Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong went from Oxford to the kitchen, and is now redefining Chinese food across London, Delhi
For this award-winning chef, it’s all about food that warms the soul.
Having won over the English heart with his take on Chinese food at his eponymous A. Wong - which he opened in 2013 at the site where his family’s Kym’s originally stood - he got on board as the mentor Chef for Baoshuan – the rooftop restaurant introduced at The Oberoi in New Delhi when the hotel reopened in its revamped avatar a year ago.
As the restaurant turned one, Oxford alumnus Wong - who by his own admission believes that Baoshuan serves dimsum to match the quality at any eatery around the world – returned to cook, talk, and of course, taste some more food in the National Capital.
Settling in for a chat (at the restaurant overlooking the sprawling Golf Club), Wong tells me that despite having traversed China and learning about the cuisine, prior to opening Baoshuan he went on a cross-Delhi culinary trail, eating at any place to discover new facets about Chinese food in the Capital. And now a year later, he planned to go around town once more just to make sure that “the food at Baoshuan is actually as good as I think, and I haven’t lost my marbles.”
As we discuss New Delhi and London, the Indian audience, and his ‘boring’ routine, Chef Wong rewinds to the time when food wasn’t on his mind and he was a student at the London School of Economics.
“I never set out to be a chef, I kind of fell into it, but I’ve never said to myself I’m only doing this for a particular reason. I’ve never worked just because it’s work.”
Despite his monotonous routine – which includes dropping his daughter off to school, working at the restaurant ‘rolling the same dough, making the same dimsums’, and returning home by midnight – Wong says, “Not a day goes by where I don’t enjoy going back to work.”
“When I was studying anthropology, I was never really interested in it.”
But, now, the subject comes in handy more often. “We study on the side, try to understand different food cultures within China, rituals, and the meaning behind them to incorporate them into the food we serve.”
It is this passion towards a career that wasn’t always his first choice that makes you realise, Wong may not have planned to join the family’s restaurant business, but he is definitely made for it.
And he agrees.
In India, however, with Baochuan, Wong says he witnessed a completely different perspective of Chinese food.
“If I was to be brutally honest, people’s understanding of Chinese food in India is probably about 10 years behind as to what it is in the UK.” Though he believes that thanks to social media, news, and exposure due to travelling, Indians will catch up very quickly.
Apart from the increased demand for vegetarian dishes, another thing that differentiates the Delhi crowd from that in London is the balance between sugar, vinegar, and chilli.
“A lot of our guests at Baoshuan don’t like sweet. But if you add a little bit of sour to the sweet then it becomes acceptable. If you hit the balance right between sweet sour and chilli, it becomes favourable. But in London, the taste and hence this balance is slightly different,” he explains, laying emphasis on how even with the same cuisine, it is not practical to replicate dishes across nations.
“Plus Indians have a really strong affinity for chicken,” he adds, as an afterthought.
However, it’s not the different tastes, rather the dissimilar eating culture fascinates him.
“The lateness at which people eat here is something that I have never ever experienced,” and the shock is evident in his voice as he continues.
“Lunch service at Baoshuan doesn’t start till 1:30, while in London we’d be finished by 2 pm.
“In the evening too, people come for dinner by 10,” Wong adds saying this often leaves him wondering about when they go to sleep!
Another lesson that Wong learnt about the restaurant business in India was that once diners have arrived, they don’t want to wait for more than 6 minutes for their food. He says that though ‘it’s impossible to make fish cook faster than it does, or make vegetables edible faster than their time,’ he had to learn how to meet customers’ expectations and provide a favourable experience.
While on the global front, he bats for vegetarianism, veganism, not drinking, eating healthy but not being too healthy – as the latest trends.
Even behind the counter, things are changing, “People are doing less gimmicky things and they’re coming back to basically cooking really refined food with a really soulful heart.”
Something he has been doing, and hopes to continue with A. Wong, Baoshuan, and his new Kym’s restaurant at London's Bloomberg Arcade - which he has opened in honour of his family’s original restaurant.
For this Michelin-starred chef, it’s all about food that warms the soul.