Once upon a time, in the gentrified streets of Bukit Pasoh, sat Restaurant Andre, a fine-dining establishment under the helm of one Andre Chiang. In the span of a few short years, the combination of his vision, determination, and culinary sorcery propelled it to the top of Singapore’s gastronomic scene.
The restaurant was crowned with two Michelin stars and rose to become one of the best in Asia, second only to Gaggan in Bangkok. Its name began to appear regularly next to chicken rice and laksa on tourists’ to-eat lists, while the waitlist for bookings swelled to two or three months long.
And then, at the height of his glory, Andre decided to call it a day, hand back his stars, and close his restaurant.
When he broke the news to his staff on the restaurant’s 7th anniversary, jaws dropped. Tears were shed. Critics, foodies, and fellow chefs alike were perplexed and disappointed by his decision to bow out instead of pushing to be #1. Only Andre was calm, patting his distraught staff on the back, telling everyone not to be sad.
This is the premise which Andre and His Olive Tree, a documentary which follows the restaurant’s last days, aims to explore: why would someone, having made it, decide to give it all up?
This should give you some idea of what’s in store. While it’s a film about a restaurant, it’s really not about the food.
If you’re after extended close-ups of food porn so obscene they should be rated NC-17, you’re better off watching Chef’s Table. Apart from some footage of the kitchen staff at work and Andre wandering the famous Shilin night market in his native Taiwan, food barely features in the film.
Instead, it is openly existential. There are lots of talking heads introspecting about concepts like authenticity and culinary philosophy. And, of course, the man himself.
Andre is depicted as a sort of culinary Mark Zuckerberg, a genius so obsessed with his craft that he has little energy or attention for anything else. The film opens with him getting a haircut; he keeps his hair shorn to a buzz because genius has better things to do than worry about vanity.
Although Restaurant Andre’s patrons can expect to cough up S$350++ per head for dinner, he has no qualms about gulping down crappy meals that make his wife blanch. And he is assiduous about detail, stopping mid-conversation when he spots a chipped wine glass in a cabinet and dictating that the tablecloths should be ironed at a strict 180 degrees.
In spirit, he’s less a disruptor than a paternalistic traditionalist; one of the film’s more entertaining moments is his rant against upstart young chefs who would rather serve ‘marmalade and bagels’ than earn their stripes. But his fanaticism wins him a band of disciples, all of whom display the same unwavering commitment to making Restaurant Andre an ‘experience’.
This homogeneity makes for better business operations than it does entertainment. While the filmmakers interview other players in addition to Andre—his mentor, the staff, his wife (Pam, the restaurant’s larger-than-life general manager)—their anecdotes are mainly provided in service of the restaurant’s story, and therefore in service of Andre.
Not all of these interviews are particularly revealing, making the film draggy and repetitive at parts. Like the restaurant, the film is very clearly the Andre show: it’s his singular sense of destiny that drives the whole affair.
When Andre says that night’s menu must be changed, it’s changed. Equally, when Andre says the show’s over, it’s over.
The film is structured like an inverse detective story. You begin knowing how it ends, so there’s no mystery there—nor, for that matter, as to why Andre decided to call it a day. From start to finish, the film is peppered with soundbites of him trying to explain himself to his bewildered staff/friends/patrons/journalists.
Some of these are torturously saccharine (‘I found the missing 1% after chasing perfection, and it was in me all along. In my soul.’). But neither Andre nor the film are coy about the answer, which is simply: he had accomplished what he set out to do, realised he was happy, and wanted to move on.
As such, as the film unfolds, it becomes clear that asking “but why did he quit?!?!?!” is missing the point. In fact, what it really seems to be suggesting is: why not?
With the way it counts down to the end—T-4 months; T-15 days; the night before; the day of — the film could be depressing, but it isn’t. While it is certainly an elegy for the shuttered restaurant, it is not funereal. Instead, it feels like a celebration of something well loved.
In the restaurant’s last days, customers flock for one last hurrah, including Andre’s old mentor from France. There are so many people scheduled for the last lunch that Pam struggles to fit them all in.
Footage of Andre and Pam talking to customers is interspersed with photos from their Michelin award ceremony. The commis chef recounts how she worked her way up, coming in as a customer and refusing to leave until Andre gave her a job.
On their final day of service, Valentine’s Day 2018, Andre makes Taiwanese beef noodle soup for the last staff lunch—a daily ritual in which the kitchen staff take turns to cook for each other, serving the foods they like best.
What the film ultimately seems to suggest is this: a good thing coming to an end doesn’t make it any less good. There is nothing to regret in letting go of something which has run its course.
Choosing to leave at the height of the party doesn’t have to be quixotic; all you have to do is want it. And the true measure of success isn’t how well you do by other people’s standards: it’s whether you get to choose your own terms at all.
In this last sense, particularly, Restaurant Andre was a unicorn. Never mind the accolades and the booked-out tables for a minute. As Andre notes, cooking isn’t just about the expensive or exotic — but few restaurants have the luxury of working with the range and quality of ingredients that Restaurant Andre did, or a staff as close-knit and loyal.
And how many have the option of leaving on a high at all, rather than fighting steadily dwindling profit margins until closing becomes inevitable? In the wake of the carnage wrought by the pandemic on the F&B industry, watching Andre and His Olive Tree feels almost like fantasy, the rare idealist’s vision that beat the odds to make it, and got to call when and how it made an exit.
It is a little romantic and a lot wistful. It is a little cerebral and a lot poignant. Its notes might not all be precisely balanced, but it is perfectly bittersweet.