Restaurant André in Singapore took the restaurant scene by storm, starting with Asia and becoming recognized globally within the year, with owner and chef André Chiang at the helm with his octaphilosophy concept menu. It has featured in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants consecutively since 2013 (#14 in 2017), alongside an ever-evolving collection of accolades including Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and the esteemed G Restaurant Awards - The Peak Selections: Gourmet & Travel, receiving Restaurant of the Year. Now, to add to its collection, Restaurant André has achieved the Best Designed Wine List in the World 2017 in the World’s Best Wine Lists, alongside a Jury Prize and regional awards for Best Regional Wine List Asia (2017) and Most Original Wine List Asia (2017).
WFW spoke to Romain Cousot, operation director and head sommelier from Sospel, France, after the restaurant’s win. We discussed his inspiration for the wine list, drawing upon his time spent in Australia and elsewhere, how tradesmen from Australia’s outback influenced him, and recommendations for those entering the awards.
Congratulations on the success of Restaurant André in the World’s Best Wine Lists 2017; the restaurant was awarded the title of Best Designed Wine List in the World 2017 alongside a Jury Prize, and received a two-star award. What does it mean to you to win this award?
I am so glad for André (Chiang, chef and owner), Pam (André’s wife), and their opening team. They chose to work with a natural wine philosophy from the opening, and in Singapore this was a crazy bet. When André contacted me to join the team I saw great potential with the wine list; it took so much effort, investment, and thinking, to raise the bar from a unique and creative idea, to a sophisticated wine book.
The award encourages us to pursue these efforts, not only for the restaurant and the guests, but to inspire other restaurateurs and sommeliers in South-East Asia.
How did you and the team celebrate?
With a week of holidays! The award came the weekend before our summer closure. Singapore is a country where people don’t drink; I took some cheese and olives from home, and once we were back we celebrated this way.
How do you describe the Restaurant André wine list?
Our list focuses on natural wines from French artisan winemakers; no chemicals, no pesticides, no marketing. I believe Restaurant André is a creative restaurant and a meal here is a unique experience, therefore the wine experience has to be unique, too.
We deliver French Nouvelle Cuisine, because André, who comes from Taiwan, learned to cook in the South of France. Here he learned to play with seasonal ingredients, focus on terroir, and combine seafood and vegetables around Mediterranean influences. The concept of a French wine list from artisan farmers fits this philosophy. We go from Bretagne to Auvergne through Corsica and showcase some of the best natural winemakers in France. Today we do have about 600 references including a large selection of aperitifs and digestives from France (yes, made with French Vermouth, Whisky, Vodka, Gin… and of course they’re all natural!)
André welcomes guests in an old conservation house, with the restaurant inside. Pam and André like books and there is a library both in their house and in the restaurant. Our [wine] book is handmade. A book is warm, has texture, and a smell to give you a welcome home feeling. A book can give more to the guest than a catalogue.
What inspires your wine list?
I believe in natural wines from small farmers; no chemicals, no pesticides, no marketing. The last one means we have to import our wines from the farmer to the restaurant. It’s a very unique concept, and we did it the hard way. I’ve worked with natural wines for eight years; I was employed at Noma and I was more of a chef who moved to the front of house. I met our Nordic farmers, fishermen, foragers but also winemakers and natural wine importers; I discovered new flavors, combinations and creativity I’d never experienced in my previous places in France.
What inspires me is the relation between terroir, winemakers, winemaking philosophy, and wine. We can show it at Restaurant André through our wine book. In the new wine book 3.0 (starting 18/07) I put a constellation map next to Domaine Rousset-Peyraguey, because Alain told me how stars can influence the vines. I also put a picture of a buried glass jar for Cadavre Exquis, because Marc and Shirine ferment wine this way. But also some paintings, music… all to immerse the reader in a book where wine is more than just a compilation of names. I am a sommelier in order to deliver the message from the winemaker. I made a list with wines from everywhere in France for everyone in Singapore.
Wine lists at Noma and Relæ inspired me in my previous years when I was at Garagistes in Australia. Today I’m also importing wines, and people like Roger and Sue from Living Wines in Hobart, Rosforth & Rosforth in Copenhagen, give me good examples of the wine import business; I met and visited most of the winemakers we import (about 70 between Taipei and Singapore) and deal with respect and friendship rather than making it a strictly business deal.
I have to mention unusual inspiration for the wine industry; I was a salesman for an insurance company in Australia for a year. Dealing in personal insurance with farmers and tradesmen in the outback taught me how to understand and approach people when prospecting. Without this experience I would not be able to bring so many winemakers to the list.
Now that we’re halfway through the year, have you noticed any trends in wines or the restaurant scene?
In Singapore more casual spots with a serious approach in cuisine have opened within a year. It’s a huge difference compared to the previous generation which followed the opening of Marina Bay Sands and the import of international names to Singapore. More and more artisan wine importers are now on the market; winemakers in France sometimes inform me they were approached by someone else in Singapore.
I experienced the same in Australia. I arrived here ten years ago; I am amazed by how the industry shifted from classic fine dining to one of the liveliest food scenes. As in Australia, which is investing a lot in tourism and promoting food and wine, Singapore seems to promote the restaurant industry more.
What wine regions or producers have inspired you recently?
“South of France”: it’s large and this is what our wine list 3.0 is now focused on. Once I joined André two years ago I analyzed the sales from the previous team and noticed a high demand for classic names and grapes (Bourgogne Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Alsace Riesling, Rhône Syrah or Grenache) and filled the stock. However, on my first import I wanted to deepen the wine list and offer a true selection of natural wines from France, so I added more wines from Languedoc, Auvergne, Corsica, Provence, and Sud-Ouest. There are 44 winemakers in total. Today, we sell more French wine and obscure grapes and blends than the classics. Forty winemakers were imported last month, and the South is now dominant as it pairs well with André’s French Nouvelle Cuisine.
I was amazed to rediscover the South as I come from Sospel, an area not far from Nice. I did not know about Marc and Shirine Salerno (Cadavre Exquis), Jean-Christophe Comor (Domaine Les Terres Promises), or Céline and Raymond Laforest (Les Tuiles Bleues); which makes me believe in the potential of natural wine in Provence.
What bottle of wine would you normally reach for to drink?
I’d rather drink something else than wine. I’m a big fan of Sake, my favorite being Nabeshima “Yamada Nishiki” (Fukuchiyo Shuzo). In Denmark I learned about quality beers, such as Mikkeler, which showed me that it’s possible to make a great beer list for fine dining.
Today, as we specialize in French wines I miss my previous selection at Garagistes. Especially wines from Italy and Austria. I tend to seek those. I would give so much for a bottle of Cornelissen, Panevino, Paolo Bea, or Strohmeier, my favorite.
What advice would you give to others entering the World’s Best Wine Lists?
I hope sommeliers keep delivering the message of the winemaker, rather than doing a wine compilation for their portfolio. Look at our book, there is no difference between Bourgogne Grand Cru and Vin de Table; give more about the winemaker than the appellation. Appreciate that the most beautiful part of the wine is what’s in the bottle, not on the bottle.
Since entering the awards, what has changed for you and the restaurant?
Restaurant André is proud to receive recognition. I planned to communicate more about our wine philosophy and the book. It’s confirmed for me that we have a unique concept (natural wine and wine book), and that we should showcase it more. People other than our guests should also know about it.
What’s next for you and the restaurant?
Busy services, happy guests, and pairings; same as before. But this year we do also have more collaborations with chefs, such as Dan Hunter, Albert Adria, Esben Holmboe Bang, and Alexandre Gauthier, and exciting menus to try.