In conjunction with the publication of his book Octaphilosophy, Chef André Chiang has embarked on a tour with the publisher Phaidon to promote the book. Hong Kong was the last stop on the Asian leg of the tour, and two "four hands" dinners were planned - where both Restaurant André and Amber would contribute dishes. I had the good fortune of snagging a table for tonight.
A few weeks ago, I received a separate invitation to join the chefs this afternoon. The publisher and the hotel were inviting members of the media for an afternoon tasting session, as well as a Q and A session with the chefs. This was a pretty good opportunity to get up close and personal with the chefs behind the restaurants that took the #3 and #4 spots on the list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, so I was only too happy to accept this invitation.
Regarding ingredients which the chefs do not work with much, and perhaps would like to work more with, Richard's response was that he often chooses to challenge himself by working with ingredients that people believe gweilo chefs can't handle. Sea urchin was one such ingredient, and I think we all know what happened after Richard took up the challenge... He also challenged himself with abalone, and I've had some pretty damn good ones from Richard.
André freely admitted that diners won't see much capsicum on his menus because he doesn't really know how to handle this ingredient. He's traditionally also avoided serving cheese at his restaurant, because he feels that he has no input into the diners' experience with cheese, as he wasn't responsible for producing the cheese and would simply be cutting slices and placing them on a plate. This has actually led him to create his "Restaurant André Camembert" - which is a dessert made to look like cheese. I had the pleasure of sampling that creation a couple of months ago when André was in town.
So the solution - after being told that his European fish was "fishy" and that he shouldn't be serving local fish because "it wasn't right" - was to turn to Japan due to its proximity as well as the very high quality of the ingredients. These days we have become accustomed to seeing a variety of Japanese ingredients - be it seafood, vegetables, or fruit - at Amber, and today for the first time I understand the story behind the evolution of this facet of Richard's cuisine. Richard says he now takes some 6 trips to Japan each year to source and discover ingredients.
Today being the very last day that the iconic Hokkaido sea urchin dish would be served at Amber, Richard discussed the rationale for removing the dish from the restaurant's menu. I asked him what he thought his next signature dish might be, and he responded by saying that - quite rightly - it would be up to customers like us to decide.
The chefs were asked how much of their cooking was "based on science" - presumably because "molecular" or "modernist" techniques are pretty prevalent at many of the top restaurants in the world. Not having actually visited Amber's kitchen (despite being a huge fan and somewhat of a regular), I was surprised to hear Richard say that they "don't use fancy equipment", and in fact prefers to cook with charcoal - which means his cooks are on their knees constantly...
Both chefs revealed that they don't cook sous vide - which is again a surprise to me. Richard "hated anything cooked in a bag", while André stopped doing it a few months ago because he felt cooking in a plastic bag was akin to cooking in a microwave... that it was "moving backwards" instead of forward.
The dish was added to the menu at Les Jardins des Sens the very next day, and André felt this was a turning point in his career. It represented the point at which he began to create something by himself, without having copied from anyone or looked elsewhere for inspiration. An Asian cook in a French Michelin-starred kitchen had accomplished this. From that point forward, André unleashed his creativity and was no longer afraid to propose and share his new ideas.
When asked about who he'd like to collaborate with on his next "four hands" meal, André recounted his recent "four hands" collaboration with his mother. While work has kept him away from spending Mother's Day with his mom for a decade - a familiar situation for me - he happened to be in Taipei for Mother's Day this year as part of the book tour. As he was working at RAW that day, he asked his mother to join him in the kitchen - where she prepared four of the dishes. I can only imagine how satisfying that experience would have been for both mother and son.
Speaking of his mother, André mentioned the interview article which was just published in the Guardian 4 days ago, in which he said that what he wanted for his last meal would be his mother's pig ear salad.
Finally, it was interesting to hear that André's "retirement plan" would be to create pottery and sell them to different restaurants around the world, as he loves creating them and the vast majority of what's being used in his restaurants are custom-made.
While everyone else was busy snapping photos and tucking into the selection of dishes being served, I steadfastly held off. After all, I was coming back in a couple of hours for the full experience... and I certainly didn't need the extra calories from the same dishes being served during the afternoon. I think Richard was pretty surprised at my restraint in front of all the delicious food. He was even more surprised when I told him that all I had for lunch - in anticipation of the massive amounts of calories I would consume for dinner - was some canned corn and "local" baguette.
I did, however, partake in the alcohol... as I would be staying dry during dinner tonight.
2013 Marco de Bartoli 'Pietra Nera' - very floral and sweet nose, with honeysuckle, peach, and tropical fruits. Good acidity on the palate.
2012 Oremus, Tokaji dry Mandolas - pretty sharp and plasticky nose, with a little mineral.
2007 Frédéric Lornet 'Vin Jaune‘ - even more sharp and alcoholic nose, with acetone, wax, and pollen. Very dry on the palate.
2010 Zimmermann, Gewürztraminer Vendages Tardives - pretty sweet on the palate, with orange blossom and floral notes.
This was a very enlightening afternoon. Many thanks to the Landmark Mandarin Oriental and Phaidon for the arrangements, and very grateful to André and Richard for their time and sharing their thoughts with us.