This is one-eighth of Andre Chiang’s How I See the World.
Listen. And you might hear the walls speaking to you. Not literally, but they certainly can tell you a few things if you let them – and that is exactly what Andre Chiang does when he steps into a space.
“I personally think that there is no ‘bad’ space. There are places for fine dining and there are those that are perfect for sandwiches, or standing sushi. It’s all about whether you have everything you need – such as the capital, the team of the right capability – to launch the right concept at the right time. But, of course, there are many other factors to consider when looking at a space. Things such as a ridiculously high rent, or logistical issues such as not having a lift when the unit is on a high floor are turn-offs.”
He theorises: “The space comes before the concept. It is very important for the space to tell you what it wants, what belongs in it. You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. If it tells me that it’s a T-shirt shop that sells ice cream and plays hip-hop music, then that is what it will be.
“We’ve all been to places where you walk in and think, ‘They could have done something else instead’. It might be the layout, or a vibe, or anything that makes you ill at ease.”
Some call it fengshui, and it is, in the sense that it is about optimising the movement of air and light in a room – the natural flow of things – but to Chiang, it is more than that.
“It is also about the greater environment – like some cafes that just call out to you when you are walking on the street. It is also about the atmosphere that you create inside. I never step into a space with a preconceived notion of what it should be. Of course, I might have 10 or 20 concepts in my head at any one time, and some units might just coincidentally be suitable for one of the concepts, but I don’t go out seeking a space as an end in itself.”
To determine what a unit calls for, he imagines himself as a diner, and how the space might engage him at different stages of dining.
“You have to imagine an experience from the outside in, from macro to micro. Seeing the space on the street; stepping in and taking in the sight of the interiors for the first time – whether they will look at this corner or that, where there should be a centrepiece to catch their eye or a plant to fill an empty nook; sitting down at the table and being served… It is all about what you see and feel at different moments and how the space connects with your expectations.”
This means he doesn’t even start thinking about the food till a much later stage, let alone resources and logistical considerations. “I will work very hard to make everything happen and, if I don’t, I will hold until I find the right resources, such as hiring the right chef. I do not rush into anything.”
A CONCEPTUAL CHALLENGE
“For half an hour, I just kept looking at the picture of the bridge. The first thing that came to mind was that it is something that connects two points. When I started to think about how to execute that concept of connecting different places in different time zones, I also thought about the duality of that connectivity – traffic on the bridge runs both ways, and so it’s not just about transporting people to one place, but how to bring them back too. So I came up with a concept that allows you to go back into the past on one side and come back to the present on the other.
“A long, standing dining bar sits in the middle of the bridge, stretching across its length, and this is flanked by preparation stations on both sides. On one side, traditional ways of prepping the cuisine is showcased, while on the other, you have chefs preparing new interpretations of the same dish using modernist techniques. The idea is to walk your way through a meal at this restaurant – for bridges are thoroughfares that you pass through – like a tunnel where you travel through a gastronomical history. With the table in the centre, I am also allowing the diners to have a peek into the past and present at the same time – while you are having a traditional version of a dish on this side of the table, somebody opposite you will be having a modern version of it.
“Then I started to think about the cuisine. The bridge was built in 1867 when African-American men were granted voting rights in Washington. Incidentally, soul food – the comfort food from the South of the United States – is a cuisine that hasn’t been explored in our food scene. It is a very historical cuisine, with lots of stories behind it, and since the concept of this restaurant on a bridge is to tell a story of history, it is perfect. I also thought of putting up displays of art depicting the history of soul food along the sides of the bridge, so that it also creates a visual effect of travelling through time.
“Of course, American cuisine is not what comes to mind immediately when one looks at the bridge and the colonial buildings that surround it. But, at the same time, I don’t want to do anything expected and obvious. The idea is to highlight the fact that many other things were happening around the world in that same year the bridge was built.”