Andrew Wong grew up amongst the pots and pans in his parents’ Chinese restaurant in Pimlico, London. From the age of seven, he washed dishes, set tables, took bookings and completed his homework in the dining room. He didn’t dream of a life cooking in the kitchen. He didn’t even want to remain in the family business.
That all changed when he was 22. He was studying anthropology at the London School of Economics after studying chemistry at Oxford University. An academic life beckoned. But when his father was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, Wong returned to the fold to help keep the restaurant afloat during a tumultuous time.
Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for entire kitchens to walk out on the restaurant without any notice, never to return. That would have been catastrophic, and it was what drove Wong to learn enough tricks in the kitchen to ensure the restaurant wouldn’t cease to exist if that happened.
In the process, Wong became increasingly interested in not just cooking but also his Chinese heritage and exploring thousands of years of history through the food on his menu.
Now nearly two decades later, A. Wong is the only Chinese restaurant outside Asia to be awarded two Michelin stars. It has been a remarkable rise for a man who never wanted to follow his lineage into the hospitality world, but has proven to be a superstar in this caper.
“My parents had restaurants and growing up in this industry it was a punishment (to spend time working in them). If you messed up or if you weren’t behaving or if you got bad grades, the punishment was going to work in the restaurants, going to wash plates, going to be a waiter,” Wong tells Man of Style from A.Wong this month.
“I never wanted to be in this industry at all. Honestly, I did it out of duty and I did it to help the family out, but I never thought I would do it. I had no idea what I was going to do but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be hospitality.
“Eighteen years have passed by now and it feels like yesterday that I first went into the kitchen just to help out and see if there was anything I could do. I don’t really know how it happened. I wish there was a really definitive answer of how I became obsessed with Chinese food but it was just constant evolution.
“I honestly fell into the industry. I wish there was this thing where I was rubbish at school and this was the only thing I was good at and therefore I found it as my calling. But that’s just not true.”
It took some time to steady the ship at the restaurant following the passing of his father, and to come to terms with a drastic change in course. But before too long, Wong realised he was falling in love with the heat, the aromas and the intensity of the kitchen. Quickly, he was all in.
Wong was born and raised in England and knew he needed to return to China to learn how to do things differently from what he’d seen growing up in and around Chinese restaurants in the capital.
That ambition led him on a research trip to China before he opened A. Wong in 2012, where he spent time with friends and contacts in the Sichuan province and Beijing watching, cooking and learning different techniques, scribbling them down and asking lots and lots of questions. People thought he was there for a holiday, but they obviously didn’t see the dossier of notes he compiled in the months he spent in China.
“I grew up in my parents’ restaurants and my grandfather had a Chinese restaurant and all my parents friends were restaurateurs owning Chinese restaurants, but I kind of knew in the back of my mind that Chinese food in England is probably very different to Chinese food in China,” Wong said.
“I’d been to China a lot growing up, but even then, that time was different in the 80s and 90s. When I went it was very much about trying to see. Learning is one thing, but it was more about seeing and chatting to other chefs and to see which parts of the Chinese repertoire were of particular interest to them, which parts or processes were of particular interest.
“I spent time with four or five different Cantonese roasting chefs and every single one of them had a different explanation for the perfect crispy pork belly or the perfect Peking duck or the perfect soy chicken. The good thing was I was so ignorant so I didn’t have any judgement, let’s just write it down. Then I tried to compare the differences. One chef would wash a suckling pig down with washing detergent and that blew my mind. It was an amazing experience for me.”
History is of the utmost importance to Wong. It’s why his restaurant stands on the same site as the one his parents opened in 1985, when other more financially beneficial options could or should have been considered.
“The location that we’re currently on is the same restaurant that my sister and I used to get locked in after school to do our homework,” he says with a tinge of pride in his voice.
“I remember having this discussion with my wife before we opened that if we weren’t going to open a restaurant on this site, I don’t think I would have opened a restaurant. I probably would have gone to work in other restaurants before thinking about opening. This restaurant holds so many memories.
“Of course, now in 2021, the food is very different, the style is very different, the concept is very different, but to me, this building holds incredible memories and nostalgia of good times and bad times, celebrations of family get-togethers, of being forced to work or learning so many things. It encapsulates that magic.
“When you open a restaurant like A. Wong it is not for profit; it’s not for ego; it’s a passion project; t is somewhere where you want people to enjoy the fruits of your hard work, your passion and what you want to show people as a team. If it wasn’t going to be on this site, I honestly think it wouldn’t have happened.”
With the acoustics of a restaurant starting to take shape ahead of a midweek lunch service happening around us, our conversation naturally shifts to the name of the restaurant. Immediately one would assume that A. Wong is a restaurant named after the chef. But that assumption would be wrong. There is a much more profound origin behind the name of one of London’s most cherished restaurants. And it is the same reason Wong turned his back on an academic career nearly two decades ago.
“The original restaurant was called Kim which was my grandma’s maiden name. I knew we had to change the name and that was purely a business decision because we were starting afresh to try and build a new customer base. We needed to have a new name because people just wouldn’t come without a new name,” he explained.
“We went around and around in circles. Next time you have a dinner party with friends, try to come up with a name for a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t sound too Chinese but sounds Chinese enough without sounding cliché or corny or kung-fu related. It is very difficult. You end up with Cherry Blossom, Golden Dragon, Red Envelope. They all just sound cliché.
“At the end of the day, my dad named it after his mum and both my parents (had names starting with the letter A) Albert and Annie Wong and my sister is Angelina and my son is Aidan Wong. It was important at the time. It is a family restaurant and it encapsulates our lives since 1985.”
When A.Wong became the first Chinese restaurant outside of Asia to earn a second star in January, it provided a moment of reflection for Wong and his wife, Nathalie. Not only had they achieved a monumental accolade, but it had arrived amid a global pandemic that has rocked the fine dining industry, forcing some of the best restaurants in the world to shutter their doors for the best part of 12 months, and during a time of racial unrest across the globe.
“First of all, we had probably more inspections this Michelin guide than any other guide we’ve had in the past. People wonder how we got one when we were closed for so long. Actually, that’s not true. They postponed the guide and it ended up being a longer inspection period than previously and we had more inspections than we’ve ever had. We remember three and there might have been more – sometimes we don’t have more than one in a year,” he said.
“In all honesty, I’m incredibly proud to have won this. I’m proud because in a time like this, when you read all about the Asian hate, especially in America and in Australia – we’ve got off a bit lightly in the UK – but I see us winning the second star as an encapsulation of all our forefathers’ hard work in taking the cuisine to a point where it’s even possible for a Chinese restaurant to win two stars.
“You can’t compare it to a different modern cuisine, because Michelin is a French guide judging now world cuisine. No restaurant outside of Asia has won two stars. Why? Because learning about Asian cuisine is such a new thing for Michelin. The first Asian restaurant to win a star was in the 1970s and it is so different from then to now. To win two I think it shows how far we have come to consider a guide like Michelin awarding two stars.”
Oxford has produced 28 British Prime Ministers, more than 30 international leaders, 55 Nobel Prize winners, 120 Olympic Medal winners and hundreds of notable academics, scientists and writers. Another famous Oxonian is one of the most influential chefs in the United Kingdom right now, a man who turned his back on an academic life to rise to the occasion for his family.