In early 2013, Singaporean chef Mohamed Al-Matin, who had graduated from culinary school, signed up to work with Taiwanese celebrity chef Andre Chiang in his eponymous restaurant.
But before he started work at Restaurant Andre in the heart of Chinatown, the Singaporean went missing. “He disappeared, he stopped replying to my e-mails and messages,” said Chiang, who was bewildered.
Turns out, Matin, as he is known to friends, was nearly left to die in a hit-and-run accident in New York. While out cycling in the Big Apple, he was hit by a car driving on the wrong side of the road as it was fleeing a violent crime. He struggled to survive, drifting in and out of consciousness in hospital for weeks.
When he finally woke up, he was bedridden with metal plates inserted in his left arm and left thigh, and metal braces to support his left calf and right thigh. He had also lost function of his right hand. He was in no shape to work, let alone take up a new job.
When Chiang learnt about the accident, he wrote to Matin and assured him that the job would remain his, “Don’t worry, we will keep your position for you until you are able to stand up and work. You have to get better.”
Chef Andre checks what his pastry chef Matin is doing. The two men have bonded over a tragedy and cooking.
Thus began a unique connection between Chiang and Matin, forged from tragedy and built by a shared passion for cooking.
Five months later, in late 2013, Matin finally returned to Singapore. He was still in no shape to work, and only able to stand up and walk short distances. But Chiang saw beyond his physical limitations.
“Matin said he couldn’t work. I said, yes you can. Cook with your brain, not cook with your body,” Chiang said during an interview, sharing how he persuaded the young chef to come to his restaurant and imagine how he would make desserts or other dishes in his mind.
He told Matin, “You cook with your imagination. You smell strawberries, you smell somebody frying, it gives you inspiration. Combine and collect these flavours, and then you will get better soon.”
Slowly, after a few more months, Matin regained his strength and stepped into the kitchen to whip up his magic with desserts – under Chiang’s tutelage. Today, Matin, who has risen to the post of head pastry chef, still wears a plastic brace on his right hand for support.
In all this time, Chiang, 41, never wavered in his support of Matin, 28, one of many Singaporean chefs he has trained since setting up his highly-acclaimed restaurant at Bukit Pasoh Road in 2010.
But why did Chiang keep the job for Matin, who was virtually a stranger to him at that point? When asked this question, he paused for a while to give it some thought. Then he replied simply, “I don’t know. At that time, he hasn’t even worked for me. I didn’t even know if he will work out.
“No one wants to go through that accident. If I say, “thank you very much, we will find someone to replace you, that’s even worse”. How can I do that? The only thing that keeps him moving is that he wants to cook. If he knows he still got this job...and that position is waiting for him, that gives him the drive to come back and work.”
Perhaps Chiang’s own similar experience helped him empathise deeply with Matin. When he was 17 and working as a young chef in Paris, he was involved in an accident after a late night karaoke session that ended at 5am. A car hit him while he was walking along the street. He has a long scar on his left arm, which required 120 stitches.
Matin is grateful for Chiang’s persistence. “Chef was in contact with me often while I was still bedridden to check on my situation. After a while, I did not reply him because I was scared that I couldn't work for him anymore as my nerve injury to my master right hand was quite bad. I almost couldn't do anything with it,” he said.
Over the years, he has learnt many lessons from Chiang. “I learnt how to overcome my disability and always try to be a normal chef in the kitchen. He reminds me not to let my handicap affect what the brain is capable of,” he shared.
It has not been an easy journey with “lots of disagreements” between the seasoned Michelin star chef and novice chef, with Chiang known to have a perfectionist streak. “I worked my socks off to prove that I wasn’t useless,” said Matin who is grateful that Chiang for kept faith in him.
While Chiang’s style can be “very temperamental and unconventional” at times, Matin believes it has made him a much better chef.
“See, that's why I'm three stripes and you're only one stripe”, he (Chiang) always says as he taps three fingers on his shoulder”, he added, referring to his boss’s regimental ways in the kitchen.
A taskmaster and a drill sergeant, Chef Andre is instilling the discipline and passing on the techniques of cooking that he learnt from his teachers before him.
Chiang is clearly the captain of his team. Standing at 1.88m, the soft-spoken chef cuts an imposing figure in the kitchen as he quietly checks on ingredients and on-going food preparations before the restaurant opens for dinner.
His intimate 30-seat fine-dining establishment has two Michelin stars, and is ranked the second best in Asia and No. 14 in the world, according to the Top 50 Best Restaurants lists. Interestingly, Restaurant Andre is the only Singapore outlet to make it onto the global list – an accolade the Taiwanese takes pride in.
He set out to create an iconic restaurant in Singapore, and he did. Nationality does not matter, said the ethnic-Chinese chef on cooking top-notch French cuisine in an Asian city. “We are at the crossroads of East and West. We are not trying to duplicate a French restaurant experience that you can find elsewhere,” he shared.
This trans-national approach is an important lesson he would like to teach his team of young chefs. “Today, the best restaurant list in the world, I’m the only Chinese. If you are looking at the top Michelin star restaurant cooking French cuisine, I’m the only Chinese,” he added.
“It was hard for me to step out and create because you always have that doubt, how can you cook better than the French or how can you teach the French how to cook French food. My brigade of talented chefs, they all have the same doubts in themselves... this is an encouragement to these young chefs.”
The word he used to describe his restaurant is authentic. That is also the key reason which drew him to Singapore 10 years ago. After spending 17 years in France, he was looking to sink roots back in Asia, and found Singapore alluring.
“I saw the potential of Singapore. In the past, Singapore wanted to have everything that other people have – whether it’s a new brand or a new trend. But I saw that start to change…now Singapore is going for transformation, it is going for something that other people don’t have,” he said.
“It’s been 10 years, and Singapore is home. I enjoy staying here. I never thought that I’ll be staying here that long.”