André Chiang is a chef that is revolutionising the way people drink at restaurants. While he has not necessarily set himself the goal of replacing what people drink at his restaurant André, he certainty wants to provide clients with something different.
“The current restaurant system is not perfect. When you dine out in a fine-dining restaurant you want to enjoy the experience as much as you can. Normally I would choose a wine pairing because that is something I am familiar with. But when you are served wine with every dish, you end up skipping the wine because it is too much. And what do you have instead? The system is not perfect. If you have one wine and one fermented juice you feel better,” he says.
In an interview with Food and Wine Gazette, André said that when he started working on fermented juices four years ago he did it out of realisation that restaurant owners were spending so much effort on cutlery, music, tables, napkins, silverware but what do you drink in the best restaurants if not water and wine.
“I started thinking why are people who do not want to drink wine forgotten,” he said.
That question, a simple why, was what triggered his experimentation with fermented juices. Today he is making around a dozen different fermented juices which he pairs with his dishes.
From that why came what he now sees as a business opportunity. “I definitely think that this is something that can be commercialised because not everyone has the knowledge to create these juices even in my restaurant. It is like making wine, you need to taste it every day and there is no standard recipe because we are talking of wild fermentation.”
André believes that sharing knowledge and information is important. “We want to open the possibility for people to think that even in the best restaurants they can decide to drink fermented juices instead of wine. What we are doing is not a substitute of wine but today, more and more people are going to restaurants and are asking not to drink wine for various reasons,” he said.
It is not an easy process. The fermented juice takes two to three months to make. Every juice ferments at different temperatures and the taste and aroma can vary so the drinks can be as complex as wine. The only difference is that one has alcohol and the other not. Andre says he still offers a very good wine selection in his restaurant in Singapore which has just 30 covers but he wants to offer something different to those who do not want to drink alcohol. “They deserve to have something else,” he said,
I ask him if he would recommend having juices instead of wine for a lunch or dinner and he says that it is up to the client. There are some dishes where wine works extremely well, there are others where the fermented juice works better.
He also believes that wine pairing is not unique in a restaurant. If you know the wine and the winemaker you know the wine. You cannot have a unique experience compared to something that has been fermented purposely with a dish in mind.
He says that the most beautiful way to cook is time. “Fermented juices can be as complex as a dish. It can support a dish and can act like a second sauce. The difference is that it has taken months to complete.”
Today, he is making 12-16 juices and he keeps trying and labelling them according to intensity. He has made sorrel, kale and seaweed juice, black rice, oat and barley, elderflower, pineapple and cucumber and pine needle charcoal and apple among others.
Andre Chiang learned the basics of French cuisine under Jacques and Laurent Pourcel. at the Jardin des Sens in Montpellier. It was there that he discovered the produce of the Mediterranean and developed an understanding of the cuisine’s organisation. He quickly gained the ability to anticipate trends in food.
He then moved to work with chefs like Joel Robouchon, Pierre Gagnaire and Pascal Barbot where he gained unique experiences.
Considered an artist in the kitchen, his cuisine is based on what he calls the Octaphilosophy or Unique, Pure, Texture, Memory, Salt, South, Artisan and Terroir. These are the eight most important words in restaurant André. They are the backbone of everything that is created at the restaurant.
Last year, together with Phaidon, he published his first book Octaphilosophy and travelled around the world promoting it. “Because we do not have a fixed menu, changing dishes all the time, I decided to document what we did during a year. We created 180 dishes during the year and it is all in the book with recipes.”
So what is the octaphilosophy and how does it influence his cooking I ask (For more about the octaphilosophy, check the encyclopaedia below). “We have our eight elements in the background. It is like working with the alphabet. To make a word or a sentence you need to use the alphabet. We do the same in the kitchen. If we are working with a chicken we work with the components and make the dish. If we replace the chicken and use fish instead we change the components and create new dish.
Restaurant Andre is one of the most influential restaurants in Asia and has been part of the World’s 50 Best since the restaurant opened. “This has had a big impact and is important.” But did it influence you in your cooking style. “No. If has of course impacted my business but in terms of cuisine, there has been no change in our food because we have a strong believe in what we do and it is hard to change that,” he says.
Andre tells me that French people tend to tell him his cuisine is French while Asian people say its Asian. “I never tried to make something French. I never tried to make something Asian. I have an Asian look, that is who I am but I have my own cooking style. As long as it is good, it does not matter,” he says.
France is a very important food destination but you do not see a lot of chefs in the World’s 50 Best. Why is that I ask him. “It is probably a cultural thing. They do not travel that much. You see a lot of chefs who are focused on their restaurant and even until they are very old, they hardly travel to other places or leave their restaurants. I respect that,” he says.
André does not travel to find inspiration. “I believe in consistency. If you come to restaurant André, you do not want to see Spanish influence one year and Chinese influence the next year. What you want to see is consistency and a belief in what we do. I do not travel for inspiration though of course it is great to travel and to learn and share what we do and what we believe in particularly because we can only take 30 guests each day in the restaurant.”
He says that social media nor the internet influences him. “First of all I never read reviews and I never see what other people are saying. I think you must believe in what you do and focus on it rather that start panicking because someone said something. I try to avoid seeing anything about cooking on social media or in my readings. I read about other things. I am interested in other things like photography, architecture, colour, fashion, design, anything but if I am not in the kitchen, I do not think about the kitchen or food.”
André does not even cook at home. There are two reasons he tells me. “First, my wife is a very good cook. Second, when I am not at work, I do not think about because because it is so intense that you need to find something to balance it out. So I switch off and that also helps me in my creative process,” he says.
André Chiang’s Encyclopaedia of Octaphilosophy
Pure: Beauty is in anything and everything. Truth is in simplicity. Allow an ingredient to unfold and evolve to its full potential without being altered. To release its honest flavour, aroma and texture. Let everything be untouched.
Salt: Sal-vation, sal-ary, sal-ad. Salt is not only the key to life, it also preserves, has been used as a currency, keeps away demons and makes food taste delicious. Salt is sea, civilised and essential.
Artisan: Practitioners of the art of cultivation deserve to be celebrated. Artisans carry history on their shoulders by passionate;y dedicating their lives to the craft of making a simple ingredient and turning it into gold.
South: Inhale the perfume of sun-drenched olive trees and ripe tomatoes. The air vibrates from joie de vivre. This is the South of France, the region that generously invites the adventurous, colourful spirit we call life.
Texture: Soft, crusty, hard, porous, slimy, dense, elastic…layers of texture composed as symphony, with the complexity of rhythm, loudness, silence…A delicious sensory experience.
Unique: Explore an ingredient with curiosity. Forget about habitual rules. Dare to challenge the imagination.
Memory: You are your memory. Memories are your best reference and your best friend. A memory can be revitalised and updated for as long as you live. Use your memories to enhance your practise of hedonism.
Terroir: The characteristics of a specific time and place, tradition and culture, geography and climate – incarnated into the ever-present origin.
(Source: Octaphilosophy: the eight elements of Restaurant André)