Janice Wong Wants to Satisfy This Critic

Leadership

January 7, 2016 | BY Melissa Gail Sing

With eateries set to launch in Hong Kong and Japan this year, celebrated pastry chef Janice Wong’s legion of fans and imitators is set to grow. Yet, as Melissa Gail Sing discovers, there’s one critic she has yet to satisfy.

It was only in the past decade or so that people began using the word “art” to describe the appearance of food on their plate, but when it comes to taking that art from plate to palette, one name has been getting wall space faster than others: Janice Wong. Since coming onto the dining scene eight years ago with 2am:dessertbar, the 32-year-old pastry chef has built a universe around edible art while pushing the boundaries of what constitutes dessert. 

Her progressive dishes at the bar soon saw her designing confectionery for notable brands the likes of Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Prada, Fendi and Guerlain, as well as releasing books—her latest, an edible art portfolio, will be launched soon—and having her works exhibited at art shows including the Affordable Art Fair (in November 2015) and Art Basel Hong Kong (in March 2016). Then there are invitations to give talks and possibly lecture on food art for a new curriculum programme this year.

With scores of projects and involvements on her plate at any one time, one might joke that just keeping her head above water is her greatest achievement. But not this winner of multiple awards including Asia’s Best Pastry Chef twice in a row: “At the end of the day, we want to make a difference. And we’re doing that with the whole edible art movement. Even in places like India, the buffets are changing. It’s no longer about plates being piled over with food. There’ll be canvases of food. It will be a gradual change in the culinary scene. 

“On the other hand, we’re also making changes in the art world where we’re artists. For the first time, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and Lasalle College of the Arts are sending us interns. It’ll be interesting to juggle artists and chefs in the same space,” says Janice, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and worked for celebrated chefs Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Oriol Balaguer and Pierre Hermé among others. 

It’s a challenge the economics graduate could have never foreseen 11 years ago. A nasty car accident impaired her memory and the left side of her brain, but awakened the creative right side. Combining this new-found gift with her sweet tooth, she embarked on a journey where sugar, chocolate and other foods formed the medium for interpreting her visions of the New York skyline (as she did for the world premiere of the Tiffany Masterpieces collection here last year) and other mind-blowing installations.

Her father, a bonds trader who used to head foreign banks, initially didn’t take it too well when his daughter decided to turn what was supposed to be purely a hobby into her career. After a successful first year, however, he was won over. “My dad has always been a big influence in my life. He is very supportive but allows me to fail from afar, especially when I was younger and just starting out. He’s given me the space to grow, trusting me every step of the way. This has made me stronger. I will always take that with me,” she says.

Her other inspirational figure is Coco Chanel. “She was multitalented and dedicated her life, even her personal life, to building her brand. She poured herself into her craft and passion to create something different and in that process, left behind not just a brand but a legacy,” she explains.

With that same diligence and devotion running through Janice’s veins, it’s not unusual for work pressures to keep her sleepless at night. The night before this interview for instance, she was kept awake by the many different projects on her hands—designing chocolates for one bank, doing an entire lookbook for another, creating 22m of edible art within five days for the Affordable Art Fair, and creating a dessert table for Prada.

Ask Janice what she’s given up for her career, however, and she’ll say “nothing”. “It’s a lot of hard work and sometimes you wish the e-mails and requests would stop so you can take a break but you can’t because there’d be backlog and I don’t like that. Over the past eight years, I’ve been consistently trying to fulfil whatever I can. I think it’s very important that I consistently do it. So there’s nothing I’ve ‘given up’ because this is a choice that I made. I don’t think I’d have chosen another route.” 

Each year has been bigger than the one before for the ever-evolving chef and 2016 will be no different with the realisation of her overseas expansions plans, which will offer new platforms to share her philosophy and effect change in the culinary domain. In March, Cobo House by 2am:dessertbar opens in Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town. The farm-to-table concept restaurant with fresh produce air-flown from a farm in Okinawa, Japan and its own rooftop garden will have a full menu in addition to plated desserts.

The following month, her eponymous dessert restaurant Janice Wong opens in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district. “I chose these two projects over opportunities in Jakarta or China because they are very favourable to us. But because these are very competitive markets with discerning diners, they also open the door to more critics,” she says.

Yet, the incredibly focused Janice has never been one to fear critics—or anything else for that matter. Her biggest critic: herself. “I criticise my own work every day. This means you would say stop only when you think it’s enough. You’re the one who decides; there isn’t anyone else to tell you yes or no. That’s very pressurising. It drives me nuts. In my factory here, my team and I may be working on something when suddenly, I’ll decide to change to another medium and we’ll do that right away. We keep adapting and adapting.

“The Singapore media is generally very nice, but if everyone keeps saying nice things about you, you may think you’re ‘there’ or you may get too comfortable. That’s not good. So, I see reviews, including the occasional criticism, as instant feedback meant to encourage and help us grow. The word fear doesn’t stop me.” 

When she does have the occasional spare moment, Janice indulges in a childhood love: art museums. She lets on about her wish to have her own museum in the future. Her factory cum gallery here housing edible art pieces she has created for various clients over the years, which has up till now offered visual pleasure only to her chefs and guests who visit for meetings, may bring that sweet dream a little closer to reality.