ANDRÉ CHIANG

OCCUPATION:

Restaurant owner and chef

DEFINING MOMENT:

"I fell in love with French culture, history and emotion. The emotion of a chef creating a dish was something I had never experienced at that age. One person cooking for another is such an intimate relationship. That's when I decided I wanted to continue my career in that direction."

SOURCE OF INSPIRATION:

"Singapore is the most unique country in Asia and embraces so many different cultures. It has very good local cuisine, top notch French, Indian and Japanese. I have never felt I have had to adapt myself to the local palate. People are open and want you to be as original as possible."

If you were keeping up with Asia's 50 Best Restaurants this year, you'd know that steaming in, in fifth place overall and taking top place for Singapore, was Restaurant André. Helmed by chef André Chiang, his delightfully innovative dishes have elicited adjectives including exquisite, sophisticated and unexpected from the region's fooderatti. Book a table- and you'll have to plan months in advance to do so - and you'll find them all to be true.

RAW, over in Taipei, has also been making waves since its opening last year. It's a challenge to succeed in booking a place on or around the beautifully curvy wooden structures here too, and even though you might want to keep an eye on the open kitchen, it's impossible not to gaze at the procession of dishes, colourful in their artistically haute-cuisine meets experimental meets Asian combinations. The complexity of the dishes come as a contrast to the relaxed bistro-like atmosphere that brings the formality down to a welcome warm, friendly and homey level.

Chiang takes precious time out of his Singapore kitchen to talk me through his mixed background, from his birth in Taiwan, to learning cooking from his mother in Japan and escaping to France for his culinary training. "I thought I would take over my mother's business," he says, sitting in the restaurant's elegant yet quirky interior, which must look very different compared with the days they housed the law practice of the first president of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. "But learning from her was not enough. It didn't allow me to be creative."

Of the cuisines the young Chiang considered to be the best in the world - Chinese, Japanese and French - the most untouchable was French. And so he decided to go to France for a few years. He didn't return to Asia until 15 years later.

In France, he embarked on his apprenticeship as the only Asian working under Jacques and Laurent Pourcel at three Michelin-starred restaurant Le Jardin des Sens in Montpellier, and without a word of French. He says it took him two years to get used to the lifestyle, the system and the language, but he stayed put until nine years later when he had cooked his way to the position of head chef. While he also worked with top restaurants, such as Pierre Gagnaire, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon and La Maison Troisgros, he is renowned for his time at Jaan par André. But it was at Maia Luxury Resort in the Seychelles where he really discovered himself.

"For me that was a very important period in my life. I had learned from my mum and then spent more than 16 years in France learning from the best of the best. I started to think, 'what is André's cuisine?' I went to a place with no distractions, rediscovered who I was and what I really liked to cook."

As he looked back at his work, extracting the "essence of Andre", he found eight elements that came up again and again, which now make up the eight elements of his Octo-philosophy as presented at André: pure, salt, artisan, south, texture, unique, memory and terroir. "When I see an avocado, for example, the first thing I see is texture - the hard, dark, ugly skin outside, the bright, soft and smooth inside, the contrast of colour and texture. From there I build up the components into a dish. With Pure, I present the dish as pure as possible. We did a salad with strawberry, watermelon and tomato. [There's] no seasoning, just the ingredients complementing each other with sweetness and acidity."

Once you've nailed that elusive booking, expect a strong French influence with a touch of Mediterranean flavours using world produce. As you sit down beneath the high ceilings and stylish surroundings you'll reach for the menu and … see that in reality there is no menu, simply a list of his Octo-philosophy elements. Why? Chiang and his team literally don't know what is going to be on the menu until that morning. "I let farmers and fishermen pick what is best in the market. I only give a quantity, so we don't know what is coming," he says. "Only at the moment we receive the ingredients can we decide what to create and how. So we're not only serving the freshest produce but also the freshest ideas."

There are a few signature dishes that appear regularly. For example, Memory. "This is the only course we have kept since we first created it in 1997. It is warmed foie gras jelly with black truffle coulis. This is the first dish I created that I called my own. It's not inspired by anyone or a technique you will learn from any other chef - it is a pure André dish. Every day when I prep that dish it reminds me how I started."

RAW also is a journey of the unexpected. Although the menu isn't quite so spontaneous, in Chiang's set lunches or dinners, you may be lucky enough to sample an appetiser like his sashimi with celery juice sago pearls; an asparagus, broccoli and burnt miso dish; the futuristic ajo blanco, with cauliflower, squid and liquid nitrogen frozen milk; the minimal deconstructed paella; and desserts that might include mochi and burnt butter. Not knowing exactly what's going to appear adds mystery, the presentation always comes as a surprise, and the combinations open you up to new tastes and textures.

Alongside Restaurant André, Chiang's alter egos can be tasted in Australian barbecue restaurant Burnt Ends and yakitori-esque Bincho in Singapore, while in Paris he has Porte 12 and, of course, RAW inTaipei, spanning the three cities he calls home.