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Art is at the heart of André Chiang’s kitchen philosophy. The Taiwanese chef - whose Restaurant André in Singapore, at number 37 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants 2014 and number 6 of the Asian list (both sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna) was named one of the Top 10 restaurants in the world worth a plane ride by the New York Times - even refers to himself as a “chef artist”, but what does that mean? Can cooking ever really be referred to in such terms? We asked the man himself to explain. “I would say that art and creativity are the sole elements that give me inspiration and help me craft the message I want to convey, as I feel the need to use a different means to better communicate with the guests and people in general,” says Chiang. In other words, he prefers to let his artful food do the talking.
Chiang’s ever-changing menu ebbs and flows with the pulse of nature, responding to the availability of fresh seasonal ingredients. But it’s as much a reaction to his obsessions and curiosity of the world around him. Take his famous “Snickers” dessert, for example. This homage to the household-name snack bar takes the primary ingredients of chocolate, caramel, nuts and nougat and reconstructs them in a variety of states and inventive permutations. It has made numerous appearances over the years, encapsulated in a ‘crystal‘ sphere, or deconstructed and mounded on a smooth clay boulder, but Chiang is aware of the need to reign in his imagination from time to time: “One needs to always pull themselves back to the original idea and ask themselves why and how the dish is created. The original idea is the key.”
Ideas are the bedrock of Chiang’s work at the 30-seat restaurant in a traditional Chinatown terrace. His “Octaphilosophy” is a real thing, a registered trademark no less. Comprising eight concepts - unique, texture, memory, pure, terroir, salt, south and artisan - it explores the relationship between food and memory, and reflects Chiang’s formative experiences as a young chef in the south of France. He cut his culinary teeth working for the likes of Jacques and Laurent Pourcel, Michel Troisgros, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire, and it shows. “Octaphilosophy is a concept to be considered as a whole in order to achieve the perfect gastronomic journey. Thus, all elements are equally important as they are the different facets of my cuisine,” explains Chiang. But there’s one element that appears to trump all the others: salt.
He has cited it as his favourite ingredient, and goes to such lengths as using seawater from the Mediterranean to bring flavour to his food. While the Octaphilosophy menu’s “Salt” dish changes frequently, it always aims to exploit the natural salinity of the sea, combining seafood such as oysters and sea snails with marine vegetation. “I think that we all underestimate and underrate salt and the depth of saltiness, unlike other tastes such as sweetness. I feel like saltiness has so many dimensions.”
Since local produce in Singapore is limited, many ingredients have to be imported. But Chiang aims to reduce his carbon footprint by growing many of his favourite European items at a small farm in Taiwan. There, the soil and conditions are perfect for producing a range of ingredients, from beets and asparagus, to radishes and carrots. It’s all part of Chiang’s environmental philosophy, one which he intends to spread as far as possible. “It’s not just what I do, it is about introducing the idea to the guests,” says Chiang. “We are very committed to telling the origin of our artisan produce and the reasons why we hope this contributes to the experience.”
One way of spreading the word is by combining the chef’s artistic impulses with a ready eye for a headline. Chiang’s “Orang-utan Salad” was a clever way of bringing attention to the destruction of the great apes’ natural habitat in the lowland forests of Borneo and Sumatra. “As this salad includes all the ingredients eaten by the orang-utan, this is a sort of a substitution experiment where the guest is invited to a reflexion on the life conditions of the orang-utans and the threats they live with every day as their food is being taken away from them by men,” says Chiang.
Chef, artist, environmental campaigner - are there any other strings to Chiang’s bow? Well, he was once a male model. But that was as a young chef, supplementing his income as a lowly paid apprentice. These days Chiang’s self-expression is confined to the kitchen, and occasionally at home: “During my spare time, I like to do pottery or sculpture, sketches and a little painting. I love the multiplicity of means of expression and the magic of craft, artisan work.”