How Michelin-Starred Chef Andrew Wong Navigates the London Culinary Scene

Chef Andrew Wong is grateful for accolades including two Michelin stars, but he's most proud of showcasing Chinese cuisine to Western diners.

Chef Andrew Wong’s Michelin-starred restaurant has been a London staple for nearly 15 years. Jutta Klee

Despite being one of London’s most highly-acclaimed chefs, Andrew Wong is in the kitchen at his two Michelin-starred restaurant A. Wong every night. For two weeks each year, he jets off to Baoshuan, his concept at The Oberoi in New Delhi. But otherwise, Wong is “here at every service.” It’s one of the reasons why A. Wong, which opened in 2012 in a space where Wong’s parents previously operated a Cantonese restaurant, has stood the test of time and survived the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. Another is Wong’s belief that Chinese cuisine can be both high-end and experimental. He constantly updates the restaurant’s menu—a focus right now is on pairing wine with dim sum—and encourages guests to be in conversation with him and his team about flavors and dishes. He wants diners to “make explorations and personal discoveries for themselves” that can be carried on once they leave the table. 

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“I want to see guests becoming really, really confident in their own palates and in exploring,” Wong tells Observer. “Not just regurgitating what people say, but making their own decisions. I think that’s where the fun comes into it.”

Since opening A. Wong, Wong has balanced a desire to keep a low-key existence within the ever-changing restaurant industry, where chefs have become celebrities in their own right. He’s grateful for the accolades, but mostly he’s proud of showcasing Chinese cuisine to Western diners. Wong tells Observer about how he navigates the “circus” of being a chef today, London’s exciting restaurant scene and his last great meal. 

A.Wong has been awarded two Michelin stars. Murray Wilson

Has the experience of being a chef changed from when you started?

Yes and no. The best way I can answer that question is when my parents had a restaurant they would never, ever want to tell people that their son was a chef. But when I got into cooking and later in my career—and I’ve been cooking for 20 years now—they’re now very open to telling their friends over the Mahjong table that their son is a chef. Nowadays, with all of the circus that surrounds being a chef, all the “World’s Best” this and “Michelin” this, chefs making out like they’re changing the world and they’re going to solve climate change and world hunger, there seems to be something more than what we do in the kitchen. There seems to be a larger scope for possibility and impact, which previously was not the case. 

Previously, you would cook, you had your very individual ideology, you kept yourself to yourself, you looked after the microcosm. Now it’s this big circus where it is so much more [as a career]. It’s about your impact on the global scene. It’s about the ramifications of what you do long-term now, not just in your career but after and the footprint that you leave behind. 

How do you navigate that circus?

For someone like me, it’s slightly difficult because I come from a background of the former [type of chef]. My parents had a restaurant and it was about creating a restaurant to earn a living and paying for their kids to have an education. It didn’t really matter about how they represented their community or how their community is then seen on the national stage or the global stage. We didn’t have to deal with how chefs have an impact on Asian hate crime and how our culture is perceived globally. 

Today, I always take the approach of, we do what we do. I’ve always wanted to have A. Wong not just be a Chinese restaurant, but our Chinese restaurant. One which is very individual, and very heartfelt in its approach and its gastronomy. If people find that nice, and they find that inspirational and they find it more relevant than just being a neighborhood restaurant, then great. But I never went out of my way, and I never do go out of my way, to make broad statements about us changing the world. Our plan has always been to be the best that we can and what happens from that is sometimes a blessing we never asked for. That is a responsibility we try to meet purely by being the best that we can. 

The dum sum selection at A.Wong. James Gillies

A. Wong has been around for nearly 15 years. How do you account for its longevity, especially in a city like London, where restaurants are always opening and closing?

I think that’s one of our greatest achievements. I look at so many amazing restaurants in London who haven’t managed to stay open, and some of them have had backing from very, very deep pockets, and they haven’t managed to keep it going. I’ve always said the reason we have managed to keep going is because I come from a background where it was a family business. I saw my parents every day not looking at it in terms of “We want to make sexy food and we want to get sexy guests and lifestyle guests.” It was about, “We want to get any guest, because we have bills to pay and we have staff to look after. We need to do anything we have to do to survive any rough times.” That’s the attitude I’ve always taken in the restaurant. It’s a massive responsibility. But it’s never been an option to shut it because something’s not working. I’ve never had that approach; I would hope that is because I value the restaurant, I value the business and I value the people who work with us more and I respect them more. 

How do you balance the desire to innovate and the need to remain consistent for long-time guests who expect certain dishes?

That’s a hard one. You have to be brave, but you have to do things in calculated moderation. Where we are now in terms of our evolution and the messaging behind it, and the reasoning behind it, and the historical aspects and the sociological aspects of what we do in terms of our gastronomy—the deeper message now isn’t something that we can lay out to the public yet because they’re just not ready. We’re still very much about bridging that cultural divide between the East and the West, and that needs to be done very carefully, in a moderated timeframe. You can’t rush it, because you need to have the guest to build with you and evolve with you. If you try to push it too hard, too quickly, everything gets lost in translation.

Has the London restaurant scene changed a lot since you opened A. Wong?

Massively. The London dining scene has never been as exciting as it is now. I talk to a lot of chefs who are slightly older than I am, in their 70s and into their early 80s, and they talk about how when they first started working in London, the U.K. was a laughingstock of world gastronomy. It was absolutely dire. The food was a laughingstock and nobody took British gastronomy seriously. And obviously, they were not taking a lot of the other cuisines and gastronomy that are available in the U.K. seriously, too, like Chinese, Indian, Malay and Southeast Asian in general. 

These things take time. But if you compare what we have now to what we had before, it’s chalk and cheese. Now in London it’s a melting pot of global gastronomy. You can have pretty much any cuisine at any price point. You can have Lebanese cuisine one day, you can have Ethiopian cuisine another day. You can have Taiwanese street food the next day, then you can have high-end Taiwanese food, then you can have hot pot or you can have Chinese food or you can have regional Indian food and you can have Pakistani food. London now is such an incredible restaurant city. It’s never been as good as it is now. 

What are your favorite London restaurants?

Well, my life has changed now that I have two kids. The restaurants we used to go to, we can’t go to now for the sanity of the staff of those restaurants, and also for my own reputation. A lot of the restaurants we like to go to now are a lot more informal. Obviously, we have incredible Michelin-starred restaurants like Core by Clare Smyth and Claude Bosi’s restaurants—very high-end temples of gastronomy. And they are for special occasions. As a family, we like to go to a Sri Lankan restaurant called Hoppers, which is incredible. We like to go to a Pakistani restaurant called Lahore Kebab House in East London, where you bring your own drinks and they have the most delicious lamb chops and kebabs. I’m a massive fan of ramen, so I’m always looking for new ramen restaurants around London. 

Inside A.Wong. Murray Wilson

You and A. Wong have earned a lot of accolades and awards. What does that success mean for you?

That’s more of a question to answer when this restaurant shuts and I’m lying on a beach somewhere catching squid and red snapper. When we won one [Michelin] star, it was a massive personal achievement. It was something I’d always wanted to tick off as a personal goal. But as we evolved from that and, to our surprise, won a second star, it felt more like we were representing a community. It very much felt like it was a generational achievement. From my grandfather’s generation, to my father’s generation, to what now myself and a lot of younger chefs are doing in trying to get people to explore and open their minds to the different types of cuisines that are available within China. If it wasn’t for those three or four generations before us, we could have never achieved what we achieved today. As we look forward, the cuisine gets more individual. But the ramifications of what we do become more about representing the culture on a wider spectrum.

Do you think your kids will go into the restaurant business? 

Take this with a pinch of salt, but I really hope they don’t. But a lot of parents don’t want their kids to do what they did. What I mean when I say that is that I don’t want them to approach the industry the way I’ve approached it, in an all or nothing, be at every service type of way. I would like them to have a better balance with their family. 

What is the last great meal you had?

It was probably at Hoppers. The egg hoppers are absolutely delicious. As I get older, sometimes in a weird kind of way as a chef when you go out to eat, it becomes less about the food and more about the experience. I know it sounds a bit odd because I am a chef, and obviously good food is very important to me. But I can tell you that I’ve been to many, many restaurants where the food has been outstanding, but the experience just hasn’t been as memorable as other places where the food is more informal. At Hoppers, the kids are really looked after, you feel at home, the staff is joking around, having a laugh with you and you feel comfortable. And I think those, in recent times, have been the more memorable experiences.

How Michelin-Starred Chef Andrew Wong Navigates the London Culinary Scene