Out of all the chefs and restaurateurs I regularly meet and interview, Andrew Wong is probably the one I know the least about. His restaurant A. Wong in Victoria – an area that is finally being improved thanks to the Land Securities development and the likes of Tom Ford setting up offices there – has become the champion of modern Chinese food over the past couple of years.
I’d arranged to meet Wong at 2pm on a muggy August afternoon at his restaurant on Wilton Road. The site that is currently home to A. Wong was originally his parents’ restaurant Kym’s, where Wong got his first taste of working in a restaurant at the age of nine. “I was working in the kitchen. I got paid in batteries, so I could listen to my Walkman”, notes Wong. “Besides the fact that it was a pain in the arse, I’ve now realised that it put me and my sister in a different place. Most kids were going out to play football or see friends after school, whereas we came to work in the restaurant.”
Despite growing up in his parents’ restaurant, Wong had no desire to open his own - far from it. He ended up studying Chemistry at Oxford. “As a second generation Chinese kid, you were expected to study. I hated it. I only went to Oxford because it was deemed the best. I never expected to actually get in”.
Despite not actually completing his degree at Oxford, Wong enjoyed aspects of his time and reminisces on what he learnt from his days there. “In the restaurant when I was growing up, I interacted with older people who were working there as a necessity because they needed to earn money. That was the thing that stuck with me most. These guys were working long, long hours to send money home to feed their families. And at Oxford, I realised that everyone there is just a regular person – not everyone is some genius. It’s just normal people who work hard and have high aspirations”, muses Wong. “In any walk in life, never be intimated by your environment you’re in.”
In order to keep his father content, Wong enrolled in anthropology and law at LSE after he left Oxford. “My Dad said go and study law but I didn’t want to read all of the books so I fooled my parents and enlisted into anthropology and law. If I had my own way, I’d never have gone to university”.
But it was during his time at LSE that Wong’s life changed. His father passed away and it led him into the kitchen. “Regardless of your circumstances, you always have that eureka moment. Sadly for me, it was my father dying”, says Wong. However although Wong’s father took a very corporate attitude and angle, he had no desire to follow suit. He remembers how corporate his father was with the business. “He always wanted to build a franchise and make money. When I first got my chef ’s whites on, working in the restaurant and then going to culinary school, I realised I didn’t want to take that angle with my business going forward.” Wong goes on to say that, “all of my parents’ staff were geared towards rolling the restaurants out and you could really feel it in the business. That was a rare, important moment for me as I realised my restaurant was never going to be about making money.”
As the No.24 bus whistled past the front of the restaurant, our topic of conversation turned towards that of Chinese food. I put it to Wong that the recent interest in Indian food – Gymkhana, Kricket and Gunpowder – perhaps means it might be Chinese foods turn next. “London is so diverse when it comes to food and culture but it’s partly about educating people what Chinese food is. Most people think of Chinese restaurants as buffets with loads of MSG food. And people make this connection with Chinese food and think this is Chinese cuisine”, says Wong. “But then A. Wong’s food is not Chinese food – it’s our version of Chinese food. The same goes for Kricket – that’s not Indian food, it’s Kricket’s version. Likewise with Gymkhana but if more and more people do that – it helps fill in the dots between the cuisine.”
The night before I meet Wong he had just been to a dinner hosted by LIMA Floral in Covent Garden in collaboration with Albert Adrià. He’s enthused by the fact that more and more cutting edge chefs are intrigued by traditional Chinese cooking techniques. “The problem is that nobody has ever really properly documented these techniques, so it’s very hard to find any information on them. Chefs in Japan are more open to speaking to people from the West compared to the Chinese chefs”, Wong tells me.
A number of food writers and critics have said that A. Wong is not only the most interesting but also the best Chinese restaurant in London. The food that leaves Wong’s pass is very traditional in the way that it’s prepared and there’s a modern twist added to it when it gets plated. “We always set out to be the best”, says Wong. “When Natalie (his wife) and I set out to open a restaurant, we said we wanted it to be the sort of restaurant that we wanted to go to.” This is where the novelty of being able to order one piece of dim sum came from as Wong and his wife “got fed up of fighting over the third dim sum.”
We touch upon food trends, concepts and the future for A. Wong. “Customer habits change”, says Wong. “Customers are now far more knowledgeable but the advantage of a Chinese restaurant is that we don’t have to move as quickly as other restaurants. All the modern British restaurants had to catch on much quicker as the bar was being raised so high.”
“People are also starting to begin to understand what we are trying to do at A. Wong. We never did any PR up until January 2016. The one thing that we’ve done since we took on our PR is fine tuning the message to people as to what we do in the restaurant so we get less of that crowd who say Thursday is Chinese food night and expect to come in and order a sweet and sour chicken and a pint”, Wong says.
“As the restaurant improves and we continue to refine the food even more, we’re going to lose some of that demographic and customer. The whole sourcing is going to get better, too. I want the restaurant to be an exploration of China. I really want the restaurant to showcase that. Food is a very important part of our culture but there’s also a lot of precision and formal ritual around Chinese dining. The Tasting Menu has always been focus of our restaurant. It’s 10-courses and it’s always been on the menu but we haven’t really pushed it. So you basically travel around 10 regions of China and each dish is like a postcard from that place.”
I ask Wong if the restaurant will physically change to accommodate this? “The bar downstairs – Forbidden City – is the place that will pay the bills and eventually the á la carte menu will move downstairs and make the ground floor restaurant into a far smaller, more focused restaurant. At the moment, we’re cooking for 140 guests a day and we can’t do that offering with that number of covers”, says Wong.
“I would also love to do something in Hong Kong. I don’t think A. Wong will work in many places but I do think it would in Hong Kong. It’s a constantly changing dining scene and their knowledge of Chinese food is obviously better than punters in London. Their dining scene has also become very Westernised; the younger generations are getting accused by their parents of losing their traditions”, he remarks.
As we start to draw to the end of the interview, I want to ask Wong what he gets up to when he isn’t in the restaurant and where he likes to eat in London. “The restaurant in Wing Yip supermarket does the best BBQ meat in London. The roast meat I’ve had there is on par with 85% of the stuff I’ve had in Hong Kong,” says Wong. “And although I’m trying to keep it a bit of a secret, I’m currently going to dim sum classes at the Community Centre in Chinatown that anyone can go to. It’s £2 a pop and it was started by a chap to stop Chinese women from gambling.”
I leave Victoria and make my way back to the office across St James’s Park. It’s been a long time since I’ve come across someone with such a down to earth manner and someone who is constantly striving to improve what he does without being influenced by money. I know where I’d like to stage if I was a chef.
This article was first published in Issue 8 of CODE Quarterly.