Award-winning chef André Chiang talks about his love for cooking, which began at a young age. Today, he continues to earn praise for serving up innovative cuisine that uses the freshest ingredients.

Most 15-year-old boys would prefer to be outdoors, playing football with their friends. But that was not the case with André Chiang, who already knew what he wanted to do — he wanted to be a chef. Chiang says cooking was probably already in his DNA as his mum was also a chef. “At 13, I left Taiwan and worked with my mum in Japan, where we lived for two years. Then, I moved to France at the age of 15... and that was where it all started,” he says in an exclusive interview with Options at his two Michelin-starred restaurant at Bukit Pasoh in Chinatown.

At Restaurant André, which opened in 2010, Chiang has been pushing the boundaries with his menu, which features fresh produce. One of his most-talked about items is his “17 vegetables” dish, which uses artisan produce from his farm in Taiwan.

When time permits, Chiang indulges in his hobby of creating pottery. Many of his works are displayed in the restaurant, along with photographs of his VIP guests, such as the late Lee Kuan Yew and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Chiang tells us more about his early life and his passion for food.

Was the road to success an easy one for you?
I would say yes and no. I don’t think about the 200 things I want to do. A lot of young kids get excited about what other people are doing. They asked me why I was working 14 to 15 hours a day. I used to see my friends playing and sometimes I asked myself ‘why am I doing this, working 15 hours a day, while everyone’s playing?’. But I enjoy what I do, so I guess, in a way, that helped me focus. It seems easy, but there was a lot of hard work, a lot of sacrifice along the way — but the hard work paid off. The hardest thing to do is to keep things simple and to know exactly what you need and nothing more.

What was your first memory of food?
I was born in Shihlin [Taiwan] and remember the Shihlin night market. My memory of food started as a child. I remember walking through the night market to get to my house. I was surrounded by street food and its flavours. That planted the culinary seed in me, and when I started to pursue my dream of becoming a chef, it just seemed so natural to me.

What do awards and accolades mean to you?
It is good to be recognised as we are only in a small corner of Chinatown, in Singapore. People travel from Chile, Brazil, Iceland and Czechoslovakia to Singapore for two days just to dine at Restaurant André. It is the accolades that spur us, but I do not want to give myself any pressure. We’re still doing what we do and what we like, and at the end of the day, the only thing that we can control is our 30 happy guests.

What do you want your customers to feel when they are dining at Restaurant André?
Restaurant André is not a restaurant. It is André’s house. From the moment you walk in, you know that it’s not just a restaurant. You don’t see tables and chairs. Instead, you see a reading area and each floor shows a different atmosphere — the dining area, kitchen, living room, terrace and bedroom. So, it really feels like you are walking into my house with me cooking, while my wife does the serving. It is very different compared with conventional restaurants.

What is your favourite cooking ingredient?
A favourite ingredient? I’m not sure, but I enjoy the element of salt — not the different types of salt, but the depth of saltiness. For example, anchovies, olives, ham, fish sauce, soy sauce and anything with a depth of saltiness give different types of saltiness. These ingredients are like shadows.

Can you provide an example?
A fried egg is only a fried egg. But combine it with fish sauce, olives and ham and these give the fried egg a different dimension. It’s no more an ordinary fried egg. It’s like a painting — you have an object and then this element is added, which shows different angles and parts of the object without interfering with the main component. In the same way, a fried egg has a different taste with these salty elements that change its flavour.

Have you ever tried tomatoes with soy sauce or fish sauce?
If you combine tomatoes with soy sauce, you taste a different version of tomato, a tomato flavour that you’ve never tasted before, but still tomato. Nowadays, we don’t get surprised by an ingredient that we’ve never seen before, but ingredients that we thought we knew but that come in a different way surprise us. People get surprised by a potato dish. People get surprised by an egg dish. But people don’t get surprised by something served on a spoon with caviar or truffle.

You are also a sculptor and a ceramicist. How does this complement your career as a chef?
Every piece of clay has a different character. Sometimes the clay is elastic, fragile or soft... so you can’t mould it into any shape you want. It collapses or breaks and that’s its nature. How do you work with nature? When wood grows, it has to follow the grain and shape to bring out the best. It’s the same with ingredients. How do we follow nature? Find out the character or the best of an ingredient by studying it instead of going against nature. I guess it is deeper than just turning it into something you want.

In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talked about eating healthy. If he gave you a healthy meal request, what would you cook for him?
The vegetables that we grow ourselves. Firstly, they are organic and grown on rich soil, which is very rare. In our restaurant, we have a dish that features 17 vegetables. The dish is very special and people always talk about it, because it’s quite refreshing to have a vegetable dish that comprises 17 vegetables when compared with most other dishes that are protein-based. People always appreciate that. So, if I were to recommend a dish, that would be the dish.

What can we look forward to over the next few months?
This month, I’ve decided to create a dessert called Ice Cream Uncle. It is based on a TV programme on the life of an 85-year-old ice cream seller. I was moved by the story. I want to create the best-quality ice cream dessert we can offer. We are making our own rainbow bread by using the French brioche. We will use wild strawberries for the red parts and pandan and verbena for the green parts of the brioche. We will use fresh milk from Singapore to make the wafer, which will be white milk wafer instead of biscuit wafer.

At the end of this month, I will be the ambassador and spokesperson for the 7th Slow Food International Congress in Chengdu, China. I guess this is a start for the slow food [movement] in Asia and letting more people know about healthy food, healthy cooking and a healthy lifestyle. In fact, that idea goes hand in hand with what Mr Lee [Hsien Loong] said. I am very happy to be a part of it.

This article appeared in Issue 798 (Sept 25) of The Edge Singapore.