"Yes, food needs to be delicious. It’s the core…but food also needs to tell a story.” That’s the Andrew Wong philosophy to food-making.
For close to two decades, the 38-year-old chef has been taking diners at A. Wong, his south London restaurant, through China’s 3,000-year gastronomic history, making people think about the heritage of the Laughing Buddha Bun or the Peking Duck on their plate. Recently, the restaurant won a second Michelin star—it’s the only Chinese restaurant outside Asia with two stars.
Even at Baoshuan, the two-year-old restaurant at Delhi’s Oberoi hotel where he is the “mentor chef”, Wong has been trying to nudge visitors to take interest in the region or period the food they are ordering comes from. “Food is related to history. I find it interesting since it allows us to bring in other influences from a similar time to make a new interpretation of a classic dish…to paint a fresh picture,” Wong tells me over Zoom, cooped up at home during the lockdown in London.
While growing up, Wong did everything possible to stay away from the kitchen of his parents’ Cantonese restaurant in London. He did a bachelor’s in chemistry from Oxford University and studied social anthropology at the London School of Economics. Like any youngster, Wong says, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life.
Soon after his father’s death in 2003, however, he decided to learn cooking to help his mother run their family restaurant, Kym’s.
Seven years later, he spent 12 months touring China, to learn about the history of Chinese cooking. “That year I saw very closely how food changes so dramatically with region,” says Wong, who is also a research associate at the Food Studies Centre of London’s School of African and Oriental Studies (Soas).
Such is his attention to detail that he can spend years perfecting a new dish. For instance, his Shanghai Dim Sum, a flavour bomb of ginger-vinegar that comes topped with pickled tapioca, took a decade to perfect. He says: “We don’t expect the guests to not evolve. And so, we have to evolve as well.”
This inventiveness extends to what inspires him during his travels. A fan of golgappas (besides dosa, masala chai, roganjosh), a few years ago he added the Golgappa dim sum, a sweet and sour filling of kung pao chicken and peanut emulsion on top, to his London menu. “Dim sum is the core part of the menu, so we experiment with it a lot. I have a special love for them. To me, dim sum is about sitting together with loved ones,” he says.
Wong talks about “Chindian” food with similar passion. “I love the manchurian, the spices. I think the important thing is there are a lot of things that Chinese and Indian cuisines share,” he says. “Be it the style of eating…of it being a focal point to sit around a table together. Be it the components on the table, where you get different things from spicy, sour, cold, crunchy, and it’s always about you and your simple plate. Having said that, we live in a world where flavours and tastes are evolving. At the end of the day, all we can really hold on to is deliciousness and the story our food tells.”