Andrew Wong, Head Chef and Owner, A Wong

The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st April 2017

Taking over the family business after his father died, Andrew Wong is now head chef and owner of A Wong, a restaurant which is spearheading Chinese gastronomy in the UK and has gone on to achieve three rosettes from the AA Restaurant Guide.

Growing up in a cheffing family, Andrew couldn’t wait to escape the kitchen. After leaving the family home to pursue other ventures Andrew was drawn back to the kitchen after his father passed away. Realising his potential, Andrew undertook training at Westminster culinary school before reopening his parent’s restaurant as A Wong in 2012. Andrew is now revolutionising Chinese cuisine for the British audience with his smaller dishes that celebrate his cultural heritage.

The Staff Canteen spoke to Andrew about taking over the family business, misconceptions surrounding Chinese cuisine and the challenges in sourcing authentic Chinese ingredients.

Yunnan beef from A Wong
Yunnan beef

You were brought up in a family of chefs, would you say it was in your blood?

No I hated it, growing up I hated it.

Why’s that?

I don’t know, I just never thought it was a particularly honourable profession and my parents worked very hard and very long hours. It’s just one of those things where actually we’re not in control of our destiny at all. Sometimes things just happen and you don’t quite know why or how they happened.

What made you return to the kitchen then?

I was at university when my father passed away and I started to go back in to initially help my mum which kind of led to spending more time in the kitchen. As I learned more about the parallel between the food and culture it kind of sparked up a real interest. I enrolled in catering school and that kind of led to working in China and took on it’s own destination. I never had any kind of pre-empt for what was going to happen it just happened organically. I didn’t really fuss too much I didn’t go into it thinking this is what I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing, if I enjoy it I enjoy and if I don’t I can look into another aspect of the hospitality industry.

What is the concept behind A Wong?

The concept behind A Wong is the food being the focal point, it sounds like a ridiculous thing to say but especially with Chinese food where there are so many misconceptions about what Chinese food is and general kind of stigmas surrounding it. I know a lot of people who open a restaurant and the food is probably the last thing they consider, they consider the interior, location and all that kind of stuff but they don’t actually put as much effort into the food. Actually, when we decided to do this project it was always about the food it was always going to be about being explorative and exploring the different regions of China. I always say I always want to give a massive thank you to all the people that I’ve met on my travels who taught me so much and gave me so many of their recipes.

Info Bar

Favourite Ingredients

Eggs

Rice - it has to be the right texture, it has to stick together and not turn into mush.

Sesame oil - I love aromat, it’s very important not to cook with it.

Flour - it has amazing versatility, for years we were researching and learning to pull noodles and it was then I learned about flour, about the way it behaves and how it reacts to temperature and humidity, resting times and how the different gluten levels in flour can vary from one to another.

Chilli beef paste

Is it frustrating that Chinese food is still generally perceived as fast food or take away?

I don’t think it’s frustrating, from my perspective it’s nice because firstly it makes us stand apart a little bit, and secondly, I’ve got absolute respect for anyone who puts their money on the line and opens up a restaurant regardless of what type of food they’re doing. But the stigma around Chinese food is something that’s changing, it’s not something where nothing’s being done about it, the problem is constantly being looked at and people are slowly changing the way they look at it. I wouldn’t say I’m solely responsible for that but I’d like to think that when people visit the restaurant that afterwards I hope they think ‘oh there is a lot more to Chinese food than what we thought before’.

We get a lot of customers say ‘I didn’t know that china had 14 other countries bordering it and I didn’t know there was so much food associated with Thai or Vietnamese that actually originated from China’ or originally they thought those things were from Japan or they didn’t realise the real origin of it lies in some really historical aspect of Chinese gastronomy.

I wouldn’t say I’m solely responsible for that but I’d like to think that when people visit the restaurant that afterwards I hope they think ‘oh there is a lot more to Chinese food than what we thought before’. We get a lot of customers say ‘I didn’t know that china had 14 other countries bordering it and I didn’t know there was so much food associated with Thai or Vietnamese that actually originated from China’ or originally they thought those things were from Japan or they didn’t realise the real origin of it lies in some really historical aspect of Chinese gastronomy.

You serve smaller a la carte dishes at A Wong, what is the importance of this?

When I was working at my parent's place I went to lots of Chinese restaurants, the problem was that unless you’re eating in a party of four or five it’s actually very difficult to try lots of different flavours. If you have to eat that much food your initial reaction is better not risk it, better stick to what I know and order what I’m familiar with. So the idea about making the portion sizes smaller was about encouraging guests to try new dishes and new flavours. If you don’t like it, it’s not the end of the world, it’s not £20 a portion it’s going to be £8 or £9 and that’s the least risk strategy to try new things and actually it’s worked because when front of house explain dishes they’ll be like ‘oh we have this new dish it’s a celebration of Hunan or it’s a celebration of Xinjiang in the western part of china’. So the guests are actually more willing to give it a go because they know for a fact, that’s the style of our menu.

I read that you have a Pecking duck feast that needs to be ordered two days in advance?!

A Wong
A Wong - main restaurant

There’s loads of demand for that, people get really annoyed that we’re booked up for months in advance because of the processes it goes through and because we don’t have a traditional Cherrywood oven we have to simulate the traditional cooking method where it goes into a traditional wood oven.

Normally it goes into a wood fired oven where a chef with a long pole hooks the duck. It took about 3 years of research to get this right, we had to come up with a computerised cooking programme in order to simulate it and we’re gradually getting closer and closer to the fire and shifting by using specific temperatures and humidity levels on a rationale oven.

We only sell one duck per day so obviously, the demand is very high and people are curious. I don’t want to blow smoke up my own arse but we actually take a lot of care with those ducks and it shows in the end product because we don’t deep fry anything it’s all 100% roasted. Some restaurants cheat by pouring hot water on at the end but ours are all roasted and in my

I don’t want to blow smoke up my own arse but we actually take a lot of care with those ducks and it shows in the end product because we don’t deep fry anything it’s all 100% roasted. Some restaurants cheat by pouring hot oil on at the end but ours are all roasted and in my opinion, the skin is the crispest you can get in the whole of the UK!

Do you find it difficult to source ingredients?

The British ingredients that we use aren’t so much of a problem, the biggest problem we have is with the Chinese ingredients because they’re open to a lot of restrictions and you’ll get one week where things are allowed in the country and another where they’re stopped at the Dutch border. So a lot of the time we have to make allowances and we have to manipulate products in order to simulate the same end result. It also means with some of the stuff we’re almost forced to use more local ingredients or even use some Chinese ingredients that are grown in the UK which sometimes aren’t necessarily the same as they would be in China but you know you work around it and you learn about these new suppliers. You learn about the new ingredients like pak but the ones grown in England are very different to the ones grown in china or the far east it’s just about adapting to that slightly different flavour profile that you get.

Gong bao chicken
Gong bao chicken

Does it affect the taste?

It still tastes how it should, that’s my job making sure that the food goes out the way it’s meant to be and obviously authenticity is a strange word, I was talking to a chef who said he had been talking to a chef in Szechuan and they started talking about his idea of authenticity and what is and isn’t and this chef said ‘I’m Sichuanese so anything I cook is Sichuanese’. It’s interesting because obviously in China when local cooks say you have to put it into perspective it’s because they’re going to be using local produce, that’s their everyday life. When they say I’m a Sichuan cook so everything I cook is Szechuanese it’s not the same as if you’re from London, in essence, what you’re saying is true because the heart of those dishes will be Sichuanese because he is in Sichuan but we don’t mess around with the core of any recipes. We might mess around with garnishes or try and make it a little bit lighter or mess about with the texture but I always say one thing, we don’t change the core stock flavour which has to be the exactly the same as where I learned it.

How often do you change the menus?

We change the menu whenever I get bored. The last change we did was on Monday but before that was probably about a month before. So it’s constantly changing but I’m learning still and when I get excited about something I just can’t wait.

Where does your inspiration come from?

I don’t think one particular person inspires me the most I think it’s the journey as a whole, it was seeing the massive diversity. It was the first time I actively travelled around china in one go and really saw the diversity in different areas and meeting people from different areas and seeing the way they cook differently and the way they cook ingredients differently.

Forbidden city bar
Forbidden city bar 

What are your future plans?

The restaurant is reaching a very nice stage now where the guests really understand what they’re going to get here, they’re not going to get a Friday night number 56 or number 72 and that’s a privilege I don’t take lightly, a privilege that I think we’ve earned and we’ve put the work into making our guests understand, we’re not that kind of restaurant. The most important thing is ensuring we continue to grow and I would like the restaurant to get smaller. I’d like for our bar to become more of a feature which we are doing slowly, our bar is like a marriage between drink and food, our beverages are an extension of the food in the same way the food is an extension of the beverages. It’s about looking after that

I’d like for our bar to become more of a feature which we are doing slowly, our bar is like a marriage between drink and food, our beverages are an extension of the food in the same way the food is an extension of the beverages. It’s about looking after that ying and yang and that balance, like how you look after your body. So it’s very much about exploring that aspect of Chinese cuisine and how it pairs up with a beverage.

We’ve started to work with anthropologists, looking into several things across china, one of them being the archives and just talking to a lot more academics and finding new sources of inspiration and where we take the cuisine to keep our guests interested in the journey.

>>> Read more in the Menu Watch series here

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 21st April 2017

Andrew Wong, Head Chef and Owner, A Wong