The Michelin chef who went back to school – Sophie Ritchie talks work ethic, ancient cuisine and the fundamentals of hospitality with Andrew Wong, Michelin-starred chef of A Wong in Pimlico, London
One of London’s most exciting chefs, Andrew Wong’s career path has been an unusual journey from the very start. Cooking was never his pre-meditated passion – Wong started off as a chemistry student at Oxford University, before studying social anthropology at the London School of Economics.
A family tragedy lead to Andrew’s return to his parents’ Pimlico restaurant, where he was determined to assist with and build the family business. Flash forward to present day and this is now the present site for A Wong, hailed across the capital for its intuitive expression of tradition, authenticity and craft.
A true craftsman, Wong offers guests both contemporary and artistic interpretations of traditional dishes and ancient recipes. Not only has he achieved a Michelin star for his cooking, amongst other impressive awards, his fascination with ancient Chinese culture has led to his most recent accomplishment – becoming an official Research Associate at London university SOAS.
Like his successful chef career, this was never in the pipeline – a chance meeting at his restaurant with food anthropologist Dr Mukta Das led to a unique symbiotic relationship between the duo.
Over the course of six years, the pair have explored China’s fascinating food history together, discussing far more during their meetings than just simply old recipes. Their research has explored everything from fashion to poetry, leading Andrew to draw interpretive inspiration for his modern day dishes on the menu at A Wong.
In May 2020, Andrew became an official Research Associate at SOAS – helping to uncover more of China’s forgotten food stories and dishes through the recent appointment. Much like China’s fascinating food history, Andrew himself is a myriad of stories and inspirations.
Sophie Ritchie spoke with him to talk the realities of Covid for a city restaurant, the story behind his new academic appointment and brutally honest advice for aspiring chefs in the 2020 climate.
What inspired you to shift from academia to become a chef?
Well, I didn’t actively make a change. Whilst I was at university, my father passed away. So I started off by helping out at the family restaurant… and one thing lead to another. It’s been 17, 18 years now.
Describe your cooking style in three words.
Explorative, Chinese, personal.
What’s been your biggest career highlight to-date?
There’s been many – probably achieving a Michelin star.
Tell us more about the story behind becoming a Research Associate – what inspired this?
People always imagine that when you do these kind of things, there’s a big master plan behind it. But there wasn’t. Dr Das (or Mukta) she initially just came in to eat at A Wong as a guest. We got chatting and she told me she was a food anthropologist. I didn’t even know there was such a field as food anthropology. We kept in contact and started speaking more about it.
Over the years, we began to discuss ideas and she started sending me more information about the food anthropology field. Eventually, more detailed discussions evolved over friendly coffees. Five years later, all those little coffee sessions have turned into something I never really pre-meditated. An entirely organic process!
How has your research affected your dishes at A Wong? Would you ever put an ancient dish on the menu?
I think the important thing is, what me and Mukta have tried to do is make sure that we don’t just recreate and rehash old recipes. Number one, you can’t really recreate them because most are so vague anyway.
We always said that what we really wanted to do was ‘paint pictures’ of a time and a place. So that’s why we don’t just look at recipes – we look at poetry, we look at literature, sculptures, fashion – an entire culture.
When we try to piece things together, it’s not a case of just following the old recipe. We place it to the location within China and we draw aspects from it. We look at what’s going on around it and we build the modern day dish around that. It’s much freer, much more interpretive. That prevents us from being pigeonholed.
Sometimes though, the result does end up being very close to the original recipe. We had a lot of discussions around people in China trying to get non-meat to resemble meats in dishes. For example, fish dishes to look like meat, vegetables to look like meat. Our discussion wasn’t based around the recipes themselves – it was based around a novel, the stories around the cuisine. The dishes on the A Wong menu act as sources that have been inspired by research like this.
Following your extensive research and findings, do you have any predictions for the future of Chinese gastronomy?
I think Chinese gastronomy will be the next Japanese cuisine. What I mean by that, is that if you look at Western cookery, over the last five to ten years there’s been a lot of borrowing from Japanese techniques, philosophies, ingredients etc and applying them to Western cuisine.
In the next five to ten years, I think people will begin to look at the Chinese kitchen and do the same thing – especially now that the Japanese techniques have been exhausted. There’s a huge set of untapped techniques within the Chinese kitchen.
Shifting back from ancient culture to 2020 – how have you adapted your restaurant to ongoing Covid restrictions?
As a restaurant, we try not to look too far ahead. These are times when you need an old school mentality when it comes to running a restaurant. You have to be sure about the core values of what you do.
There’s been meetings up and down the country about thousands of procedures – but to me, the most important thing is about trying your best and looking after your guests. And tomorrow, we’ll try and do better than today. And the day after that. Day by day, we’ll work to keep our guests happy and run the restaurant within the parameters.
What does hospitality mean to you?
Hospitality means to me the exact opposite of what we’re currently being told to do on a daily basis right now. It’s what I think a lot of chefs are struggling with. Primarily, we’ve spent our lives being taught to make sure we’re hospitable. But at the moment, everything that we’re being asked to do goes against this.
There’s no section in Hospitality 101 that tells you to kick guests out at 10pm or when they come in, shine a laser gun in their face and demand that they wipe themselves with hand sanitiser. Primarily, this is what’s causing the biggest problems for chefs psychologically. It goes completely against the grain and everything we’ve been taught from the start.
What advice would you offer to aspiring chefs?
It’s a time where chefs, especially young chefs, need to think about why they want to be in this industry. I think we’ve overplayed the aspect that chefs ‘won’t have to work too hard’ in the kitchen following the tough conditions from the 80s and 90s. Ultimately it’s still a job. There’s an aspect of learning, but you’re there to help and perform a role.
And with the rise of social media fame and ‘rockstar chefs’, does this feed into this modern day working attitude?
Because of social media, you get this idea that people don’t really need to learn how to do stuff. You can just talk about doing stuff, without the process of daily repetition to learn. With lots of chefs, they might be incredible at copying other people’s stuff.
But if you ask them a simple question, like ‘does this dish taste delicious or does it taste good?’, they can’t answer it. Because they’re too busy regurgitating what other people think, they can’t provide a simple answer to a basic question. Eventually, you’ll have think for yourself and come up with your own dish.
That’s why the ancient Chinese dishes I researched have lasted up to 2,000 years, because fundamentally they’re delicious. They don’t need the smoke and mirrors. Don’t try to be too clever – mix your personality with the flavours that have lasted the test of time. By all means be innovative, but stick to the staples!
Discover Andrew’s dishes for yourself
70 Wilton Rd, Pimlico, London SW1V 1DE