The evolution of the London restaurant scene has been faster than anything Darwin could have imagined. At the forefront of developing and refining the complex nature of Chinese cuisine in London is young masterchef, Andrew Wong. Working with a cuisine that has over 2,000 years of history and a country with 14 national borders, we spoke to Andrew about the daunting task of being a flag bearer of Chinese culinary history.
Andrew, how did you get into the business of Chinese cookery?
I studied chemistry at Oxford University for a year and a half before being kicked out, and then went to LSE to study social anthropology. I get asked a lot whether or not the chemistry classes help with the cooking – and the definitive answer is no. What did help was that I helped in the kitchen from a young age, as my family owned a restaurant in Victoria (which is now the current site of his restaurant, A Wong).
What was your thought process with completely revamping the menu?
If you want to know what the previous menu was like, just check out any traditional Cantonese restaurant in London. I had been in the industry for 8 years prior to the revamp and wanted something more New York, very informal and food-orientated. Over the last few years, we have developed a genuine foodie following to the point some guests visit us four times a week. These loyal customers are my friends now. They have my mobile numbers and I have theirs.
What has remained from the old menu?
The only dish left is the crispy duck. It is in fact a dish invented in the Chinese restaurants of London in the 1960s and the more I think about it, the more I want to keep this dish on the menu as it signifies the development of Chinese cuisine in this country. At the end of the day, we are as much representing the UK as China. We take great care with the dish, we salt the duck first, use slightly different garnish and use actual plums in our sauce. The cultural relevance of a dish is as important as the recipe.
Can you tell us about your training and exploration of the cuisine whilst you were in China?
I had a friend who was running a culinary institution in Sichuan, so I enrolled as a student there. It was great understanding their ideology and the importance of ingredients, such as their red fragrant oil. I also went on to learn the lighter cooking from the Cantonese region, where sourcing of ingredients is of utmost importance, the fondness of buns and seafood in the Shandong region, the popularity of goat curry in the Western part of China bordering Kyrgyzstan and the great use of herbs such as lemongrass and mint in southern China bordering Vietnam.
Do you think Chinese cuisine isn’t particularly progressive at the moment? And if so, what does the future hold?
Restaurants like ours simply don’t make money. We have 32 members of staff looking after a restaurant with 70 covers. It is hard to find traditional chefs who want to innovate, because they’ve always been raised with the mindset of making money and sending their sons and daughters to be a lawyer or doctor.
There is a slight lack of the sharing and caring culture amongst traditional Chinese chefs. When I was learning how to pull Chinese noodles, I always struggled to find someone to teach that final, crucial 5% and had to resort to bribery with hard cash and cigarettes to get taught the secrets. It will more than likely take someone like Albert Adria, who has a classical training in European cuisine but a deep-seated interest in Chinese cuisine, to bring further innovations to the cuisine in Europe.
And with that insight, we went to try his incredible 10 course “Taste of China menu”. It isn’t just about making immaculate food, but also giving customers a cultural context to the food they eat. Because, at the end of the day, who needs the chefs from El Bulli to help innovate Chinese cuisine, when you have deeply passionate, innovative and kind-hearted chefs like Andrew Wong?
Words by Baldwin Ho