Celebrity chef Andrew Wong is revolutionising the traditional Chinese restaurant and, if anyone can do it, it’s the London boy bred in the heat of an eastern kitchen in the western world, writes Emma Deighan
Andrew Wong has been immersed in the restaurant scene since a young age. His grandfather, who moved to London as a Chinese refugee, owned pubs in the East End and a restaurant in Chinatown. In 1985, Andrew’s parents opened a Cantonese restaurant, Kym’s in Pimlico, named after Andrew’s grandmother, which is now the location of the Michelin-star restaurant A. Wong.
Recalling his childhood years, he tells HRNI he loved the life in the kitchen. “We spent every day after school here in this exact building,” he says, chatting from his A.Wong restaurant.
“We did our homework here and helped out and there was nothing like it. What always stuck with me was the way guests greeted my parents; everyone became friends and, even now, we try to offer that service. I want that sense of community because I think that’s lost in a lot of restaurants where economics plays more of a role.”
Andrew studied chemistry and anthropology at Oxford and London School of Economics respectively, but the death of his father led him back into the restaurant sector.
“I never wanted to go into cheffing,” he says. “But when my father passed away when I was at uni, one thing led to another and I found passions I didn’t think I had and, 16 years later, I’m here now.”
Those 16 years have been well spent. He enrolled in a London culinary school where he specialised in classical French cookery and culinary science, after which he researched the origins of Chinese cuisine on a working food tour of China.
“I was curious as to why European kitchens differed from Chinese kitchens,” he says. “The appearance in a Chinese kitchen is chaos and I wanted to understand why and it’s cultural. They may appear chaotic, but they’re organised. It’s just that everything is based around a wok and there is always going to be flames and plates everywhere. I’ve worked all over and that’s just the way it is.”
That organised chaos in the Chinese kitchen can be a bit of a curse in terms of recruitment, he says.
“If a young culinary student going into a kitchen has only ever worked in European restaurants, there’s a level of shell shock. Looking into a Chinese kitchen, everything seems less organised and if you’re young and have never seen it, you’re going to run away. There’s also a kind of misunderstanding that you can learn Chinese cooking from a recipe sheet but with things like dim sum, everything is handmade. I could put someone who is a head chef of a top restaurant and they might be able to pick it up, but they wouldn’t make it as nice.”
On his travels around China, the variety of foods and their native origin gave Andrew an additional curiosity that has led him to work with food anthropologist and PhD researcher Mukta Das recently. His findings, he says, show that where food comes from is “strongly engrained in preconceptions”.
“The biggest thing is that food is meant to travel and evolve,” he says. “The term authenticity doesn’t really mean much. Take chilis for example; they’re in a lot of vegetarian dishes that can be traced to Buddhism and the rhubarb isn’t British, it’s Chinese. Food is meant to be a celebration of a place and time.”
Apart from A.Wong, there are few Chinese restaurants in the UK that have explored beyond the traditional Chinese menu. It’s not an experimentation that Andrew takes for granted.
He says A.Wong’s Michelin star has given him the freedom to try and test new things and that the Chinese restaurant, in its traditional form, is still an essential and special part of the culinary offering here.
“Most Chinese restaurants are the way they started off,” he says. “Chinese families needed to open an independent business and they chose food with the mother at the front and the father in the back and that would be their business and that evolves.
“Chinese food is not meant to be a statement, it’s just meant to cater for what people want from Chinese food. We can test and try new things and our guests are receptive, but I’m not disillusioned; if we didn’t have that star, we wouldn’t have that luxury.
“I’ve been in a lot of restaurants in China and the quality here is on a par, if not better in some areas. My parents opened a very traditional restaurant and I love that food but it’s just not the food that I want to be pushing.”
When asked if there is any advice he could give those operating a Chinese restaurant in terms of elevating their offering or “upping their game”, he says: “If anyone wants to, in the simplest way, make it more interesting, I would suggest stopping this ideal of being regionally specific.”
And it’s worth considering Andrew’s words as A.Wong is a cumulation of his work put forward in a menu serving up dim sum lunch to a la carte dinner dishes. There’s also a highlight offering of a 13-course Taste of China menu, in which each dish is inspired by a specific region of the country.
With dishes such as Shanghai steamed dumplings with ginger-infused vinegar and pickled tapioca, now an A. Wong staple, Chengdu Street Tofu and Gong Bao Chicken, each course is delivered by the front-of-house team to the table with an anecdote, a slice of history or a story of its creation – described by Andrew as like a “series of postcards”.
Then there’s the new restaurant, Kym’s, at Bloomberg Arcade – “a modern premium casual Chinese restaurant” – which was a whole new experience for the chef.
He says making mistakes and learning a new model of restaurant was an “exciting experience”. But is he done expanding his offering? Maybe so.
Right now, the father of two says he needs “to be with team” to help them develop and learn what he has picked up. “I do 14-hour days,” he says. “I’m 38 now and I want to put some time aside for the family.”
Have his intensive studies of Chinese cuisine equipped him with any future predictions? “The Chinese government is taking away paddy fields and turning them into potato crops,” he says. “The yield from potatoes is higher and there’s less labour so the cuisine there is going to adapt and there will be more and more potato dishes filtering across the world. So, while many Chinese restaurants serve chips, that chip is going to become more authentic. Food is meant to change. You’re not meant to own it. When people take stuff from different cultures and put a spin on it, it’s a beautiful thing.”