Interviews 29 October 2020

Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong’s Life Lessons

As a boy he took extra maths to avoid working in his parents' restaurant - now he's one of London's most acclaimed Chinese chefs, and he's on a mission to teach diners about the world's most ancient and versatile food culture
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Andrew Wong, chef-patron of London’s Michelin-starred A Wong restaurant, spent his London childhood trying to be anywhere else than helping out at his parents’ Cantonese restaurant. As soon as he could, he escaped, first to Oxford University to read Chemistry and then to the London School of Economics, where he studied Social Anthropology.

But when his father died in 2003, Wong enrolled in cookery school in order to help his mother in the restaurant, the long-established Kym’s in Pimlico, central London. That experience convinced him he should expand his knowledge of Chinese cooking, and in 2010 he embarked on a year-long culinary tour of China, working in Beijing and Qingdao, and studying at the Sichuan Culinary Institute just outside Chengdu. He came back “bursting with inspiration and fascinated by how food differed so dramatically according to region and local custom”, and in 2012 he took over the family restaurant.

After a refurbishment, Kym’s was re-launched as A Wong – the initial “A” honouring his parents Albert and Annie. In 2018, Wong opened his second restaurant, Kym’s (again in honour of his parents), at Bloomberg Arcade. He gained his first Michelin star for A Wong in 2017.

Growing up, I did everything I could to get out of helping in the family restaurant

Wong describes himself as “chef, anthropologist and cultural observer”. He is credited with introducing diners to the cross-cultural delights and the incredible variety of Chinese cuisine. For some years he has collaborated with food anthropologist, Dr Mukta Das, using ancient recipes, poetry, literature and academic texts as a springboard for developing new dishes, ideas and theories around Chinese cuisine.

In May this year, Wong became a research associate at the Food Studies Centre of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS). China, Wong believes, has one of the most open and versatile food cultures in the world: “It has always embraced new ingredients and cooking techniques from the countries that it bordered.” He and Das study ancient recipes via history books and archaeological finds in a search for ideas. “We probe these recipes, looking at them from a chef’s perspective, seeking the inspiration that would have pushed chefs from bygone eras to serve up exceptional meals to their eager audience of gastronomes.”

What was your childhood ambition? 

Not to work in a restaurant. Growing up, I did everything I could to get out of helping in the family restaurant. I even took extra maths classes to avoid it.

What do wish you’d known when you were 21? 

I wish I had learnt more languages so I could communicate with more people and build better relationships. In Chinese, ‘guanxi’ means relationship; when I was younger, I didn’t understand the importance of relationships in business.

What exercise do you do? 

I go to the gym regularly and am about to start boxing again. I did martial arts for over 10 years, but I stopped as it was difficult to schedule it with restaurant hours.

Wong's desert island luxury? A Chan Chi Kee cleaver

What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?

Tunnel vision. When you set yourself goals, achieving them can mean sacrificing your personal health and time with your family. Ultimately, it can be quite selfish.

What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?

Probably my car, a Range Rover P400, or my Omega watch

If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?

I like living in London – it’s an incredible city (especially when you have a day off). I’d also like to live in Hong Kong for the food, or the Seychelles (where my wife’s family are from) for the beaches.

London skyline
Two dream places: London for the lifestyle, and the Seychelles for the beaches
Seychelles beach

If you could do any other job what would it be?

I would love to be a doctor. There’s nothing more useful to society than saving lives.

What is your favourite restaurant – anywhere?

Reflets, Pierre Gagnaire’s restaurant in Dubai. It’s actually closed now and he’s opened a more casual bistro on the same site. I had a great experience there: he has a very different way of ordering. You choose an ingredient, and you’re served six or seven dishes based on it. I found all the different combinations derived from just one ingredient really fascinating.

Reflets restaurant
"I had a great experience there": Wong's favourite restaurant, Pierre Gagnaire's Reflets in Dubai (left) has re-opened as Pierre's Bistro and Bar (right)
Pierre Gagnaire's new bistro

What luxury item (except wine or whisky) would you take with you to a desert island? 

A Chinese cleaver made by the Hong Kong knifemaker Chan Chi Kee

What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to? 

One of my long-term goals is to have a new creative space at A Wong. I’d like my own kitchen where I can play around, experiment and mess up; a space for inspiration, a relaxed space where other chefs can come and have a coffee and collaborate.

If you were king or queen of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?

Make education free for everyone.

Whom would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?

Barack Obama. I just love the way he speaks – I can listen to him for hours. He’s clear, he’s humble and he’s intelligent. When he speaks in public there’s always thought and gravitas behind his words, but he delivers them in a light-hearted tone. He also never says ‘um’, which I find incredible.

Barack Obama at the lectern
Barack Obama, the ideal dinner guest: "He’s clear, he’s humble and he’s intelligent....he also never says ‘um’, which I find incredible."

What’s your guilty pleasure? 

Instant noodles.  They are so good, so quick and you can add anything to them. I like adding watercress.

What’s your secret talent?

I’m not sure if it’s a talent, but I’m not afraid of failure. In fact I’m very comfortable with failure. I don’t see it as a bad thing. I would much rather fail than regret not trying something.

When are you happiest? 

When I’m with my wife Nathalie and our kids. Also, at work there’s often a moment during prep when it’s silent and everyone knows exactly what they’re doing and they’re getting on with it. It only ever lasts for a minute, before someone drops something or shouts, but that one moment is happiness for me.

Whom do you most admire? 

Lots of people. All the chefs and restaurateurs who put their money where their mouth is, and improvise on a daily basis. Beyond that I admire people who are dedicated to their craft: artists, musicians, diplomats – anyone who strives for the illusion of perfection.

 

Most treasured possession: Restaurant A Wong
Wong's Plum in a Golden Vase, a dish named after an erotic novel written during the Ming Dynasty. Inspired by Wong's and Mukta Das's research into ancient Chinese cuisine, the dish uses stretched-curd cheese seasoned with a char siu marinade to give it a meaty look and flavour

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Life is a box of dim sum.” It means don’t worry too much, life is full of surprises, and you can’t predict everything.

What’s your greatest regret?

Not paying enough attention to languages in school.  At the time I was learning German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese; I should have worked harder and realised how important they would be.

What’s your current favourite box-set, TV programme or podcast?

Flavorful Origins on Netflix.  It’s a 20-part Mandarin language series looking at regional Chinese ingredients, specifically around the Chaoshan region of the Guangdong province.

 

Netflix series showing steamed buns
Flavorful Origins, a Netflix 20-parter on Chinese regional ingredients, is Wong's current go-to series

What’s your most treasured possession? 

My restaurant.

What time do you go to bed? 

3am. After finishing at the restaurant I go home and reply to emails. I’m working on a recipe project with Mr Poon [Bill Poon, one of the greatest of London’s Chinese chefs, who won a Michelin star in 1980 for the celebrity haunt Poon’s in Covent Garden, which closed in 2003; his daughter Amy opened a pop-up Poon’s in Clerkenwell in 2108]. So basically I get home, and do more work.

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