How To Think Like A Michelin-Starred Chef
Mr André Chiang in the kitchen. All photographs by Mr Edmond Ho
Mr André Chiang shares the principles of his Octaphilosophy, so you can master his style of cooking at home.
Some ambitious contemporary chefs attach highfalutin “philosophies” to their cooking, only to create a certain amount of froth – and not the edible kind. And when we first heard about Taipei-born chef Mr André Chiang’s “Octaphilosophy” – and his new Phaidon book dedicated to it – we cannot say that our salivary glands were immediately stimulated. But after a little bit of reading, tasting and talking – we learnt that Mr Chiang’s philosophy is a logical blueprint for his cooking, and something that might inspire us to change our approach to food and creativity.
The book explains eight key words or ideas that represent everything that comes out of the kitchen at Restaurant André – the restaurant Mr Chiang owns in Singapore – which is one of the most respected in Asia, and currently sits at number 32 in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. These are categorised by conceptual adjectives such as “unique” (“Explore an ingredient with curiosity. Forget about habitual rituals…”) and “pure” (“allow an ingredient to unfold and evolve to its full potential…”). But there are also some more straightforward references in the mix, such as “south” – which represents Mr Chiang’s respect for southern French cooking (he spent his formative years in the kitchens of legends such as Mr Pierre Gagnaire). Also, “salt” – something we can all comprehend.
This balance of these philosophical influences shines through clearly in Mr Chiang’s food. How do we know? Because we were lucky enough to be invited to his residency at The Guest Series – a collaborative cooking event hosted by British chef Mr James Lowe at Lyle’s in Shoreditch. There is certainly a playful creativity to what he serves up – his “charcoal”, prawn and red pepper dish, for example, (in which the “charcoal” turns out to be bread, when you bite into it). Or the “duck heart, liver and tongue” dish which benefited from the surprising addition of tangy sweet potato artfully arranged in tubes… But, beyond the trickery, each plate demonstrates a series of honest techniques and well-balanced ingredients.
Left: Clams, Leek, Noirmoutier Potato. Right: Live Langoustine, Butternut Squash, Blood Orange
Is it possible for mere mortals to replicate such philosophically sound gastronomy? To get to grips with Mr Chiang’s concept, and see if we could adapt his ideas for home cooking, we rang him up in Singapore for a chat. For all those aspiring Michelin-starred chefs currently looking to breathe new life into their shepherd’s pie and beef stir-fry, scroll down for Mr Chiang’s guide on how to embark upon an enlightened culinary journey of your own.
CREATE YOUR OWN PHILOSOPHY
“Find your identity and your own eight words to inform your creations – a core message or branding. Don’t go out and look for inspiration. The dish should come from your own experience. It’s a method to bring out different dimensions from the produce. I have spent nine years of my career in the south of France. It’s my most important influence – so it’s one of the elements of my philosophy. It’s not only talking about the produce in France, but techniques and ideas: generosity, vibrant colour, big flavours.”
BE INSTINCTIVE AND WELCOME NEW IDEAS
“What’s the first reaction you have when you see some produce? What inspires you when you see an avocado? Normally, the first thing a home cook thinks about with, say, a piece of fish is cooking method, garnish and then combination. If you have smoked salmon, don’t immediately think of capers, onions and sour cream. Instead, think about your immediate reaction to the fish relating to one of your eight words and let it be your guidance. If it’s ‘texture’, then start to find a small component to highlight the texture of the main produce. It gives you more possibilities. You should be inspired by things that are very personal. Of course, there are recipes in my Octaphilosophy book that you can follow – but I think the book is about creativity in general.”
“We use a whiteboard in our kitchen to write down ideas and share information. We create the dishes together. We have 12 nationalities in the kitchen, so everyone has come from a different culture. That’s why I like everyone to share their creative input. This way you get combinations such as lobster with vanilla and coffee.”
KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS
“I was born in Asia and I can say that I am not afraid of using Asian ingredients because I know the character very well. I know how to handle them. But if you’re talking about Asian technique of flavour – I don’t think I’m a master of it.”
DON’T GET TOO TECHNICAL
“You have a special feeling with certain dishes. It could be a nostalgic dish that your grandma cooked. Or something everyone can relate to – like Dr Pepper or Chupa Chups. The memory is something personal that inspires each home cook. Instead of going too technical we should dig into our minds and find something that is more essential.”