.

What catches the eye first is the slash down the left side. It is not a smooth one and reflects the handwrought nature of his 30-seat eatery in Bukit Pasoh, set to open at the end of next month.

The flat plates, made by Chiang at the rate of five on a good day, have a groove on the side made with his thumb, so the servers can pick them up easily.

His artworks will also adorn the three- storey, standalone building that used to house the Majestic Bar.

The 34-year-old designed the kitchen too, with its luxe black enamel and stainless steel Molteni stove, custom- made in France. Overhead is a Halton ventilated ceiling from Finland, a very souped-up, whisper-quiet cooker hood.

The right side of the logo spells out the rest of his first name but parts of the letters are missing. Why?

A clue might well be found written in white ink on the black pages of the chef’s sketchbook. It is a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French author of The Little Prince: What is essential is invisible to the eye.

In a world where chefs tweet and blog to attract buzz, and have to be equal parts artist and businessman, it takes chutzpah to hold back a little.

Chiang, soft-spoken outside the kitchen, is not known to be a talker. He thwarts a reporter’s attempts to get more details about his restaurant during an interview set up to, well, find out more about the new restaurant.

He answers pointed questions with a smile and silence.At dinner with some people in the industry, he listens more than he talks. His measured answers lead one guest to describe him as humble and thoughtful, while another remarks on his reticence.

Still, when Life! asks to fill in the blanks, he obliges, for the most part.

His story is one familiar to any chef who has paid his dues. For everyone else, it is a story of how a mix of savvy, a desire to learn from and work for the best and, yes, a little cockiness, has served him well.

He came to Singapore in 2008 with impeccable credentials, having worked for name-brand chefs such as Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, Joel Robuchon, Pierre Gagnaire, Michel Troisgros, Alain Ducasse and Pascal Barbot.

Taking charge of Jaan at Swissotel The Stamford, he soon attracted diners curious about, then hungry for, his elegant modern French cuisine. The restaurant was renamed Jaan Par Andre in his honour.

He and his staff put out sophisticated, produce-driven food, in a cooking style distilled from his experience in the top kitchens of France.

In April this year, it debuted at No.39 on the San Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, ahead of establishments run by multi-Michelin-starred chefs such as Ducasse and Robuchon.

Before he was putting out exquisite food though, Chiang, the youngest of three children, was cooking fried rice with ketchup after school. His parents were busy so he lived with his grandmother and aunt, learning to be independent from a young age.

He is tight with his siblings. His brother Nic, 40, is a TV actor in Taiwan and his Los Angeles-based sister Yvonne, 41, a fashion and bedlinen designer.

When he was 10, his mother went to Japan with a friend and worked in a factory packing eggs into cartons. At age 13, he left school and joined her in Yamanashi Prefecture, near Tokyo.

His mother, Madam Lin Feng Hui, now 60, helped out at her friend’s eatery after her day job and later took it over when her friend got married.

Chiang worked alongside her – they rode bicycles to work, shopped for produce and did the prep work. But after two years of 10-hour days, he returned to Taipei.

“My mother said I did not have the talent for Chinese food. She cooks good Chinese food but I kind of wanted to twist it,” he says.

“Maybe it’s something in the blood. I did not just want to make Peking Duck, I wanted to make Peking Duck with character.”

He asked himself what the best cuisine in the world was, and settled on French.

So back home, he got himself hired by the French restaurant in what was then the best hotel in Taipei, the Hilton, and attended school at the same time.

After doing well in an examination for senior high, he applied to art and cooking schools. He was accepted by both and wanted to go to art school after passing the school’s sketch and watercolour test without having had any art classes.

But fees were steep so his father, Mr Chiang Chen Yu, now 65, suggested he go to cooking school instead. “It’s not bad,” the younger Chiang recalls his father saying. “You can feed yourself.”

Decoding French cuisine

But he was already ahead of his classmates at Tam Shui Food & Beverage Management College.

He pushed himself nonetheless – school from 6am to 4pm, then a long bus ride to the Hilton, where he worked from 6pm to midnight.

He says: “I would finish my work and ask the chefs to teach me something. Then I would show off the next day in school. That’s how I got so into this. I got more and more confident.”

A life-changing moment came in 1995 when Ducasse was guest chef at The Sherwood Taipei. By then, Chiang was working in the French restaurant there. He had heard it had the best of everything.

“This was the first time I had seen anything like it. I thought it was out of this world,” he says. “He brought everything from Monte Carlo – eggs, meat sauces, truffles and even water, frozen.”

He later went on to the French chef’s gilt-edged Louis XV in Monaco for a three-week stage or internship.He says: “Louis XV is out of this world, it’s something totally extreme. It gave me a big shock. It was totally different from the French cuisine I saw in Taiwan, which was basic, classic.”

But it was another visit to the hotel by a pair of twin brothers that made him what he is today: The Pourcel brothers did not take a planeload of ingredients with them. They shopped in the local markets and fashioned a gourmet menu out of the ingredients they found there.

After a three-week stage at their three-Michelin-starred Le Jardin Des Sens in Montpellier in the south of France, Chiang decided he wanted to work for them.

But there was a two-year military service stint to serve first. While waiting to be drafted, he worked at the Paris 1930 restaurant at The Ritz in Taipei. All excited and wanting to “be ready” to work for the Pourcels, he took on two eight-hour jobs a day, spending mornings in the pastry department and nights in the kitchen.

As fate would have it, a body-building injury to his lung – he used to be able to benchpress 165kg – meant he had to serve only 35 days of military service. Soon, he was off to Montpellier, in 1998.

There, more hard work. “I want to make sure I can deliver 100 per cent. If I feel I am not that good, I will come earlier, prepare earlier. It felt good to show the Pourcels that I was committed.”

They responded by giving him opportunities. “They treated me like I was French. I was allowed to do many things. From the beginning, they tried to test my limits. ‘Andre, tonight you take care of the cold kitchen. Tomorrow, I have a private function – you are in charge.’ They were testing to see how far I could go.

“Adjusting the sauce is a very big responsibility in kitchens and only Chef Laurent would do it. We had 35 cooks but he would say, ‘Andre, you adjust the sauce’.”

He had to pick up French quickly and speaks it fluently now. “I’m not the kind of person who is afraid to talk. If I know three French words, I would use them. I catch languages pretty fast.”

His desire to get to the core of French cuisine also led him to leave Le Jardin Des Sens. “I told the chef I wanted to move on because I wanted to know what French cuisine was. I wanted to know what it was like in the middle of France, in the north, in Paris, so I could know the whole picture.”

The brothers got him a job with Troisgros in Roanne and he went on to work in L’Atelier Joel Robuchon, Barbot’s L’Astrance and Restaurant Pierre Gagnaire, all in Paris.

But he remained loyal to the Pourcels, training a Japanese team to run their Sens & Saveurs in Tokyo in 2002, and in 2004, opening D’Sens in Bangkok and Sens & Bund in Shanghai for them.

It was in the Thai capital that he met his wife, Sudarampai, 36, editor-in-chief of the Thailand edition of the fashion magazine Grazia. A mutual friend had introduced them and they were hitched within three months.

The proposal – “So you gonna marry me or what?” – came via text message but he is hazy on who texted whom.

In any case, he invited her father to D’Sens the next day and made him a special meal. “After that, I asked for his permission. He was horrified because he had known me for only three minutes. He didn’t say much.”

Two days later though, the couple, ringless, registered their marriage. A week later, he was in Shanghai to work on Sens & Bund.

“I am not a romantic person,” he says. “I told her to pick a ring that she liked.”

He says of his wife: “She is different from other Thai girls. They are very mild, not so active, more feminine, polite. She’s firm and independent.”

She has been commuting between Bangkok and Singapore, and he says she will continue to do so.

On his own

His days are now consumed by the new restaurant. He radiates the calm of someone who has done this before, for others, and is ready to come into his own.

Construction is on track. The only hiccup appears to be a spy who poked his head into the restaurant one night when Chiang was working late.

He heard a noise and went to look. It was someone from the industry whom he refuses to name. The person made a hasty getaway and the building now has security patrols at night.

Chiang’s silent partner in Par Andre, hotelier Loh Lik Peng, jokes that he signs the cheques “with a bit of grumbling”.

He was one of the first and biggest admirers of Chiang’s food, says the 38-year-old. “For me, his style of cooking is pretty unique in Singapore.”

The chef is vague on what he will serve at the restaurant but says he will offer two tasting menus, and charge $190 or $200 a head, less than he did at Jaan Par Andre.

“I really want people to appreciate the food more than being concerned about the price. It’s a little place of mine – I want people to come in and enjoy the effort and passion for food.

“It’s not for competition, not something to show off. It’s the original happiness of enjoying food.”

He will have a team of seven in his kitchen, including two stalwarts who have worked with him since Shanghai – Elmen Chang, 27, and Johnny Jiang, 25. He calls them his “kids”.

After he left Jaan Par Andre in May, he and his wife went to France as she had never been there. They retraced the journey he took and it appears the trip was as much for him as it was for her, a reminder of how far he had come.

In Montpellier, he showed her the storeroom he used to sleep in; a sandwich stand where in winter, he would buy a baguette filled with french fries and topped with ketchup and mayonnaise for €1.20 – a cheap, filling meal for a penniless chef.

Another stop was a farm near Le Jardin Des Sens. He had slept in a barn there for free, helping out with chores before going to work.

He says: “My name is still on the mailbox. It just kills me. I cried like a baby, I could not stop.

“It reminded me of that original passion. A Taiwanese kid arriving there, chasing his dream of being a French chef.”

As Saint-Exupery writes, just before declaring the essential invisible, “One sees clearly only with the heart.”