Andrew Wong (Class of 2000)
Andrew Wong was at City between 1993 and 2000. His restaurant A.Wong (named after his parents, rather than himself) opened in Pimlico in 2012 and since 2017 has had a Michelin star. The Telegraph described it as “possibly the best Chinese restaurant in Europe.”
Andrew has gone on to establish the rooftop Baoshuan restaurant at The Oberoi hotel in New Delhi (in 2017) and Kym’s in the Bloomberg Arcade in the City of London (in 2018).
During the lockdown, Andrew is hosting a series of online masterclasses in Chinese cuisine; details can be found via his Twitter feed: @AwongSW1.
You are leading online cook-alongs during lockdown – but isn’t Chinese cuisine famously hard for a ‘civilian’ to cook?
Yes, out of all cuisines, it may be the hardest to cook at home. Even for me. Cooking egg fried rice at home is never going to be the same because if your pan got that hot, you’d burn your house down. It’s that simple.
So we kind of choose dishes that people CAN make at home!
Can you tell us about your work with the community during the lockdown? Are you still giving away meals via local churches?
We were dropping off food parcels to vulnerable people but there’s new restrictions in place. It’s not as simple as just donating food, so we’re working around it.
The hospitality industry will be living with the repercussion of the lockdown for a long time. There’s no way of making a real plan. The ballpark is changing so quickly and so drastically.
It’s a time to reflect. Usually, we do 16-hour days, six days a week. So now it’s a good time to reflect on our working culture, what the pitfalls are and see the areas where we’ve done things like sheep.
What was your view of the restaurant trade when you were at school and how has that changed?
When I started at City [in 1993], being a chef was something people did if they weren’t good at school. It was either that or another vocational job. Plumber. Bricklayer.
My parents worked hard in their restaurant to pay for my education at City specifically so I wouldn’t have to do what they did. They hoped I would go on to join a more revered profession. A doctor or a lawyer.
We were always given the ultimatum: go and do your homework or come and work in the restaurant. So I’d go and study a little bit extra.
It was never something I imagined doing as a career.
Do you remember your first day at City?
It was a hot day. I was 10, younger than everyone else. My dad had promised he was going to take me to school but when it came to it he just made me go on my own! From Victoria! I’d never been on a Tube before by myself. It was pretty frightening. Then there was Mr Bailey, the PE teacher, an old military guy, who liked to shout a lot. He was a bit scary too.
The first thing you noticed about City was the cultural diversity, with everyone learning about each other’s culture in a really light-hearted way. Constant banter.
My whole career is based on interacting with people and I think City made me a nicer, more humble, more approachable person, because it made me aware of a lot of different cultures. I’m not judgemental: I can get on with most people regardless of their background or ability or heritage. I treasure that about the school. Plus, my dad used to force us to work in the restaurant so we would speak to people all the time.
A lot of people from school come in the restaurant. I feel like the Sopranos! People I haven’t seen for 20 year come in and have coffee. They all have this common trait, this niceness. You don’t get the stiff upper-lip, status thing. Everyone is grounded and just… nice. But maybe that’s just the ones I stay in touch with!
Which subjects did you enjoy at City?
I did a lot of art. I’m still in touch with my teacher, Elsa Day. She must be in her 70s now.
I’m not even good at art. Coming from a Chinese family, you’re only meant to be good at maths and science but it was the first time in my life someone said, ‘Have a go at art, look at these artists’ and now when I go to a museum, I enjoy it so much more. It makes you a richer person, instead of being someone who only knows about coding or whatever.
And when people ask about my influences as a chef, I mention artists and historians and anthropologists… my interests play a part in the food I create.
Which other teachers inspired you?
My chemistry teacher, Miss McCarthy. She knew I wasn’t the best but she tried her hardest to give me the ammunition to get into Oxford. The school was very good at giving you that understanding. “You’re not the best student but if you work hard you can get an A”.
City were generally very good at getting students to maximise opportunities; to work smart. Very few of us are going to be geniuses. We need to work with the tools that we have; we need to make the dream happen ourselves.
Which extra-curricular activities did you do?
I played rugby for the school, football, water polo… then I did all the extra stuff that I thought would be easy – sailing, which I thought would just be lying on a boat, smoking. But it was tough! Really tough. And real tennis, at Queen’s Club.
So, I did a lot of sport and a lot of art too. We did exhibitions, including stuff for the opening of the Millennium Bridge. I did some music. I maximised my time at City!
How did you choose to do Chemistry at Oxford?
To get my parents off my back, so I never had to work in a restaurant again! Going to Oxford was my main aim – choosing Chemistry was more the means to that end. But when I got there, I kind of forgot you had to study. I went to University twice after Oxford and the production levels expected at the other two were so much lower. You couldn’t leave your work to the last minute at Oxford. If you did there was only one thing that was going to happen: you end up being asked to go home!
What was your first experience of work?
Apart from my parents’ restaurant… I got a job in a gym as a receptionist. I did a bit of temping. But I haven’t worked for many other people in my life… Which does make you self-reliant and a strong leader but you can also become a little bit blinkered. Your way is the only way. There’s pros and cons.
I’m learning slowly it’s not always the best way to deal with situations . Then again, in business you sometimes do need someone who can tell it like it is and not just bite their tongue…
What changed your mind about going into the restaurant trade?
After my experience at Oxford, I did a degree at the LSE in Social Anthropology. While I was there my father passed away so I only got into the hospitality industry to help my family out.
Our family restaurant was very classical and old school. I was always looking at it and wondering what things we could improve. I was very naïve. I thought there were massive improvements I could make. I enrolled in catering college while I was finishing my degree, but I realised eventually that a lot of business acumen only comes from experience.
I had friends all over China, in various positions at hotels and restaurants and I just went round visiting them all, over the course of about six months, trying to appreciate food culture, seeing what was going on. Just trying to absorb the different regional cultures. The way they cooked, the way their family life was, the way they organised their lives, what ingredients they revered.
In the early 2000s, Chinese restaurants in London were very specific to a region: they were either Cantonese or Sichuanese. With A.Wong, I wanted to create an atmosphere that incited interest in the diversity of Chinese culture and food and history.
Was there one ingredient or technique you found in China that really opened your eyes?
The more I learn about Chinese cooking, the more fascinated I become by its intricacies. I was no different to a lot of my peers from Western backgrounds… we all assumed Chinese food was simple because it’s done so quickly. You might go for dim sum on a Sunday and not think twice about the techniques involved – but they are techniques that have taken over 2500 years to refine.
A lot of European chefs have been looking at Japanese cuisine over the last 15 years, looking to emulate their psychological approach and techniques and I think Chinese cuisine will be next.
Can you give us an example of a Chinese technique that could feed into a European dish?
Cantonese roasting techniques. They are very technical two- or three-day processes. If you were to integrate that technique into producing some crisp pork belly, say, on a regular European menu, you would massively improve that dish.
Chinese cooking, like Chinese medicine, understands that it can never be an exact science… You have to use your instinct. That’s why it’s taken so long to have an influence in Europe: the European chef’s process is more methodical – it’s about steps 1-5, following a recipe to the letter and getting a certain end product.
What is a typical day for you?
We don’t open on Mondays: we have meetings, training sessions. From Tuesday to Saturday, I’m there for every service. I drop the kids at school and I go to the restaurant and do prep, starting about 9.30. Then lunch service through to 430. Between services, I go to the gym for half an hour.
At 5pm, we start dinner service. We go all the way through to last orders at 10-10.30. Then I go to the other restaurant, Kym’s, in the City and have a check on them. Then it’s back to Victoria, finish the clean down with the guys there, say good night and I’ll be home about midnight or 12.30.
What’s the bit you love best, the moment when you are completely in the zone?
There’s always one part of the day where there’s silence in the kitchen and everyone’s just quietly doing their thing and you think, actually, you might have done something right; everyone appears to know what they’re doing, so you might have managed to teach them correctly. It usually only lasts about 30 seconds!
How important was it to be awarded a Michelin star?
It’s like the build-up to your wedding day. All the preparation and you expect your life will be totally different but you wake up the next day and your life is exactly the same. Although life is just a little bit better!
It doesn’t mean I am better than all the chefs who don’t have a Michelin star. It’s all subjective. But, in our industry, it’s like winning an Oscar or the Turner prize. So it is good for your ego and self-esteem!
There’s only four or five Chinese restaurants in Europe with a Michelin star. The Guide has always been focused on French food but Chinese food can’t be judged in the same way: Chinese food is about the affinity between nine or ten different dishes around the table. So if you only order two dishes, you’re not really able to judge the cuisine on its own terms.
What was your favourite thing to eat from your parents’ restaurant?
They had a spicy won ton dish I used to love. I’ve tried to recreate it over the years and I still can’t. Maybe it’s a trick of the mind, but it’s never as good as I remember.
A. Wong is at 70 Wilton Road, London SW1V 1DE. Awong.co.uk
Chinese cooking, like Chinese medicine, understands that it can never be an exact science… You have to use your instinct.