Janice Wong: Perfecting pastry play

Mashmallow ceilings, lychee-infused gummy walls and paintings created with mango and blackcurrant puree. Maida Pineda investigates what inspires the fantastic world of Janice Wong

It is 8pm on a Sunday night. I drink a cup of strong black coffee to wake me up after an afternoon of talks and a cocktail reception before heading to 2am:dessertbar, at the heart of Holland Village, favourite neighbourhood of expats in Singapore. At the last table I find Janice Wong talking to another journalist. She’s running a bit behind, so her staff offer me the Chocolate H2O, 2am’s signature dish of chocolate mousse cake, salted caramel truffle and yuzu sorbet.

Control freak

Wong, a petite Singaporean pastry chef, stands tall in the culinary world. She was awarded the accolade of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef in 2013 and 2014. As well as being the chef-owner of 2am:dessertbar and 2am:lab, she creates edible art installations: imagine a room with nori marshmallow ceiling, lychee-infused gummy walls, bread chandelier and paintings using blackcurrant and mango purée. Wong, a Cordon Bleu graduate, has learned from greats such as Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Oriol Balaguer and Pierre Hermé.

Apologising profusely for running late, 31-yearold Wong joins me at the chocolate-coloured table with a bowl of salad greens that she digs into as we talk. She arrived back from the Melbourne Food and Wine show earlier in the day. Shortly after touching down, she went straight to the kitchen to work with her chefs on creating three chocolate balloons for the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2015 food summit where she was a speaker, and then headed back to her restaurant to be interviewed. Her schedule in Melbourne was non-stop with video shoots, four-course dinners and a two-week residency in a hotel creating a special high tea. Andprior to that, she was in India for a food event.

“My biggest challenge is dating,” Wong tells me candidly. “It’s tough squeezing in the time. I’m as normal as everybody else, it’s just the time factor.” Time is scarce but it’s worth it for Wong. “I am abit of control freak, but it makes me what I am. As much as I hate that phrase, I think if you’re not it’sdifficult to produce your best work.

A ‘normal person’ takes about 100 days off in a year, at least two days off a week. For me, it’s only been 25 days off in a year. It was more in 2007 when I opened 2am:dessertbar, but it has become less and less. How does a person maintain this pace constantly and do it with so muchenergy? The answer is you love what you do.”

So, what exactly is it that Wong does? In essence, she has perfected playing with pastry. “I have sought perfection my entire career. Where I had to cut cubes of 1x1x1cm I would do it three times. It drove me nuts, but it is the perfection that brings out the best in us.”

Eight years ago, she opened 2am. “2am is not just a dessert bar – we’re constantly evolving. We’re doing savoury sweets. All these ideas come from creativity, going back to the kitchen and saying, ‘I have to do something different today’.”

She is also behind 2am:lab, where culinary experts from all over the world come to give workshops. Challenging her team to unleash fresh and innovative ideas, Wong has creative days once a month. “ We allow our chefs a budget of $50 per person to spend on whatever produce they want to order, make a dish and present it to everybody.” Wong says this monthly exercise is not cheap, but it is important. “People experiment. I draw ideas from them. They draw ideas from me.”

Wong plays with flavour, texture, concept and appearance. “We often take colour for granted,” she says. Unafraid to leave her comfort zone, Wong decided to shut off her sense of sight for over 100 hours. “When I opened my eyes after being in complete darkness for almost five days, there was an explosion of colour,” she says. “Colours are so important in our lives and in our food, and they define what you put into a plate.

Creativity and joy


When she launched her book Perfection in Imperfection in 2011, Wong had to find a way to feed 400 people at the launch party. “Everyone needed to have the same experience. I couldn’t be passing spoons to everybody,” she recalls. To give her guests a taste of the pages of book, she created her marshmallow ceilings and gummy panels. Her food installations were such a hit, she did eight more in 2012 and another eight in 2013. “Last year, we did 28 exhibitions worldwide. It’s become a business.

Her innovation, creativity and joy from playing were infectious. A chef from Mexico and another from South Africa who witnessed her food installations were both inspired to join her team in Singapore. Her lollipop ceiling and marshmallow panels will be part of Singapore: Inside Out, an exhibition featuring 20 different Singaporean artists that will be seen in Beijing, London and New York in celebration of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence.

Her biggest project right now is to launch “Janice Wong”, a small shop in a mall in ION Orchard, right in the heart of Singapore, in August. Since last December, she has had popup stores selling 100 different sweet treats such as marshmallow panels, cakes, éclairs and 38 different colours and flavours of chocolate paint. She challenges her team to come up with one new éclair flavour each week, from peanut butter caramel to popcorn-flavoured. For three months, Wong stopped travelling, devoting every single day to being hands-on in the factory. She worked 16-hour days, painting the marshmallows and gummies and producing all the chocolates. The importance of play

Her growth into retail is a result of her partnership with Manoj Murjani, founder of Singapore luxury brands The Wellness Group (TWG) and TWG Tea Company. There are plans to expand the shops around Singapore, and internationally there is keen interest from Japan. “This is a brand new concept,” Wong explains. “We are still understanding the local palate, so this will need a year of research.”

On her extensive travels, Wong has observed the pastry world to be still largely male dominated, “You see a lot of female pastry chefs that are at the junior level. This is true in my kitchen as well. We have 15 chefs – all are women, except the top two who are men.” Is her gender a hindrance in achieving her dreams? “Sometimes I forget I am a woman,” Wong says matter-of-factly. “It’s so easy to keep going at a masculine pace. You forget to think, ‘Can my body handle it?’ It’s such a physical and mental undertaking. That’s why I eat very healthily, so I’m 100% fit for everything.”

“This game is 80% mental and 20% physical,” she says. “I used to play squash for my country. I trained from the age of nine for eleven years, twice a day. My greatest achievement was being ranked second in Singapore.” “I had a Pakistani coach,” she recalls. “He would put a cross on the wall and I had to hit it 100 times on the cross consistently. If I was even just a little off the mark, I had to start again.”

This clearly is where the desire for perfection comes from. “This is how my life has been shaped. And I think God has given me the gift of awareness,” she says.

Her recent epiphany is the purpose of her shop: “It is not for me to put beautiful things there to showcase my skills. It is so I can invent and give back to customers their childhood memories. They come into the shop to be young again.”

I have no doubt Janice Wong’s shops will succeed. Earlier in the day, this self-proclaimed rebel created three perfect chocolate balloons, then smashed them with a hammer in front of the audience for everyone to eat. Wong takes her craft seriously, but also values the importance of play. “If I didn’t play, I would have died from stress by now,” the tireless pastry chef says. When it comes to perfecting pastry play, Janice Wong hits it right on the mark.

Maida Pineda

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