SEE PHOTOS & WATCH VIDEO: Like a modern-day Willy Wonka, chef Janice Wong tinkers with food and flavours in her own culinary lab. Her goal: Dreaming up tasty creations for us all. We meet this year’s visionary Her World Young Woman Achiever
She’s polite and mild-mannered, but Janice Wong’s got a dash of a devil-may-care rock-star attitude. Labels, for instance, have no effect on the 29-year-old founder of 2am: dessertbar. Not even the flattering ones.
When I ask if she agrees that she’s a “gastronomic daredevil” (a term coined by The Straits Times this year), she gives an indifferent nod before fiddling with her iPad.
A female Willy Wonka? “Yeah, some people said that about me last year at my book launch” is all she proffers.
Is she pleased at constantly being called one of Singapore’s youngest female chefs? “I don’t really care. I’m not sensitive to such things.”
Straight off the bat, it’s clear Janice won’t be pigeonholed.
On the surface, she’s a chef-entrepreneur who helms a successful dessert bar. But just when you think you’ve got her sorted, Janice says something surprising that makes you wonder if there’s more beneath the surface.
“One of my dreams is to live with tribes in the Amazon jungle for three months and learn their way of cooking,” she says unexpectedly. She’s attracted to the idea of going back to basics. Why the Amazon? “There’s a lot to discover there, like the herbs and plants they use.”
Other surprising facts: She hates shopping centres because they’re “chaotic”. She works all day in the kitchen but hardly ever eats lunch (“I have no time”). A nature lover, she yearns to retreat into a forest, or what she calls “the unknown”, for a spell.
When asked where she gets inspiration for new dishes, she lists the usual stuff: Nature and the environment, visiting markets. Then, she throws in unlikely sources, including “conversations with friends” and “dreams”.
Dreams? “Yeah, I dream a lot!” she laughs. “So my inspiration could be dreams from the night before. I may get ideas for flavour pairings and so on. It’s very bizarre.”
Just when you think you know her.
Janice’s world is infused with the flavours, textures and colours of food. Every moment is banked away as potential inspiration for a new dish—a stroll on the beach, a trip to the wet market, inhaling the oaky scent of a forest.
And when she’s in the kitchen, distractions melt away. “Someone could drop a rack of glasses and I wouldn’t even turn my head,” she says. Anyone who’s followed her meteoric rise in the culinary world these past five years knows the story of how the National University of Singapore economics undergraduate spent a life-changing university exchange stint in Melbourne. While visiting farms and sampling fresh produce, she realised that food was her calling.
So at 22, she enrolled in a three-month pastry course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. Thereafter, she interned at various restaurants, including Les Amis in Singapore and chef Will Goldfarb’s now-defunct Room 4 Dessert eatery in New York.
By 24, she had set up 2am: dessertbar at Holland Village. The swish outfit specialises in avant-garde desserts and pioneered the concept of dessert-wine pairings here.
Starting out on her own was tough. Hoping to save money, she took a hands-on approach, overseeing the construction of the eatery. “It nearly drove me through the roof,” she says. She also had problems finding chefs willing to throw in their lot with her, a young unknown in the food scene. Fortunately, she managed to persuade pastry chef Kok Yen Yen, whom she met during her internship at Les Amis, to come onboard.
Then, there was her unexpected decision to focus on desserts. “Our menu is 95 per cent sweet and that’s challenging because Singaporeans love to munch on savoury snacks,” she says.
The risk paid off. Almost five years on, the dessert bar is thriving and has a profitable catering arm. Good business has allowed Janice to pay off the $350,000 start-up loan she got from her father, retired bonds trader Steven Wong. She’s also received countless offers to franchise the concept in Indonesia, Taiwan and China.
Last year, she nabbed the Pastry Chef of the Year title at the Asian Gastronomic Awards of Excellence and fulfilled her dream to cook for former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Russia-Singapore Business Forum.
She’s also represented Singapore abroad in food events, putting our island on the world culinary map. Last June, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) invited Janice to helm a pop-up kitchen called “Singapore Takeout” in London. British journalists piled accolades on her, calling her, among other things, a “petite, 20-something wunderkind”.
Other restaurateurs would have cashed in on the momentum. But last November, Janice defied expectations by starting a non-profit culinary research laboratory and development space, the 2am:lab.
It doesn’t make business sense. “I could’ve set up two more restaurants with the money,” she admits. Located in Fusionopolis, only 20 per cent of the 2,000 sq ft lab can be monetised – a small corner for private dining – while the rest is kitchen space, meant for visiting chefs to experiment with ingredients and cooking techniques.
But the lab is not driven by dollars and cents, though it did receive an STB grant which will sustain it for two years (Janice is tight-lipped about the amount). Profits from her catering business also fuel it.
It’s fed by Janice’s conviction that the region desperately needs an independent space for chefs to innovate, not another chain of lookalike eateries.
“Franchising is part of the Asian mentality,” she says of successful restaurants here that have gone down the “franchising” route. “These places may be doing great work but are they being creative? They do variations of dishes but ultimately, pizza is still pizza. It’s fancy but not ground-breaking.
“With the lab, I wanted to re-focus on what I first did: Creating,” she adds. “Creating dishes and having a team that would just be cooking, rather than serving.
“The core of the lab is creativity. It’s a place to come up with new flavours, textures and cooking techniques for future generations.”
Like a scientific facility, the 2am:lab boasts stark white walls and clean, minimalist lines. There’s a curvilinear shelf laden with 400 canisters of ingredients including exotic specimens like kombu seaweed from Japan. Some were collected by Janice on her travels, while others are gifts from visiting chefs.
Building a community that experiments and learns from each other is part of Janice’s vision. Since the lab opened, she has invited local and international chefs to tinker in the space, conduct workshops and host private dinners. Those who have come include cocktail bar owner Joel Fraser of The Cufflink Club, who used the lab to develop special garnishes like dehydrated fruits and edible flowers; Spanish masterchef and baker Daniel Jorda and Japanese culinary artist Ayako Suwa, with whom Janice co-hosted a private dinner in March.
Other chefs may hoard their secrets, but Janice shares hers freely. She posts the results of her culinary “experiments” on the 2am:lab website—her caramelised durian tasting notes, the recipe for a garnish of transparent bubbles made of egg whites, and so on.
She also published 29 recipes in her debut cookbook Perfection in Imperfection last year, including those of her signature dishes like Chocolate Water (an aerated chocolate dessert) and her version of Churros, a Spanish fried dough pastry.
“Giving out your recipes is a strange thing for many,” says Janice. “But if someone can discover a better technique or improve upon your recipe, doesn’t that benefit the customer? Sometimes, we shouldn’t hold back. We should give as much as we can because you never know what you’ll receive in turn.”
When there aren’t any guests to host, Janice and her chefs are in the lab’s kitchen area, playing with whatever ingredients are in their larder. A bunch of lychees, for instance, might inspire her to make a cake with other “white” ingredients like cream cheese and white grapefruit. Free-style cooking, if you will.
It’s a fluid, experimental approach that Janice had unwittingly honed since she was young. As a child, her parents used to take her to food markets where she would eagerly handle the produce and pop them in her mouth. “Strangely, my parents never stopped me,” she says.
“I became used to picking things up and tasting them. It shaped my palate and got me interested in how to pair ingredients. It also trained me to work in the moment, to take things out of the fridge and make something out of nothing.”
She tells me she’s fascinated with the story of the cupcake. No one knows for certain how the snack was invented, but it must have come about when one woman (Janice imagines the creator to be female) hit upon the idea to put cake batter into small moulds.
“She wouldn’t have known it then, but now most cafes serve cupcakes. Her impact is so huge, yet no one knows who she is,” says Janice. “That’s my goal—to be that person who had such an influence on the future.”
Home for Janice is a rented apartment at Portsdown Road, which she shares with two housemates. There, she unwinds by painting, a hobby she picked up four years ago. She shows me her first painting – an acrylic on canvas – that’s also featured in her cookbook.
While she has no formal training in design, aesthetics are an indelible part of Janice’s food. Her dessert bar is known for its beautifully plated, otherworldly creations, like chocolate chunks that resemble corals or leathery ribbons of dehydrated blackcurrant puree.
Last year, Janice fused food and artistry further when she unveiled her first edible art installations. This was art that viewers could, literally, feast on.
The impetus was her book launch, held at warehouse-turned-art space 28th Fevrier in Redhill. Determined not to have a “boring” event, Janice treated 400 guests to dramatic art installations inspired by some of her featured recipes: A ceiling covered with marshmallow “icicles”. Jackson Pollock-style paintings done with fruit puree. A display of garden “soil” made of white chocolate. Guests were encouraged to “taste” the art works and loved both the idea and the flavours.
After that, she received requests to create her installations at other events. She has had four such projects this year, and will be bringing the concept to China and Tokyo. “I love how the installation is still art even after people have eaten off it,” she says. “Sometimes, it looks even more beautiful than before. Which is crazy!
“It’s imperfect but then again, there’s so much beauty in imperfection.”
This ethos has affected Janice’s desserts. Over the years, she’s gone from being a “perfectionist” who engineered every dish with strict precision to an artist who embraces a more free-form, natural style.
“I give my chefs more room to play around with now,” she says. “There’s no one plate that looks exactly the same, and that’s the whole idea. It’s a risky step but slowly, people have come to appreciate the imperfections.”
A VESSEL TO INSPIRE
Barely 30, Janice is already something of a celebrity chef. In fact, she was described as such in STB’s promotional materials for last year’s Singapore Takeout event.
Yet she’s uncomfortable with being called an ambassador for local cuisine, telling us not to label her as such in the story.
Not one to crave the spotlight, Janice prefers the quiet life. She doesn’t hang out much with friends, partly because of her busy schedule and also because she finds idle chit-chat – like discussing the latest scandals in the news – meaningless. “Why waste energy investing in those conversations?” she says.
An outdoor enthusiast, she’d rather do yoga or play tennis. She’s also an avid traveller, a habit honed from young possibly, when she, her homemaker mother and younger brother (now 22 and an Economics student in London) moved around the region due to her father’s banking job. She went to international schools in Hong Kong and Japan, returning to Singapore when she was a teen. “I love travelling but now I do it all for work,” she bemoans.
But she talks happily about a recent work trip in June to Kumamoto, a prefecture on Japan’s west coast. “I visited miso factories, learnt how to grow vegetables and ferment plums, and even how to catch tuna,” she rattles off. She also remembers Japanese officials telling her how they hoped to work closely with Singapore.
“At that moment, I felt I was representing Singapore,” she says. “I don’t work for the government but I have a part to play in sharing good food and experiences.”
Perhaps if there’s just one thing she wants to be known for, it’s her ability to make a difference. “My one goal is to be a useful human being,” she says. “I always think of myself as a vessel to pass on the message of good food. Whether I’m representing Singapore, myself or other women, the key thing is to inspire people.”
It’s what prompted her to front DBS bank’s recent campaign for their new Woman’s World MasterCard credit card, despite her initial surprise at being approached. “I’m not a typical woman who likes to shop. I don’t buy clothes, only plane tickets and food”, she says.
But she empathises with the struggles of her female peers. “I’ve seen many talented female chefs drop out of the trade as early as 32,” she says. “They get married and have kids, so they stop. It’s sad to see pastry chefs who give it up.” She’s not dating at the moment and has no plans to settle down in the next five years.
Motivating women is one reason she eventually agreed to do the campaign. “I guess there’s an obligation to other women,” she muses.
“I want to tell them that, ‘You’re different and you can be different. Dare to live your dreams because it’s your life and no one should stop you.’” HW
FUN FACTS ABOUT JANICE
She was a national squash player. “I started playing squash competitively at 13, and stopped when I was 21. I’d go for 10 to 12 training sessions a week and meditate before games to calm myself. That discipline allows me to push myself now. I always say cooking is a sport. You need stamina to stand for up to 18 hours in the kitchen.”
Her best trait: Her Zen nature. “I never get angry or frustrated. I never waste time scolding people because I find it a waste of energy and I end up feeling drained. As long as you don’t make the same mistake twice, I’m happy.”
Nature motivates her to get up every morning. “I wake up to the birds singing and sunlight on my skin. I like sleeping at the side of my bed so the sun hits my face in the morning. I love the energy it gives me.”
JANICE’S TO-DO LIST
1. Live with tribes in the Amazon jungle for three months
2. Develop a line of sweets that will include chocolates, gum, marshmallows and pop tarts (she’s still fine-tuning the details)
3. Get a skydiving licence
4. Go truffle picking in Italy