Celebrity chefs spread stardust over a nation’s food scene. They take the spotlight and make the headlines, introduce new ingredients and food preparation styles to give cooking an aura of exceptionality. They are a cut above standard restaurant fare and in a totally different universe from the humble housewife or househusband preparing the family’s daily meals.

They become familiar names that can sell anything from condiments and sauces to microwave-oven-ready meals. They appear in advertisements, on reality TV programs, or become a form of “cheftainment” – witness Gordon Ramsay, once again losing his paper-thin temper and swearing at unfortunate apprentices. Celebrity chefs are minted after winning contests, they become judges on cooking shows, or are asked to pen books and write columns revealing their latest recipe.

In Taiwan they are a relatively new phenomenon. It used to be that chefs were hidden away in the kitchen, toiling away in anonymity, lucky to have a dish named after them or receive any accolades for the work they did. Nowadays, cooking shows are a big deal, and if a celebrity chef gets caught with his trousers down, like Cheng Yen-chi, also known as Ah-Chi-shih (阿基師), then they are lead stories in the gossip pages. Previously he had made headlines for finding creative ways to cook up leftovers.

Taiwanese-American restaurateur Eddie Huang popularized guabao (割包) – the local equivalent of a hamburger – at his New York eatery, while his biography Fresh off the Boat became a bestseller and then a nationally televised sitcom. Meanwhile, Derek Chen (陳德烈) started out in life as an apprentice at a Cantonese restaurant (“catching rats and clearing drains”) but as the host of travel food show Cooking My Way (世界我做煮) is known as Taiwan’s “hottest handsome chef.”

Such is the popularity of TV chefs that the Tourism Bureau thought it a good idea to invite Gabe Kennedy to take a look at Taiwan’s Aboriginal cuisine. In November, the winner of the American Broadcasting Company’s reality show, The Taste, visited the Atayal tribe to savor the indigenous food culture. He popped up in Yilan at an organic tea farm for refreshment and photo opportunities, and at Wushi Harbor to gawp at local seafood specialties.

But the glitter aside, there’s also gold in the celebrity chef concept. Take the recent opening of Jamie’s Italian, a brand established by Jamie Oliver, in the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Department Store A11 in Taipei’s Xinyi district. Oliver is very much the modern-day celebrity chef, earning his spurs for being bright eyed, bushy tailed, and telegenic, rather than slogging through apprenticeships in demanding French kitchens before making his mark.

He was catapulted into the limelight with the The Naked Chef, earning rave reviews for being youthful, good looking, and irreverent. While he has been quoted in the past as saying, “I’d like to win a Michelin star but it’s unlikely – my cooking just ain’t fiddly enough and that’s fine by me,” his passion for food and acumen for business has served him well.

So well, in fact, that not only was he made a Member of the Order of the British Empire, but he built a business empire, Jamie Oliver Holdings, which made him worth US$400 million in 2016, according to the Sunday Times Rich List. He is the world’s wealthiest chef and his restaurant chain, Jamie’s Italian, registered sales of £19.4 million (NT$767 million) in 2015. He also has his altruistic side, having initiated a campaign in the UK, widely imitated in other countries, to reduce obesity among kids and improve school meals.

Jamie’s Italian Taiwan is the brand’s fourth restaurant in Asia, among 40 worldwide. It’s Euro-chic in style, outfitted in shining steel and muted color tiles, with street-art inspired murals. There’s a half-open kitchen, bar with craft beers, and coffee and pizza stations, with plenty of Oliver merchandise on the shelves, such as chopping boards and books. There was a flurry of excitement on launch day in late November and a full house of expectant KOLs (key opinion leaders) wondering what Oliver would bring to the table. We were treated to a video of the celebrity chef, who told us we were “in excellent hands.”

“Jiababway?" (Have you eaten?), Oliver began in Taiwanese, from the comfort of his kitchen in Essex. “I can’t believe I’m going to open in Taiwan – and I know you’re going to love it! I know the food culture in Taiwan is incredible: humble, simple, beautiful and great value,” adding this was precisely why customers would like his “rustic” Tuscan offerings.

Jamie’s head Chef (Hong Kong and China) Steve Ma, who was here on secondment from the Hong Kong branch to oversee the kitchen, said that Oliver makes every item on the menu himself before approving it. “We want to change the market by providing real food, with all the ingredients being fresh, healthy and sustainable, no-MSG, organic, and affordable,” said Ma.

The interior of Raw, a 60-seat 'lifestyle restaurant' (Photo: Raw)

Business as usual

I was in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay when Jamie’s opened in 2014 and for months afterwards lines of people would be raring to get in to find out what all the fuss was about. This was the Oliver celebrity effect. After which, it was business as usual. I asked Ma about this and the need to present authentic food, yet cater to local tastes.

The idea is to be both local and global, Ma confirms. “But we want the focus to be on the restaurant rather than celebrity. I want people to come here for great food and sharing rather than Jamie. A lot of people call us a celebrity-chef restaurant but we are more than that. We are about casual and affordable dining.”

“Yes, we do listen to customers and during the soft opening we learned that people here like their pizza a bit crustier, so we offer a choice of how hard it is. Also, our local head chef, Marco Kao (高楚暘) has developed a pizza that aims to suit the local palate, the Taiwan Hot.” This pizza comprises sweet tomato, Cheddar cheese, spicy meatballs, Taiwan chilies (a pickled chili with the skin off, marinated in soy sauce and vinegar, plus a locally sourced green pepper), and buffalo mozzarella.

Actually, for all the focus on Oliver, this venture is franchise business as usual. It’s not really about the food so much as the concept and positioning. Oliver has no role in the day-to-day running of his restaurants, or of his company, which is managed by his brother-in-law, a banker. Hong Kong’s Big Cat Group has bought the rights to operate Jamie’s restaurants in “greater China,” and a good number of senior executives were on hand to make sure the launch went well.

Big Cat Marketing and Development director Jack Harrison commented that making the move to Taiwan was an easy decision because many of Oliver’s programs have been translated into Chinese and televised here. “Taiwan has become more international in recent years and more open to different dining experiences,” he notes. “We saw an opportunity in the casual dining space, rather than the fast food and high-end segments that had come before.”

“Shin Kong is one of the biggest malls in Taiwan and provides a great location,” he adds. “When you have a celebrity-chef brand, people typically expect fine dining, so we have managed expectations and I don’t think anybody expects Jamie to be in the kitchen. We are smart, but also casual and friendly.”

And fairly competitively priced. A meal at Jamie’s weighs in at about NT$1,000 per person.

André Chiang and his creative team in the kitchen (Photo: Raw)

Food with finesse

At the opposite end of the celebrity-chef spectrum is Taiwan chef André Chiang (江振誠), who is more artist than entrepreneur. The respected French magazine Le Chef rates him among the “100 Best Chefs in the World,” at number 37. In 2014, he opened Raw in Taipei’s Neihu district, blending tradition and local ingredients with cutting-edge techniques from around the world. He also incorporates his signature “Octaphilosophy” approach to fine dining, inspired by the fundamental principles of reality represented by the eight symbols or trigrams of bagua (八卦) in Taoist cosmology. The eight elements in Chiang’s cosmological cuisine are salt, texture, memory, purity, terroir, “south” (implying lightness, freshness, and plenty of seafood), artisanal, and unique.

At the table this Octaphilosophy translates into an eight-course tasting menu featuring such gems as in-house baked bread with buckwheat and whipped cream butter; a salad of mint-like shiso sorbet, slices of red and yellow tomatoes, with kanpachi sashimi nestling under cucumber, topped off by a rosé champagne vinaigrette; and a dessert of sliced strawberries and pink guava sorbet, garnished with cranberry juice and a smidgeon of roasted apple.

While Oliver aims to fill the belly, Chiang’s declared intent is “not to feed the stomach but to fill the heart and soul.” It’s a quote from George Calombaris, Australia’s master chef and part of his definition of what the kitchen should be. While Oliver was a sous chef, Chiang was head chef of the Michelin three-star Le Jardin des Sens in France. While Oliver wants world domination, Chiang has no intention of opening another Taiwan restaurant, though there are loud calls for him to do so.

Raised in Taipei’s Shilin, he was taught to cook by his mother. He relocated to Japan and then France for 15 years, where he mastered his craft. He speaks Chinese, French, Japanese, and English. In The World’s Top 50 Restaurants, Raw is described as a place “where food meets art…and has become the hottest reservation on the island.” At his eponymous Restaurant André, in Singapore, Chiang is the chef, his wife serves – and if he’s not there, it closes.

In a phone call from Singapore, one of the first things Chiang says is: “I’m not a celebrity chef, or a personality. No artist would call themselves an artist. I just feel that I have a responsibility to connect people, and point out the right thing to do, so people can see new possibilities. I can charge NT$10,000 for a meal with my name on it, but I want to set an example. There’s no need for caviar and truffles. I can do something nice with what we have. That’s more important to me.”

Compared with other fine-dining establishments run by big-name chefs, Raw is famously reasonable when it comes to price, about NT$3,000 per person. While most restaurants have suppliers and the best chefs go to the market for their ingredients, Chiang and his team go one step further. “All the ingredients are 100% from Taiwan. There is a focus on all the beautiful things we have here and I use Raw to showcase this. It makes no sense to have a Japanese pastry chef, French this, Italian that. We have a young team, but everything is Taiwan produced, from the interior, to the metals, the tea and coffee, down to the decorative flower arrangements. We don’t import anything; we produce according to the season (four seasons, 24 micro seasons). We could easily go to the market, but we make the extra effort to go to the mountains.”

This intense focus on providing the best that Taiwan has to offer goes to the heart of Chiang’s philosophy of cuisine, which is to “Carry the knowledge of how people lived in the past and redefine it in the language of this generation.” It’s a way of passing on of the torch. Many of Chiang’s dishes reprise night market favorites, but refined, redefined, and improved. “We update, so the flavor is not just Taiwanese but international, so it is easy for diners to understand what Taiwan is about.”

It’s the opposite approach to, say, Jamie’s, or Restaurant Atelier de Joël Robuchon in the Bellavita mall in Taipei’s Xinyi district, or any number of other celebrity chefs who have come here, setting out to introduce foods from abroad and convert the locals. “We have to dig deeper,” says Chiang. “It’s not difficult for Taiwan to set an example and deliver a very important message. This is the ambition, and if many people work in the same direction, then we will change the environment and the Taiwan flavor will be known around the world.”

As for the trend for branded restaurants to open in Taiwan, Chiang believes it’s not sustainable. “It will get less and less. Interest will slowly fade. I say this because looking at Singapore, it went along the same path. Now, the best there are local. There is a learning process, and once you have something that other people have, then you move to the second stage and you want something that others don’t have. It will take a few years, but eventually Taiwan will have its own haute cuisine to be proud of.”

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Taiwan Business TOPICS.

Taiwan Business TOPICS is published monthly by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei.

TNL Editor: Edward White