Chef André Chiang on digesting the problem of deforestation
We've heard of fundraising and volunteering, but Chef André Chiang may be the first to aid endangered animals by encouraging people to eat like one. The Asian-born chef, who studied under France's culinary legends for 14 years before heading to Singapore and opening his own restaurant, André, is now using his talents and clamour of critical acclaim to raise awareness of the disappearing Borneo rainforest, which happens to be both home and sustenance for a dwindling population of orangutans. Chiang's 'Orangutan Salad' is a vegetarian dish (no apes were harmed) featuring flora like wild ferns and orchid leaves that are part of the monkey's everyday diet. Perhaps by eating like them, Chiang reasons, people will empathise the orangutans' plight – a plight mostly caused by rampant logging, gold mining and construction of palm oil plantations. The chef is even getting local villagers involved, providing a way for them to benefit from conserving the rainforest rather than destroying it.
This isn't Chiang's first foray into effecting change, though, following on the heels of his 'Forgotten Vegetables' crusade in which diners feasted on purple carrots, ancient cauliflower, desert limes and other produce that are slowly being edged out of garden plots. Clearly, this is one chef out to prove that the way to social reform is through the stomach.
CENTURION: How did the idea for the Orangutan Salad evolve?
André Chiang: [It evolved] as I discovered the serious problem of oil palm plantations destroying the rainforest and causing the problem of orangutan extinction. To raise the awareness with my bare hands, this is something I can do.
How do you work with villagers to promote protection of the rainforest?
[We help the villagers] discover edible plants in the rainforest, build up a supply chain to all the best restaurants around the region and … understand the value of the rainforest and respect everything that is meant to be in the rainforest. This is in order to raise funds for reforestation.
Rainforests all over the world are threatened, so why did you choose to focus on Borneo?
Well, I hope I can save them all but I can't! I could only go one at a time, and Borneo rainforest is one of the biggest rainforests besides the Amazon, which is also in danger. Borneo is just right next to us.
Would you say your motivation to take action on social and environmental issues is something you were taught, or something that comes from within yourself?
A chef works everyday with natural produce, knowing the importance of weather changing, quality of produce and nutrition. How can we not be environmentally aware?
What made you want to become a gourmet chef?
Food is what I know the best – it's my language, how I communicate with people to express my message to the world.
Do you see other ways the fine dining industry could promote more social and environmental responsibility?
Yes, that is also why I started many charity events, fundraising, tree planting programs, and of course 'rainforest cuisine' to contribute to [saving] our environment.
What do you think is the future of fine dining?
To not only know how to use the best of everything, but to use everything we have and bring out its best.
What is the greatest challenge you've had to overcome?
Not just being a great chef, but also a useful person to the planet.