Accidental British Chinese chef and his Michelin-star restaurant in London – the story of A. Wong
After working in his parents’ Chinese restaurant as a child, the last thing Andrew Wong wanted to do was become a cook. He talks about how he ended up opening A. Wong, which has earned a star from the Michelin Guide
“I never really wanted to be a chef, I kind of fell into it,” says Andrew Wong of one-Michelin-star restaurant A. Wong in Victoria, London. “I helped in the family restaurant as a kid – with resentment. That was my motivation to study. I took extra maths classes to have an excuse not to work.”
The classes paid off. Wong studied chemistry at Oxford University, then anthropology at the prestigious London School of Economics. But after his father died in 2003, he returned to support his mother in the family business.
He trained as a chef in London, then travelled to China to study at the Sichuan Culinary Institute in Chengdu – before learning the secret of perfect Peking duck in Beijing and the skilful craft of dim sum in Hong Kong.
He and his wife, Nathalie, opened A. Wong in 2012, in the same location as his parents’ Cantonese restaurant: the place where he had worked so reluctantly as a teenager. The name of the restaurant honours his parents, Alfred and Annie.
I meet Wong on a busy Friday morning, just before lunch service. Sunlight streams through the full-length glass windows from the leafy terrace area. Nathalie briefs the front-of-house staff as they put the finishing touches to table settings.
Inside the open kitchen, bamboo steamers hiss and woks sizzle as chefs prepare dim sum and snacks. The interior has been recently renovated; it is spare and elegant both in design and decor, which suits the small space. It seats only 45 at lunch and 75 in the evening.
The British-born Chinese chef is charismatic and exudes warmth. His spiky hair and enormous grin give him a playful, childlike air. He talks quickly, laughs loudly and readily and is extremely friendly.
He breaks off from the interview as a man arrives carrying a huge box of scallops on his shoulder. They have just come down by train from Scotland and are destined to become the fanciest noodle rolls imaginable – each silky scallop will be cloaked in a delicate rice flour wrapper, topped with emerald slices of Chinese broccoli and served on a pristine shell.
Wong greets the supplier like an old friend and it turns out he is; the Wong family have been working in the same place for more than 30 years and are an established part of the community.
Yet Wong’s approach to Chinese cuisine seems very different from that of his parents and grandparents.
His grandfather (a former Chinese army officer from Guangdong) opened a large Cantonese restaurant in London’s Chinatown in the 1970s. His parents’ establishment had a long menu, catering to the palates of British customers in the 1980s – with a taste for sweet and sour sauce. In contrast, Wong serves a very refined dim sum menu at lunchtime and a multi-course tasting menu in the evening, showcasing dishes from across China.
“Me and Nathalie made the decision when we opened that we didn’t want the kind of place my parents had, with 150 to 200 dishes which just go on the plate and straight to the table. We wanted to do something a bit different,” Wong says.
At lunch they decided to serve dim sum individually so that customers (especially those dining alone) would not have to order their dumplings in threes, giving them the opportunity to try more flavours. For dinner, they designed a tasting menu – currently 18 exquisitely presented small bites – to take guests on a gastronomic tour of China’s lesser known regional ingredients.
Wong’s academic training is put to good use. He works with an anthropologist, learning more about the history and evolution of regional Chinese cuisine. Information from archives in Beijing’s Forbidden City helps him to craft his tasting menu.
“We want our guests to leave keen to find out more about different regions of China,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know that there is a tropical part of China, with mangoes and coconuts.
“Guests are shocked when we give them a lamb burger. Many don’t know that a third of the land mass of China is Xinjiang, where they eat lamb instead of pork.”
This more experimental type of Chinese cuisine is well suited to the cosmopolitan clientele in London.
“We are lucky with our customers here” says Wong.” It’s a specific market. They want to learn about culture and history when they go out for a meal. If you were to pick up our restaurant and place it in a different town in the UK, people might not care about this. They might just want sweet and sour chicken.”
The individually portioned presentation of Wong’s dim sum and tasting menus seem to run counter to the Chinese concept of hospitality and dining – where food is served from centrally positioned plates and shared. Wong is keen both to preserve the tradition of communal eating and to offer familiar dishes to his guests.
“I created an à la carte menu, available at lunch and dinner, which is more homely. These dishes are not designed to be different,” he says.
“I do want guests to come and eat as a family. The more I think about it, the more I think we do need to have this menu as well, or I will do my culture a massive disservice.”
He even has something on the menu that featured at his parents’ restaurant, an iconic dish of late 20th century Chinese restaurants in Britain: “aromatic crispy duck”. The anthropologist in Wong likes the story behind this recipe too, and he becomes very animated as he explains its background.
“Aromatic crispy duck was invented in the 1960s. There is a school of thought that there was a chef who ran away from the Chinese embassy and opened a place in North London. This was his interpretation of Peking duck. He marinated and steamed the whole bird, deep fried it in sections, then served it with pancakes and classic condiments.”
The runaway embassy chef probably realised that British customers were unlikely to order a whole duck and may have been unwilling to wait for it to roast. His cooking method allowed the duck both to be sold in smaller portions, and to be prepared in minutes. It was a huge hit in Britain but doesn’t seem to have been embraced abroad.
“It is specific to the UK,” says Wong. “When I go to America, no one has heard of it, nobody knows that dish … This dish pays homage to decades of Chinese cooking in Britain.”
Wong says some have criticised his cuisine, describing it as “pan-Asian”, or accusing him of using “French techniques”, something he finds hurtful. Although he has been classically trained in French cuisine, the techniques he uses in his kitchen come from China, where they have been practised for millennia.
He gives the example of his soya chicken recipe, poached and braised at a low temperature over a long period of time – which delivers the juiciest, most perfect meat.
“The aggregate temperature is probably about 64 degrees Celsius (147 Fahrenheit), which is the same temperature that you would cook chicken sous-vide. The difference is that I don’t use any plastic bags and this method of cooking has been around for about 2,000 years.”
He feels that his critics have a very set idea of what can and cannot be described as Chinese food.
“If you put a garnish on a dish, then straight away they say it isn’t Chinese. This is the biggest hurdle we have had to overcome, but we are trying, and we are getting somewhere. We are trying to celebrate our culture and our cuisine – how rich and diverse it is. We are making Chinese food in a 2018 setting in London and I think we represent that well.”
Wong’s cuisine and approach could seem paradoxical: to mix Chinese tradition and family duty with innovation, research and travel, to cook sweet and sour chicken alongside obscure and refined tasting menu dishes. But this is an accurate representation of Wong’s own journey, his studies, his interests and his loves.
Working with his wife in his parents’ old premises, while presenting diners with surprising and unusual Chinese food, has propelled him into the spotlight. In the UK, most guides and “best of” lists are dominated by big-name restaurants serving European cuisine. Something Wong is doing is working.
Wong thinks it is difficult to compare Chinese and European food. “With European food, people talk about a balance of flavours on the plate, but Chinese food doesn’t work like that – you get that experience by having a collection of dishes together. You can’t judge Chinese food on a single plate, it is a journey.”
Yet when it comes to his cooking, Wong believes it can’t be judged by any one set of criteria. “You can’t judge my food against a European format, nor against a traditional Chinese format,” he says with a grin.
Perhaps it is this incomparable quality of his work that has captured the attention of the culinary elite? “I just keep doing the same thing,” says the once-reluctant chef.
“I like my routine, it’s great for the team to win awards, but I always say it’s like a wedding: the day after nothing has changed. I like being here in the kitchen, everything else is just a bonus”.