Andrew Wong’s modern Chinese cooking at A. Wong earned the restaurant its first Michelin star in October last year. It was a high-point in a fairly typical and predictable procession for the feted Red Guide. Wong’s cooking had long been admired by restaurant writers, food critics and hordes of chefs from all over the world. It felt equally right and overdue that it was given the recognition that groups outside of those cliques deem so meaningful. That was last year, and — while the chef is focused on consolidating a new reputation — he is also close to opening his second restaurant; a 110-seater, more casual all-day operation in the new Bloomberg Arcade development in the City. Wong has plenty to say about both.
Since Michelin awarded the restaurant its first Michelin star in October last year.
First things first, the restaurant closed temporarily over the Christmas period for a design refresh.
“Before Christmas, we got some interesting looks when people walked into the dining room. You know people look — and go ‘what the fuck?! You know when [they] walk through the door? This doesn’t look right. Have we found the right place?’
“I’m proud of the dining room we had before because it showed where we were five years ago. Fact we’ve done a refurb, shows we’ve moved on and evolved over the five years.”
It’s perhaps too early to tell, but there have been small signs that the customer profile has shifted, which is far from unusual once a small, traditionally un-Micheliny restaurant enters the Red Guide.
“Business-wise, I think you get a little bit of a higher spend. You lose a little bit of the demographic who have a lower budget for lunch and dinner,” he says. But then stresses that it is about perception, not real change. Asked if the restaurant has adjusted its pricing, as restaurants customarily do post-star award, he pointedly says “no.”
How does he feel about that, since there was always something special about the restaurant’s challenger status?
“Erm. If you heard some of the stories of the customers we used to have. Two people order five dumplings between them, split them, taking photos and sit there for the whole lunchtime.
“It’s one of those things that, ok, I want the food to be completely approachable but at the same time we need to have the numbers balance a little bit. And if people are sitting there sharing single dumplings for two hours, we’re in trouble.”
He stresses, albeit having only just re-opened with a new-look — a smarter and more polished interior — that the atmosphere hasn’t yet changed.
“I wouldn’t ever want it to be starchy and stiff,” he says. We have a massive percentage of regulars. That makes life a lot easier for ourselves. If we wanted to, we could do 90% regulars every night, but we cap reservations [at] 40 for lunch and 70 at dinner.” Somehow, without hubris, he then admits, “even midweek there’ll be 60 people on waiting lists. I don’t want to lose the personal touch. People here will to chat to you — that’s what real restaurants are.”
He moves on to mildly bemoan the way things are going in the industry. “There’s a trend now... in a weird way, like, in inverted commas, in a sense, Bloomberg [where he’s opening his next restaurant] — you can lose that essence. [The one where there’s] one partner in the kitchen and one in the dining room — like an extension of the home. A warm, familiar feel. That is lost in a lot of [restaurants] — that essence. Now they’re driven by economics... by an investor, and obviously investors need returns.
“Look around London now, very few restaurants left that have that dynamic in them — that rapport. I think that will change.”
About the challenging times and economic uncertainty currently being felt by the industry:
Have you felt a squeeze, rising costs, increased competition, staff shortage, Brexit?
“In five years, he says, candidly, “I’ve never done a GP [gross profit] calculation. Never.” “Obviously I can count and do basic arithmetic. OK, we need to vaguely have a dish at this kind of price, it can’t exceed this price. But I’ve never sat there and calculated exactly how much a dish costs.
“The accountant has but I don’t even look at it. Because my priority here has always been about creating a restaurant that was first of all, creating food that we wanted to create, then it was about creating an atmosphere that we wanted, as we have improved and got busier it became about being more efficient.
“Luckily, numbers have managed to balance over the five years. Every time we’ve added a member of staff, that’s translated into a little bit more business... I think. Erm, so I don’t really know.
“Because we’re a small restaurant and we cap it, the demand recently has always managed to stay above the supply.
“People always go: ‘You need to open a bigger restaurant.’ No, I really don’t need to open a bigger restaurant. I need to open a smaller restaurant so that we can...improve it and make it more personal.”
What’s next for Andrew Wong:
Of course, Andrew Wong, backed by the White Rabbit investment fund, will open a bigger restaurant in the recently opened Bloomberg Arcade in the City. And despite his full commitment to the project; a project that is consuming, the day-to-day mechanics of it are new, if not burdensome for him, as both a person and a chef. He seems, too, inclined to refer to the project as “theirs,” more so than “his.” He sees himself as having a role — a critical one, perhaps, but not necessarily himself the star as the show.
The first thing to note is that, as has been widely reported, including on this site, the restaurant will “100 per cent” not be called Madame Wong. That was the plan, but no longer.
“Again, with investors they hire the most ridiculous companies to do the dumbest jobs. I don’t know who this company is, but they’re called a b.r.a.n.d.i.n.g agency,” he said.
“I think they cost like £20K. Basically all they do is they come up with like... — we already have the concept — versions of colour palettes, and then they give you a big massive story about what they think the character of your restaurant should be like. [We’re like] ‘No! We already know that.’ We’ve been back-and-forth and we’ve hated what they’ve done.”
Instead, he will move the concept back in line with what he — and, admittedly, his new investor — knows best.
“It was becoming really contrived. This branding agency started making up this whole story about this person, what she did, where she was from. Crap. So naff. I don’t think London is interested in it. I want to keep it very simple. Really honest food at a good price that’s really good quality, in a relaxed atmosphere. That’s what I’ve always stood by with any restaurant we’ve been involved in.
“I don’t see why, all of a sudden, just because you’ve paid this company loads of money that you have to start talking about this fictitious character. What she wears, what she does at night time. I’m like ‘fuck off.’”
But, not one to focus solely on the drawbacks, he adds: “Chris [Miller, who runs the fund] and I have a very good relationship, because of the very nature that he is not a chef and I am a very micro-managing chef who sometimes fails to see the ‘bigger picture’ with things. I think ultimately, a restaurant on this scale, in such an amazing location, surrounded by so many big guns of the industry, I would never be able to put together without his guidance and support and infrastructure.”
Since he has had no investors at A. Wong, has been working with them on this project been a challenge?
The main challenge, he says is “the structure”. “I have to go to meetings.” He laments a recent one: “Two hours talking about a 30 cm window, whether or not to shift it that way or that way. I find that stuff quite challenging.”
And yet, of this new kind of restaurant opening experience, he says: “It’s also been a great learning curve, because with White Rabbit they’ve got a really great infrastructure, so they’ve got access to a lot of parts within the industry that I would never have access to. An R&D kitchen is one. “They also have the knowledge of how to make larger volumes of stuff in a really controlled manner,” which is one of the things that convinced him to work with them. Another was the rapport he shared with Miller — “a relaxed guy” — who Wong says has been sympathetic to the chef’s wants and needs, but also willing to tell him when to reign it in. There were many other offers; it took time to select the right opportunity.
“The biggest thing in restaurants is space. Every chef wants the kitchen to be bigger and the dining room to be smaller.” The operators, naturally, want to increase the real estate where the money is made. But with White Rabbit, he feels he’s got the best of both worlds — the new restaurant will have a big dining room and a big kitchen, on and off-site: “We now have these facilities where we can work from, and I think the end product will be better.” Everything seems to point towards a roll-out. “There’s investors involved,” he says. “You’ve got to assume there’ll be more.”
And how will he balance his time?
“I will be here [at A. Wong.] I will be here ultimately,” he says, speaking to a passion for this site that apparently takes precedence over most else.
“The thing about this [new] restaurant is: the learning curve for creating it is about getting it to the stage where, in a weird kind of way, I don’t have to be there. That’s the success and the failure of that project. If I have to be there all the time, which, if I’m needed I will be, then I’ve kind of messed up.”
The menu that Wong has written is principally reliant on the securing of “an amazing Cantonese roasting chef” that he says he has found. “I want [roasting] to be a really big part of that menu.”
About the food:
From what he calls a massive open kitchen, he says “the cuisine will be...” he pauses as if to say, ‘put it this way’, “they’ll do takeaway...” It will be faster, less intricate and more akin to the so-called ‘premium casual’ concepts, such as Dishoom, that have been such a consistent hit across the city.
Think, he says: “Lunchtime — Hong Kong diner kind of lunch. Crispy pork belly, honey-roast pork, and soya poached chicken... and they’ll be the centrepiece of the restaurant with some snacks around.” There’ll be no riffs or hybrids; instead it “will be true to being Chinese.”
The menu, though at a development stage, will take on the following format: snacks (sweet and sour ribs, spring rolls, and seared wagyu beef with lemongrass and mint); skewers (lamb, oyster mushroom, pork with honey and oyster sauce); “classics” (roasted meats and fish served with rice); sides (breads, aubergine); and “share” (including crispy duck).” And there’ll be a dosa-like pancake served as a breakfast dish for the early morning City crowd.
At Unnamed Restaurant, things, naturally, will be different.
“The big distinction is number one: no dim sum. I refuse to do dim sum. We need to give more credit to dim sum than £2.80 for three pieces. It devalues the whole thing. It’s about showing that [making them] is highly technical. People assume they’re quick to make, but they’re day, day and half processes. Every piece is handmade.”
“It’s an extension of what we do here. Even though the centre-piece is Cantonese, there will be parts of the menu that show the western part of China, other regions. We’re going to explore everything on the menu except dim sum. People automatically assume it’s deskilled. So if we [do it at Bloomberg, in high volumes] we risk adding fuel to that fire.”
And, finally, the latest on when it will open? “Last time I checked, the middle of July,” he says with a laugh before admitting that they remain beholden to the timelines of builders and other factors.
Andrew Wong, alas, appears happy to wait. Because he wants to get it right. But also because he’s got plenty on his plate.