Pastry Chef Janice Wong, is the creative mind behind Singapore’s “2am: dessertbar”
In 2005, after an economics graduate from Monash University in Melbourne, Janice Wong went to Paris to study at the Le Cordon Bleu. She worked in various leading kitchens including those located in San Sebastian, Chicago, and New York. She finds her own style when in 2007 she returned to Singapore and opened her first restaurant, 2am: dessertbar, at Holland Village. Janice Wong’s unique approach to food creates beautiful interactive art. She has an eye for the finest detail and her passion for culinary art has propelled the passion to test the limits of dessert making. Chef Janice Wong’s edible art installations have been commissioned by galleries and restaurants since her creations have unique tastes that surprise the guests and clients. Janice Wong has learned from some of the world’s best chefs, including US luminaries Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, virtuoso Spanish chocolatier Oriol Balaguer, and prodigious French pastry chef Pierre Hermé. In November 2014 she launched her eponymous sweet concept brand, Janice Wong. Chef Janice has received worldwide recognition for her cutting-edge creations.
How and when did you get interested in cooking and baking? How did you understand you wanted to be a Chef? What motivated you?
Well, I started in 2005. One of my main passion was to be a Dessert Chef, and that’s why I went to culinary school in Paris and started from there. I get motivated during my studies in Melbourne, Australia, where I saw a lot of fresh products. I was very inspired by the ingredients and the culinary culture. I decided that I wanted to bring that experience of mine back to Singapore.
I am always exploring new possibilities in the culinary and arts.” – Pastry Chef Janice Wong
You have studied and worked around the world in Melbourne, Paris, Tokyo, etc.. What has meant for you? You bring a fresh new taste to Singapore. Did your journey influence your tastes and creativity? What has changed for you since then?
I think for me, the main thing was to be very focused to really get a lot of skill sets and to learn as much as I could. And in every country that I was visiting, this really shaped my idea of food. I studied in Paris, and I worked there. I went to work in Australia, and then I went to work in Spain, and then in the USA. I went to study in different countries, and that allowed me to really open my mind, also to be amongst different disciplines like art, food, design, and architecture. I think these journeys have shaped me and changed me over the years to what I have become.
What do you love most about your job? What are the greatest rewards?
I truly like bringing a lot of joy to people, and I think that’s why we’re chefs because we have the ability to cook our dishes and to create art for people. And this brings a lot of joy to people.
Pastry Chef Janice Wong has released many books, filled with a mix of innovative creations, which she developed using different types of flour. She plays with ingredients, textures, flavors, and perceptions to make unconventional combinations.
You are half pastry chef and half artist. Are your dishes like canvases where you create your artwork? You made edible art installations. Can you tell us about your culinary philosophy?
My philosophy is about your world is your imagination. So it’s about however you imagine your world to be with its very colorful, black or white, very, very flavorful, joyful! Desserts tones that I use reflect it. Desserts are some of the examples that I use in my philosophy. I also balance the Perfection and Imperfection, which is the title of my book. I strive for perfection, but I also appreciate the imperfection.
Pastry Chef Janice Wong has redefined the dessert experience and pushing the boundaries between sweet and savory with carefully researched progressive dishes.
In Asia culture food is tasty and delicious, but also is visually beautiful. Since people taste also with eyes, is it an inner rule to make food more appetizing? Where do you find inspiration, and how do you balance between the taste experience and the visual aspect?
Well, food doesn’t have to be beautiful, it is just the first thing that people see. So for me, food is about the five senses, and sight is one of the senses. So that’s also one of my philosophy, it’s always about the five senses: you smell the food, taste and you feel it. And of course, you see it. So I think all of them are very important.
The cakes of Versailles high tea menu is inspired by the feature film Ottolenghi, in which Chef Janice Wong is featured
You wrote many books. You show how to use different types of flour and playing with flavors. There are ingredients or flavors that best reflect your style?
I always work with flavors that are inspiring to me or different types of cultures. So to me, it’s like when I’m in Singapore. I’m born here, and the flavors of Singapore are very pronounced, very spicy, very flavorful. When I’m in Japan for a long time, there’s much discovery of flavors and cuisine as well, because it’s very different there. So it’s very important for me to don’t be subject to one culture and one type of flavor.
Do you think there are some ingredients less used that can add a special tasty experience?
Yes! Well, I use, of course, a lot of chocolate, different types of chocolate. But I also do a relevant use of miso, mustard, and vegetables. I use quite a lot of different types of ingredients.
Janice Wong has been named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef by the prestigious San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best for 2013 & 2014. She also won the title of Pastry Chef of the Year from the World Gourmet Summit Awards in 2011, 2013, and 2015, including the title of Young Woman of the Year from Her World in 2012.
When you started your career as a female chef, you were one of the pioneers. What were the biggest challenges you faced at the beginning of your activity?
The biggest challenge, in the beginning, was related that in Singapore, there was not a Dessert culture. We don’t eat a lot of desserts, not like, in Japan or even in India, where they eat desserts at any time of the day. Here in Singapore, we eat more savory and sweet. This was one of the big challenges to introduce a good High Tea menu. We just recently launched our Cakes of Versailles High Tea. You can see our High Tea, on 2 AM Dessert Bar website. We have to make a nice balance of sweet and savory always, is not just like to prepare a sweet menu.
How is the situation in Asia today? What has changed since your beginning?
Well, a lot has changed. I mean, in the past, I used to just have one Dessert bar. Now we have more and more outlets and a bigger team. So we need to manage a lot more. Also, people’s expectations have changed, habits have changed, more technology, more creation, more collaboration. So much has changed in the last few years.
Her ideas are threaded by a commonality: a pursuit for perfection in imperfection, and an appreciation of imperfection in perfection, presenting an artistic, gastronomic world of flawless imperfection and flawed perfection.
Even if in western countries, people have begun to know more about Asian culinary varieties, few know about Asian dessert like mooncakes. The variation of them is huge, and you mastered the art of cooking unique styles that are almost too beautiful to eat. Are mooncakes increasing in popularity? Did western people were less familiar with them due to the connection to Mid-Autumn Festival, which is less known outside Asia?
Yeah. I would say, that culture is a very important part of certain things. Mooncake is very popular here in Singapore and also the Chinese New Year because of all the goodies. They are a very big cultural part of us and is a tradition to exchange presents and gifts. But for example, for Asian, I would say, celebrating Easter, is really difficult! I’ve tried many times, every year, to make many Easter eggs and some people just don’t give as a gift Easter eggs here in Singapore.
Can you share with us any meaningful story or significant memories from the kitchen or behind your workspace?
A nice memory I have was, of course, when I first opened the bar, when we had the Dessert bar and we made a sweet menu only. This is a really nice memory for me. When I first opened at the age of twenty-four. A very good memory is also when we did our art exhibition for The World’s 50 best Restaurant. I also did another art exhibition last year.
Photos courtesy of pastry chef Janice Wong