André Chiang has a big following in the global culinary world.
The Tawainese-born, French-educated chef led the kitchen of several three Michelin star restaurants before putting Singapore on the map with his own, Restaurant André.
Filmed over two years, “André and His Olive Tree” dives into Chiang’s razor-like precision in the kitchen to his humble beginnings.
What started as a documentary to chart Chiang’s rise changed course when he announced the closing of his restaurant after gaining only two Michelin stars — an anomaly in his field.
Director Josiah Ng uses graphics to illustrate the exactitude with which Chiang sets his dining space: Chairs placed at a 45-degree angle, tablecloths ironed in 180-degree heat, tables two-finger widths from the wall.
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In one scene, Chiang interrupts a conversation with guests to remove a chipped wine glass from a cabinet, admittedly “intense about the details.”
This film covers Restaurant André's worldwide accolades: second best in Asia by Restaurant magazine; best restaurant in Singapore; and Chiang’s "octaphilosophy" about eight elements that define a dining experience.
In his directorial debut, Ng captures Chiang’s intensity plating dishes and directing cooks — “You learn, you don’t have to yell, just pinch them and they know what to do”; his sometimes vacant stares; and his charm greeting guests.
Ng also features input from former business partners, food writers and restaurant staff, whom Chiang trained up from newbie status.
In a most telling interview, Chiang’s wife, Sudarampai Chiang, shares the origin of their relationship and the isolation of being the wife of a Michelin star chef.
Ng loses momentum, with some loose editing choices and by passively allowing what is overheard in recordings to tell the story. And, while Ng follows Chiang’s octaphilosophy in this film’s chapter headings, it feels more of an uninformed and empty gesture.
What Ng does well capture is Chiang’s humanity, his nervousness around his French mentor, his confession of his off-the-clock food choices of cold pizza and instant noodles.
Great charm lies in a return to Chiang’s roots.
In one scene, he walks around Taiwan’s Shi Lin Night Market, exuding boylike giddiness watching a street performer in this space that birthed his creativity and work with flavor combinations.
The camera covers food vendors dishing snacks into small bags and people playing carnival games.
Chiang explains the difficulty in making something delicious, portable and quick with cheap, common ingredients.
“He cooked these clams as good as any chef at Restaurant André,” Chiang says, holding a mussel in front of a vendor.
“It’s not reserved for rich people or a luxury lifestyle. It’s really about how you respect the produce. … It’s $14 on the street, and you can have the best clam you could ever have.”
This film waits too long, but eventually, indirectly, answers the pressing question of “why did he close?”
The answer seems to best contained in an anecdote Chiang shares:
A 12-year-old tells Chiang he wants to be a Michelin chef, too.
“I said ‘No, just be a happy chef.’”
“André and His Olive Tree” is magical moments tempered by some meandering and delicious-looking food.
Chiang’s a fascinating human, whose story may have been best captured by a more seasoned director, though, based on his style, giving a newcomer a shot is on par.
Starring: André Chiang, Sudarampai Chiang
Writer / director: Josiah Ng
Melinda Lavine is a features reporter and movie reviewer for the News Tribune. Write to her at email@example.com.