"What is your aim? What are your essential elements when it comes to creativity? I think everyone should have their triangle, octagon, or whatever shape it is."
I'm sitting opposite chef André Chiang of celebrated Singapore restaurant Restaurant André, discussing the creative process behind his dishes. His eyes are so piercingly intense that it seems as if his question is aimed squarely at me. I stumble over my words, but all I come up with is a lacklustre triangle.
"Caffeine, crisps, and a keyboard?" I offer.
Judging by Chiang's lack of response, I think the question was rhetorical.
Born in Taiwan and trained in France, Chiang manages two restaurants in Singapore and Taipei and is head chef at Restaurant André, whose multi-course menu adheres to his principle of "Octaphilosphy." That is, dishes created on the themes of "unique," "pure," "texture," "memory," "salt," "south," "artisan," and "terroir."
In April, Chiang released Octaphilosophy: The Eight Elements of Restaurant André, a coffee table-worthy tome on this cooking theory. The book documents a year in Restaurant André's kitchens, interspersed with recipes for each of these eight elements—"pure" referring to dishes with "untouched" flavours for example, and "salt" defined as "not only the key to life, it also preserves, has been used as currency, keeps away daemons, and makes food taste delicious."
Unsurprisingly, Chiang admits Octaphilosophy is probably not a recipe book to cook from in the traditional sense.
"For us, it's not really about the cooking. It's the way that we work, the space in which we work, and our concept which is unique," he says. "It's a tool book for creativity."
It's true that recipes like lemon confit sous-vide and sea spaghetti with oyster emulsion aren't exactly home cook-friendly. So who did Chiang write Octaphilosophy for?
"I never think about who would be able to buy this book or who could cook the recipes. I want to document everything that we create within 365 days," he explains. "I hope that people who are looking for inspiration or in search of a creative process use it. It doesn't need to be cooking, it could be fashion or design."
In his quest to find these guiding philosophies, Chiang's approach was slightly more mindful than my wonky coffee triangle.
"I've only worked in Michelin-starred restaurants all my career and it bothered me that it was hard to create a dish without anyone's shadow," Chiang explains. "So, before starting Restaurant André, I went to Africa for two years to disconnect. Then I realised that these eight elements are constantly repeated in my dishes. I always have a dish that highlighted the artisan, one where we don't use seasoning or cooking, one emphasising texture, always one about memory, and so on."
"It was my wife who said, 'André, that's you. You don't have a particular style or technique or signature cooking method. All you have is these eight words that you're constantly using. That's you."
But how do you go about creating a dish from a word? Especially one as broad as "memory" or "unique."
Chiang makes a circle with his hands.
"We start with the produce, for example an avocado, and then the first thing that comes to my mind is texture. Why? I don't know," he says. "The contrast of colour and texture. Bright green inside and brown outside, silky butter inside, and bumpy outside. We'll then build up the components to highlight the idea of the avocado's texture."
"It's not the triangle of produce, cooking method, and combination that most chefs use to compose a dish. It's more like building out a circle."
So, Octaphilosophy is less of a triangle, more of an expanding circle based on an octagon of principles.
While the principles that make a successful dishes are crystal clear to Chiang, finding the ingredients to create them proves trickier. He tells me that nothing grows in Singapore so 95 percent of produce is imported.
"We can't change that," states Chiang. "But what is really important, because Singapore has no seasons, is to bring the seasons to the plate. Mainly, all our produce comes from Europe and Japan. They share the same season so we let our farmers and fishermen pick what's best in the market and we adapt."
Chiang's cooking style is also affected by the decade he spent training in the south of France. It even makes up one of his Octaphilosophies: "south."
"It's more of a lifestyle when I talk about the south of France. It's talking about the way you eat something, rather than the way you cook it," Chiang explains. "We used to have a "south" dish on the menu where we'd layer up three plates of food, bring them to the table, and then spread them out. It's about sharing."
While Chiang waxes lyrical about the Mediterranean way of life, his favourite ingredient is a little more niche.
"I'm obsessed with cooking on charcoal and the ultimate happiness would be if I could just eat the charcoal," says Chiang, completely deadpan. I try to hide my raised eyebrows by pretending that I need to sneeze.
"I feel everyone understands and craves for those burnt parts. We make a dough at the restaurant that looks exactly like charcoal. We roast it on top of charcoal so it really smells like it and you feel like you are biting into charcoal. But it tastes better, of course!"
The longer I speak with Chiang, the harder I find it to imagine him eating anything that isn't backed up by complex food theory. What does he eat at home?
"I'm a very simple person after work. When I'm on, I'm 100 percent on and when I'm off, I'm 100 percent off. I can eat anything and everything—McDonald's, pizza, cold pizza," he says. "You need to balance yourself. When you're so focused on one extreme, you need another opposite to balance."
I tell myself a similar thing after demolishing a pizza: I need ice cream to restore the status quo.
Talking of sweets, I can't leave without asking Chiang about his Snickers obsession. Re-workings of Snickers bars are always popping up on the menu at Restaurant André—why does this particular chocolate holds such fascination for him?
"I wanted to know why Snickers have remained so popular throughout the years so I started to look into its components," Chiang explains. "I realised that it's actually very French. So you have five components—Dacquoise which is French sponge, salted caramel, nuts, nougat, and chocolate. And no matter how you work them, they always make the perfect pairings. Nuts and salted caramel. Salted caramel and chocolate. Chocolate and sponge. Sponge and nuts. Nuts and nougat. They'll always work."
He's still trying to figure out the secret to Coca Cola's success, so watch this space.
I speak to Chiang for just half an hour—scheduled to the precise minute as part of a 23-hour stop in London for his world book tour. Despite arriving from Paris this morning and running on just a few hours sleep, Chiang is in the Lyle's kitchen that evening to cook a special guest dinner with chef James Lowe.
As he places a dish of "charcoal" dough in sharing plates on our table, Chiang says with a secretive smile: "Just make sure you pick the right ones." I realise that the first course is also a game of Russian roulette. Will you pick the bread or the charcoal?
I'm reminded of something Chiang said at the end of our conversation: "When people come into the restaurant, our job is to set the scene. Every guest wants a different ending to their movie so we provide the beginning and they decide how they want to end it. As long as they had a good meal, I'm happy."
Looking down at the indistinguishable charcoal bites, I hope this ending goes my way.