Man at His Best

The Award-winning Restaurant André Will Give Its Final Service In February 2018

Here's what we've learned from the esteemed chef.

BY Mark Tay | Oct 11, 2017 | Food & Drink

Image from Restaurant André's website

Since the day I arrived in Singapore, I've never tried to adapt to the local palate. Not just in terms of the cuisine itself, but also the dining experience that I want for my patrons. I cook with flavours that I believe in and like personally. I feel very free here. People understand what I do, or try to if they don't. I'm happy that they enjoy my cooking.

I realise, in some parts of Asia, going to a fine dining restaurant is just for the sake of being there, to see and be seen. But I feel that it's important people come for the food. When they understand and discover the finer details in cooking, it's very rewarding for a chef.

I don't read reviews.

Nothing is created for everybody. The most important thing for an establishment to have is its own character and message.

Comfort food? If I had to choose, it would be Red Star. The waiters and waitresses are getting older, but everything else is the same.

I’ve always been into art. I wanted to enrol in art school. My older sister studied art. She always had a lot of books around the house and she painted. I wanted to be like her. I didn’t have a lot of toys, so my hobby was reading all her books and playing with watercolours. I painted, sculpted and created pottery, which I still do when I can.

When sculpting or creating pottery, I like to work with natural elements, such as clay, wood or stone. It’s very similar to cooking—you’re working with nature. When you have a piece of clay, it can only be moulded in a certain way. It has its limitations, just like cooking, where every ingredient has its own character. So it’s about working around that character and not making it something totally different.

Food is an alternative medium for me to express my ideas.

There’s an olive tree outside the restaurant that I brought over from France. An olive tree specialist had to acclimatise it for about a year before it was ready for the Singapore weather.

I spent nearly 10 years in the South of France. It’s the foundation of my inspiration and my career, and very close to my heart. When I first came to Singapore, I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me, so the olive tree was a reminder of where I came from.

My beverage of choice is water. It keeps the palate clean, so I can taste the food. During service, I get my kitchen staff to drink only water to keep their palate precise too.

I left Taiwan when I was 13 and spent two years in Tokyo with my mum at her restaurant. I watched Iron Chef every week and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to learn French cuisine, apart from helping my mum. But once I got there, I fell in love with the culture and the cuisine, and didn’t come back to help her [laughs].

When I left for France, I didn’t know a single word of French. It took me about two years to properly converse in the language. You learn very quickly when a chef is screaming in French next to your ear in the kitchen.

My mum influenced me a lot. She knew that my siblings weren’t interested in food, so I became the “chosen one” to take over the business. My mum trained me: we’d go to restaurants, where she’d order the dishes and get me to tell her what the ingredients were.

In school, most of the students brought a lunchbox that was the previous evening’s leftovers from dinner mixed together and steamed for lunch. I never had that—my mum thought it was disgusting. Instead, she’d prep my meal in the morning, cook it at 11.30am, pack it by 11.50am and deliver it to me piping hot at school.

What I learnt from her is that you don’t just eat anything. You have to respect your body and your food.

I learnt perseverance and focus from my dad. He was a businessman who had the same nine-to-five job for 17 years.

I’m a very focused person. I don’t like music in the kitchen. I find it distracting. To me, cooking is very sensitive and you need to focus.

I shattered my arm in an accident when I was about 17. I underwent a six-hour operation to reassemble all the bones, and have 120 staples and an iron tube inserted in my arm to hold it together. When I woke up, the first question that I asked the doctor was whether I’d ever cook again. It’s the only thing I knew and the only thing I ever wanted to do.

A pastry chef once sought my opinion of his food. I agreed and he created some really fancy dishes for me to try. At the end, I asked him what his favourite dessert was. He said apple pie. I told him to cook a damn apple pie, and not all those foams and gels. If you cook something that you believe in, it’ll taste good. You can’t force things just to impress. It won’t work.

I never force myself to create. That’s very important. Creativity needs to come naturally.

I haven’t changed the way I create my sauces for the last 15 years. We don’t use fancy sauces at the restaurant. Beef is cooked in beef jus, lamb in lamb jus and chicken in chicken jus. There are some things that you just keep doing because they won’t ever get better than that.

I feel I’m quite boring.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, July 2014.