Yet another Wednesday night after a long day of work.
Usually I fret about what to eat for dinner, but tonight I am on a mission. Taipei has way too many dining options, but I am looking for Dolce & Crepe, hidden in the alleyways near Xingtian Temple. It is not really a restaurant, but more of a culinary private live show for the lucky guests who know about this place. In the center stage is the colorful and talkative owner and chef Andrew Huang. My mission: to understand his unique philosophy for food, and for life.
Like many overseas Taiwanese, Huang was born in Taiwan, but grew up in New Zealand until he graduated from college. When he first came back to Taiwan, he brought some wine with him, which he later turned into the first New Zealand white wine import business. He then embraced a variety of different careers that saw him become a chef, a food and beverage columnist, and an entrepreneur. His writings have appeared in multiple magazines, including China Airline’s in-flight magazine.
However, what lies behind all the different roles that he plays, is a movement that he has been championing, called “Almost Blunt.” As a Kiwi, he sees the world as his backyard. He wants to enjoys work and life simultaneously, and he thinks this spirit plays an important part in his value system. How do all these thoughts translate into Almost Blunt?
The idea goes like this: when we use a pencil that is just sharpened, we normally find it hard to write because our emotions can’t seem to flow through the tip of the pencil. We may even make a hole on the paper. Huang thinks that the best moment of using a pencil is when we have written into the second or third paragraph, when the pencil starts to turn blunt but still retains its sharpness in a way. It is only until we can no longer stand the bluntness of the pencil will we resharpen it. He sees the state between perfect sharpness and bluntness as the most ideal state for any individual. To him, it is an attitude that’s applicable to many different things, be it science, politics or food. He is now in the process of promoting the movement because he has seen so many chaos caused by human desire in the real world.
“Our desire represent the perfectly sharpened self,” said Huang, “and it becomes blunt when rubbed against reality. We all try to move forward in life and turn desires into reality. However, the distance between our desire and reality can never be ideal. Therefore, if we enjoy the moment through the process, and expect the bluntness as part of our lives, we can acquire the state of mind that reflects the spirit of Almost Blunt.”
Taking the metaphor further, Huang thinks that resharpening ourselves is a necessity in life—meaning that we should simply value each success and failure as the normal part of us being sharpened. When we are able to shift their attention from the fruits of success to valuing every moment in their lives, that means we have acquired the ability to feel the moment, and turn our emotions into something more concrete.
Huang has been giving speeches about Almost Blunt at colleges and universities, and he plans to start a program that educates the value of Almost Blunt and how to apply such attitude to food. With his strong passion in cuisine, he even used preparing instant ramen as an example of Almost Blunt in his blog. He believes that what makes a plain bowl of instant noodles enjoyable is not the fancy ingredients that you can add with money, but how to use the best part of that bowl of noodle.
“The effort of using what we have to make something in reality satisfying represents the best character of Almost Blunt,” said Huang.
He points out that too many movements around the world force people to adopt a dichotomy when looking at the world. It makes us care more about the result, because a dichotomy can do no more than divide the result into “good” and “bad.” However, Huang believes that without the continuous resharpening of one’s self, it will be hard to find the real moment when that person is truly resharpened.
“Once people use the attitude of Almost Blunt to see things, they start to realize that they are part of a system,” said Huang. “They no longer need to define whether they are the sharp side or the blunt side of the society. It is, instead, a process. It is a collection of moments, and I am reminding people to be observant and live in those moments.”
Huang doesn’t just confine the Almost Blunt attitude to his life, but he also carries it over to his profession as a chef and restaurateur. He said that even though he is a chef, he never wants to show off his instincts as a chef. He wants to help his customers “turn on their switches” when they are tasting his food and enhance their ability to sense the details. He hopes that he can arouse their sensitivity to better cuisine through this process.
“As a chef, I don’t believe repackaging is a form of creativity,” said Huang. “I believe refinement and recombination of elements in a logical way, that is creation. Even if not anything fancy, once you have a dish that never existed in the world in its unique way, it becomes a pure creation.”
So what is the result of combining his unique Almost Blunt attitude of life and his passion for the culinary arts?
“I want my diners to remember that specific moment when they taste my food, the process and the whole experience” said Huang. “I want them to focus more on the experiences that trigger their senses. That is the desire to push me to keep cooking. I never want to make food that just earns me money, but if my customers are willing to participate in the process of experiencing the dish fully, I will try to explain the thoughts and ideas behind each dish that I make.”
Just as I started to follow the train of thought into the world of Almost Blunt, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to participate in one of the experiences with Andrew. He served me hot chocolate, which he said was the “best in Taiwan.” He bought it back from Florence, and explained that it is not the normal kind of hot chocolate where you feel the chocolate sticks to your tongue long after you finish drinking it. According to him, it is simply made from good chocolate and milk.
“My description will help you realize the sensation that you are feeling,” said Huang during my amusing tasting process. “Once you have tried it and experienced it, you will have a reference and know the difference between real good chocolate and bad chocolate. Even though it’s just a cup of hot chocolate, you still have the ability to reproduce it and go through the realization again. It will reawaken your mind, and it is a process of resharpening.”
Apart from trying to enlighten his customers through his dishes and interactions, Huang also regularly conducts a unique tour group called “Lectures on Food.” He would visits a restaurant of his choice with a group of 40 to 50 people that pay to eat and talk about the food with him. He would also challenge the owners of the restaurants and their food. These meals ultimately take him and the tour group overseas to China, because he wants to help the participants to develop a reference for Chinese food.
“The Chinese doesn’t really possess any less when it comes to flavor,” said Huang, “but they do lack what we have accumulated over the last three to four decades. We were colonized, so we possess more attitude to perceive things. It is in our blood as Taiwanese, and it is the reason why I do food and flavors here. It is also why Taiwanese food tastes better and healthier compared to Chinese food. We need to treasure these elements and learn from them.”
In addition, Huang is releasing two books next year, as well as being part of a documentary that explores the history of one of Taipei’s oldest traditional markets, Nanmen Market.
“I’m doing 7 things at the same time, because they are all part of me,” said Huang. “I enjoy them, so I don’t get tired.”
As he chatted with me exclusively for three hours straight, I could feel his passion for everything he does in life. Sure, he is furiously grinding himself down to create more of his vision in the world, but that is no problem when he is enjoying the process of making himself almost blunt.
(Feature photo of chef Andrew Huang, by William Yang)
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