You’re not always guaranteed a sight of a famous chef when you visit their restaurant; the open kitchen revolution has upped your chances considerably, but some chefs prefer to leave service to the brigade and take more of an executive role. Not Andrew Wong, though. As you walk into A. Wong, Andrew is the first thing you see, front and centre at the pass, marshalling the kitchen. ‘I’m in this kitchen 15 or 16 hours a day,’ he says, as he folds dumplings with masterful dexterity. ‘When I get home, it’s usually with just enough time to make some instant noodles and go to bed. And then the next day starts.’
It’s a humble existence for one the most respected chefs in the country, but clearly, it’s working. When A. Wong received a second Michelin star in 2021, the restaurant became the only Chinese restaurant outside of Asia to hold two Michelin stars, putting Andrew in some seriously rarified air. Is that somewhat a reflection on Michelin’s own perception of Chinese food? Maybe, but either way, it’s not bad going for a chef who grew up trying to escape work at his parents’ restaurant. He got as far as university - Oxford, then London School of Economics - but returned to the restaurant to help when his father passed away. Nearly 20 years later, Andrew is still resolutely at the pass, and he’s put A. Wong - renamed after his parents Albert and Annie - at the forefront of a Chinese food revolution in the UK.
‘I just went to university to have fun, and to try to not work for as long as possible!’ he laughs. ‘At the time it felt like I was stuck with this predicament [the restaurant], but over the years it became something I enjoyed.’
Did he have a moment where he realised that a career in the kitchen was for him? Well, not really - if anything, he’s still waiting for a sign. ‘Honestly, I still ask myself - is this what I should be doing? Am I good at this?’ he says. ‘I think that’s natural, though. I think you should question what you’re doing, the reasons why, the bits you enjoy and don’t enjoy. I constantly ask myself whether I should have been a doctor. I think I would have been a good doctor!’
'We’re still trying to tackle certain misconceptions about Chinese food.'
Ironically, it was Andrew’s social anthropology studies at LSE that indirectly sparked his passion for food; in learning more about the connections between food, culture and history, Andrew became fascinated by regional Chinese cuisine. Chinese restaurants in the UK were almost exclusively Cantonese at the time - the result of historical links between Britain and Hong Kong. Instead of cooking the same anglo-Cantonese food as everyone else, Andrew wanted to shine a light on dishes from other parts of China - Hunan, Sichuan, Fujian, Xinjiang, Anhui and others - that were underrepresented in the UK. He spent the next six years working on a concept that would do just that, and travelled across China for half a year learning recipes and techniques, before returning to London to relaunch A. Wong.
There are always teething problems when it comes to changing perceptions, and not everyone got on board with what Andrew was trying to do in the beginning. ‘Did we find it problematic to be received?’ he asks. ‘Yeah, but I don’t think that’s any different to now. We’re still trying to tackle certain misconceptions about Chinese food. It’s an ongoing journey.’
For the most part, though, guests are on board with the mission - anyone who has tried to book a table at A. Wong on short notice can tell you that. ‘I think we’re lucky in the UK that people’s understanding of Chinese food, in general, is better than a lot of countries outside of China,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s a privilege I don’t take lightly. Compared to France, The Netherlands, Germany, North America - a lot of the time, I feel like they’re five, 10, 50 years behind the Chinese food scene in London.’
'Why would you want to open more than one restaurant in a city?'
As a result of A. Wong’s huge success, Andrew branched out in 2018 and opened Kym’s - a modern Chinese restaurant in Bloomberg Arcade that put Cantonese roast meats in the limelight. Kym’s was open for lunch and dinner, but the City location meant it would be especially reliant on busy lunch trade to fulfil expectations - a lunch trade that dried up when Covid-19 lockdowns hit in March 2020.
Kym’s was about more than roast lunch meats for Andrew - it was named after his parents’ old restaurant, and he was clear about his desire to pay respect to the contribution of the Chinese community on British gastronomy. Despite reviewing well, Kym’s struggled to live up to the monumental expectation, and Andrew found himself spread too thin between his passion projects, rumbling up and down on the District Line between the two on most days. ‘There are only 24 hours in a day, and as much as I wanted to split myself between various places, sometimes something has to give,’ he says, sagely. ‘In this instance, it was Kym’s.’
He maintains that Kym’s was a great learning experience, and a great restaurant - ‘if you look at the way people think about Cantonese roasting now, I think that’s changed because of what we did there,’ he says - but if there’s one major takeaway from the experience, it’s that life is too short to spend it all building a restaurant empire. ‘There are so many beautiful places to experience in the world - why would you want to open more than one restaurant in a city?’ he asks. ‘I’ll get a lot more fulfilment from travelling the world with my family than from opening a chain of Chinese restaurants.’
With his energy now concentrated on his flagship, Andrew has been focused once again on changing our perceptions, and digging up ancient Chinese recipes and food traditions alongside anthropology colleague Mukta Das (the pair have an excellent podcast that is worth a listen). It’s easy to see why Andrew is so well-liked and admired - his passion bubbles to the surface as soon as he gets talking about food, particularly areas where he sees room to change attitudes. His face lights up, for example, when we get him talking about instant noodles. ‘The ones in western supermarkets are particularly poor,’ he explains. ‘The soup bases are horrific. I used to only eat Nissin brand, but now there are new brands from Korea, Malaysia and Singapore that are doing amazing stuff! Some of them are more chewy, or there’s Korean ones that are super spicy.
‘The European stigma around instant noodles doesn’t exist in Asia...'
‘The European stigma around instant noodles doesn’t exist in Asia,’ he continues. ‘Instant noodles with spam and a fried egg is a standard breakfast item in Hong Kong. It’s just ramen that has been dried - it’s no different to dried pasta in that sense. The stock bases that come in the sachets with dehydrated shiitake mushrooms and different oils - a lot of research and development has gone into those. You even get self heating ones now - you just pour cold water into them and an exothermic reaction boils the water in the pot and it cooks itself!’
In that sense, noodles are pushing the boundaries of gastronomy, scientifically and in terms of flavour and accessibility. It’s not a million miles away from what the likes of Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal have done at elBulli and The Fat Duck respectively, except for one crucial difference. ‘It’s just about how people perceive them,’ Andrew says, ‘and how they’re brought into a small environment like a restaurant, that transforms them from being run of the mill to being revered gastronomy.’
Will we see instant noodles on the menu at A. Wong then? He laughs. 'Good question! I don't know.' Andrew doesn't do grand plans - most of what you see on the menu starts off as spontaneous thought. 'My plan is just to keep myself motivated and continue to do what I do'. Beyond that, who knows what we'll see at A. Wong over the next few years; one thing is for sure, though - Andrew will be front and centre at the pass.
Who or what have been your biggest influences?
Throughout my career there have been people who guided me. They weren’t all chefs, my lawyer and my accountant for example! Some are my father’s peers who are still alive and knew him, so they understood what he wanted from the restaurant. We work with the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, and the executive chef there is incredible - he never wants the limelight, but he looks after this army of chefs. He’s taught me a lot in the five years we’ve worked together.
If you could give someone just starting out some words of wisdom, what would they be?
Be confident with what you like and what you don’t like - don’t like something just because other people like it! I remember people using sea buckthorn and it’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten. I love loads of weird ingredients but there are things where I think, who started this horrific trend? I see it with young chefs especially, that feel like they have to be different for the sake of being different. There’s nothing wrong with sugar, eggs and cream! You don’t have to use beetroot, or chilli, just make something that’s delicious. Make ice cream! Use chocolate!
Favourite cooking gadget?
Probably a wok. But also, there’s a special rolling pin we use for making wonton wrappers. Or a meat cleaver - you can use that for everything, from making wonton wrappers to chopping to smashing garlic. It’s a multi-purpose tool.
Describe your cooking style in three words?
Chinese. Respectful. Inquisitive.
What is your favourite thing to cook at home?
The only thing I really cook at home is instant noodles at 1am!
Do you have a guilty food pleasure?
I’m 40, very little is guilty at this point! There’s no guilt left in my life.
Where is your favourite foodie destination?
Still probably Hong Kong after all these years, but a close second is Bangkok. The Chinese food in Bangkok is really interesting - when you combine the sharp, zesty flavours of Thai food with Chinese gastronomy, the results are incredible. I’ve had some great meals in Delhi as well - I love Indian food.
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
I would have liked to be a doctor, but I didn’t go to med school. I actually got into law school, but on my first day I just left and went home! I could have been a lawyer, but I wouldn’t have been a good one. When you’ve been in hospitality for so long you forget the great things it gives you, but I’m very thankful for the industry - the opportunities we’ve had over the last 10 years, I could never have dreamed of if I was working in a law firm.
Favourite restaurants in the UK?
Hoppers. Lahore Kebab House. Bibendum. Caractere and Lisboeta are next on my list to visit - Nuno’s food is really cool, and he’s just really cool isn’t he? I like being in Chinatown in general as well. I always go to New Loon Fung, because the owner is like a member of my family. He’s the last of the original generation who started Chinatown, and he was friends with my grandfather when my grandfather had a restaurant there, so it’s nice to catch up with him.
What was the last great meal you had?
A home-cooked meal in the Seychelles. My mother-in-law made grilled bourgeois - basically a giant red snapper - with breadfruit and coco gem, which is this semi-germinated coconut. As the coconut falls off the tree, it sprouts, and if you open the coconut, it has this meringue of coconut water. It’s the most amazing ingredient I’ve come across in a while!
A. Wong is one of the best Chinese restaurants in the world, but you can find out more about London's best Chinese restaurants right here.