It takes something special to excite Singapore’s most decorated pastry chef as she approaches a decade of creating award-winning desserts. Doyenne.sg sits down with Janice Wong to discuss the evolution of sweets and what the future holds for her.
“I am very clear with what I say. I keep it short, I don’t nag, and I’m very focused – that’s the key word. Once you’re focused, everyone can feel it.”
I peer at a row of lego blocks neatly placed on a silver tray. Painted in riots of flecked yellow, red, and duck-egg blue, they look too perfect to be eaten. In fact, they don’t look like desserts at all.
“Go on,” says Janice Wong, standing beside me. She is clad in a starched white chef’s jacket.
I take a bite. The luxurious taste of smooth, velvety chocolate blooms on my tongue, unfolding into a blend of richly-layered and complex flavours.
This experience is not unique to me. Janice Wong has been in the business of transfixing diners since 2007: when she opened 2am:dessertbar at 24 years old, her focus was on progressive desserts paired with fine wines and beverages. The 2am brand then moved into cocktails and coffee, with Janice eventually launching her eponymous label in 2014.
We are sitting in her kitchen-office, modestly tucked within an industrial building off MacPherson Road. Here is where Janice bustles in private with her team. The place, fitted with art pieces, pottery and lots of colour, resembles an artist’s gallery than a chef’s workspace.
An avant-garde pastry chef
“The Janice Wong brand has evolved to cross four disciplines: food, art, design and architecture,” she explains in measured, even tones. “The art and colours you see behind you – they’re all handmade. It’s not just desserts or sweets that I do, but the actual design as well, and that’s how the brand has grown over the years.”
Away from Singapore and Asia, the world has noticed the rise of Janice Wong.
This October, she will be at San Sebastian, Spain’s Basque seaside resort to join Britain’s Heston Blumenthal, Mugaritz’ Andoni Luis Aduriz and a group of Oxbridge and Yale geneticists, physicists, and neuroscientists to investigate the science of taste at a symposium organised by Barcelona’s Centre of Genomic Regulation (CGR) and the Basque Culinary Center.
Janice’s nine years of experience seem to be formative, and molecular gastronomy is only the beginning. The secret is to always learn, unlearn, and refine – this is precisely why competitors find it so hard to imitate her work.
“I’m okay with copycats,” she says with a smile. “Look, I put my creations on social media. Every idea goes on there. I’m thinking far ahead. If you copy, I’m already doing something else because my work is mostly bespoke.”
“You can create your own history. One reason why I’ve managed to achieve success in Singapore is because I’m not rooted in any classics or traditions. The modernity of our culture allows it.”
Amalgamation of food, art, and design
Of all her talents, it is Janice’s distinctly elegant union of food, art, design and architecture that sets her apart from the competition. An example currently sits in the Singapore Art Museum’s Imaginarium exhibition till 28 August. Underwater Labyrinth, composed of over 1,300 kg of isomalt sugar, chocolate and confectionery, is one of many edible art installations that has captured the hearts and stomachs of her fans.
Earlier this year, Janice expanded into two countries. She opened Cobo House by 2am:dessertbar in Hong Kong, serving a mix of her signature desserts and savoury dishes, and Janice Wong Dessert Bar Tokyo in the heart of Shinjuku – a pure-play dessert bar with an emphasis on seasonal menus.
I ask the obvious: won’t the different brand names confuse diners?
“2am is in our ninth year right now and going strong,” Janice says. “There is a possibility we will open 2am around the world, but if I need a flagship brand, it’ll be called Janice Wong.”
When quizzed over why Janice didn’t name 2am:dessert bar after her own name from the beginning, the reply arrives so quickly that it feels she might have expected the question.
“I think you have to be very careful when you start a brand. If I were to choose Janice Wong, people would ask: who’s that? It would take a lot more marketing and education for consumers to be aware of us.”
It’s a truthful analysis, although I can’t help but feel surprised. We’ve witnessed the meteoric rise of a chef that, with the benefit of hindsight, sometimes feels like it was thoroughly predestined. But that is doing Janice a disservice. Fine dessert-making is precise and exacting, where products are borne from an endless process of testing and failing – the essence of not giving up.
Janice dreams of Japan
It is one thing to excel in your home market but another to expand into new territory. What does Janice think of Japan, given her most recent opening in Shinjuku?
Her eyes light up. “The Japanese have a different culture with sweets. They really celebrate it,” she says. “They are able to embrace what I do because they can eat sweets for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
To Janice and her team, succeeding in Japan represents the pinnacle of achievement for any pastry chef, as the Japanese takes a lot of pride in what they do. Their devotion towards perfecting every detail still amazes her every day.
Janice is openly candid, sharing that this will not be her first and only foray into Japan. “Three days after our opening, I met with my team to plan for the second one. That’s part of building a brand. You can’t stop at one. You have to continue educating and be present in different markets.”
When asked whether Singapore can compete with Japan’s sophistication, Janice’s honesty comes through again.
“While we are a relatively young nation, there are advantages that set Singapore apart from tradition-rich countries. You can create your own history. One reason why I’ve managed to achieve success in Singapore is because I’m not rooted in any classics or traditions,” she explains.
“For example, if I were to do something today with ice cream and completely change the way it is consumed, I can do that. The modernity of our culture allows it.”
Modernity is also a double-edged sword. To Janice, Singapore tends to follow trends because the country doesn’t have deep cultural roots. Everything is fleeting. “We don’t change our menu based on food trends. I don’t think the Japanese or the French react to such things,” she adds, matter-of-factly.
This may come across as a jibe to fellow pastry chefs, but Janice doesn’t mean to offend. If anything, the chef has simply been straightforward. This authenticity, she muses, is how she keeps her work tidy and laser focused on the product. “I am very clear with what I say. I keep it short, I don’t nag, and I’m very focused – that’s the key word. Once you’re focused, everyone can feel it.”
“Think Again. No matter what we do, we always think again and again. It’s the same mission I had back in 2007 – to change the global perception of pastry.”
Edible art collections of sweets and toys
And so that focus has brought her back to Singapore. Pouring her energies into an upcoming 1,500 sq ft savoury restaurant, Janice Wong Singapore is tucked within the National Museum of Singapore and promises a range of dim sum items, including high tea.
According to Janice, this will also be the flagship for her retail shop and the only sweets boutique in Singapore that creates interactive and edible art.
Janice has begun designing collections for her pastries akin to those launched by fashion houses. “I’m making my cakes fashionable, almost like collectibles. You won’t see strawberries or cream on the outside,” she says with a laugh. “It’s a collection of colours, shapes, and forms that change with the seasons.”
However, Singaporeans are proving to be resistant to these avant-garde aspirations so far. Janice admits she’s faced some initial difficulties: “When we sold chocolate eclairs at ION Orchard, I created a special edition with hand-painted designs on the top, but it didn’t sell well compared to your regular éclairs.
I think it’s because we still cannot accept fashion and food just yet. Food is about connection. People want to understand that connection and to see what they are eating.”
When fashion meets dessert
It is understandable why concepts like pastry collections work well for Janice. One person often cited as instrumental to Janice’s success is Coco Chanel. If food, art, design, and architecture represent the four tenets of Janice’s philosophy, then fashion is the undercurrent. These days, she is studying Karl Lagerfeld and how he juggles three personalities – Chanel, Fendi and Karl.
Like fashion, desserts is a fast-moving world where trends are adopted and dropped at an incredible pace. So against this backdrop of constant renewal and reinvention, I pose the final question: what does the future hold for Janice Wong?
A pause fills the room as Janice thoughtfully savours the question.
“I have this printed quote that says Think Again,” she concludes, rummaging below her tables and producing a small board that says exactly that.
“This was done maybe five years ago. I still believe in it. No matter what we do, we always think again and again. It’s the same mission I had back in 2007 – to change the global perception of pastry.”
Janice Wong opens her flagship JANICE WONG SINGAPORE at 93 Stamford Road, National Museum of Singapore on 17 August 2016. Visit janicewong.com.sg for more details.
Images by Janice Wong.