Janice Wong: The pastry chef who’s breaking all the rules
Ahead of pastry chef Janice Wong’s overseas restaurant openings, Melissa Gail Sing finds out how the ever-evolving star on the culinary and art scenes is tearing down conventions.
Some in the upper echelons of society might call it unthinkable, something they could never imagine themselves doing. The scene: the gala dinner at the international premiere of jewellery brand Tiffany & Co’s anticipated Masterpieces Collection 2015, held for the first time in Singapore at the newly reopened Capitol Theatre and with a starry guest list that included Hollywood actress Reese Witherspoon. After a series of speeches and glittery fashion shows, it happened. Impeccably dressed ladies dripping with bling and all known for their poise and decorum hitched up their skirts as they made their way onstage to—you wouldn’t believe it—eat off an art display. But this was no ordinary work of art. It was an edible art installation depicting the New York skyline created by acclaimed pastry chef Janice Wong as part of the evening’s dessert offerings. Certainly the guests’ actions were expected and definitely nothing to be bashful about.
If there’s one thing the award-winning chef affirmed that evening, it’s that she loves to break rules. It all started with a twist of fate that saw her put her economics degree aside to pursue culinary arts, learning from leading lights such as French pastry chef Pierre Hermè and American Thomas Keller. Gradually, the woman behind the successful 2am:dessertbar at Holland Village began presenting her desserts as art on plates, then on walls, tempting grown people to pull chocolate lollipops in flavours such as chilli padi and kaya hung from the ceiling, bringing their Hansel and Gretel childhood fantasies to life.
It was in September 2011 that Janice’s artistic flair really came to the fore. For the launch of her book Perfection in Imperfection, she created seven mindblowing installations made of edibles so that guests could experience the book. Commissions by galleries, banks and international design houses like Louis Vuitton and Prada (up till then, fashion and food would have seemed the oddest of bedfellows) followed, helping to take Janice’s edible art movement far and wide. Last year alone, she did well over 40 food installations for brands as well as for renowned art exhibitions such as the Affordable Art Fair.
This year, she breaks out of her comfort zone again, launching new eateries outside Singapore, including an all-day, full-menu restaurant in Hong Kong in March. Cobo House by 2am:dessertbar in Kennedy Town will see the Cordon Bleu graduate flex her muscle in the savoury side of cuisine.
You’re a chef and also an artist. Do you see yourself leaning more towards one side than the other?
Last year, I was definitely doing more art. I’ve seen the transition in putting art on a plate to creating art made of food. So, there’s been some evolution in myself over the past four years. I still juggle half and half; each discipline keeps me sane of the other. I think it’s very important that I consistently cook in the kitchen and create. If I were only an artist, creating so much art in a year, it would have been a struggle. But the process of food-making, of making chocolate and other confectionery, is something I love. It keeps me very zen.
Is art still going to be a big focus for you in 2016?
We won’t just be focused on art because we’ll be busy with the opening of a new 3000-sqft restaurant in Hong Kong. We will be participating in Art Basel Hong Kong in March. But before that, in January, there will be plenty of training and trials for the new restaurant. I’ll be offering a full menu, which will keep me on my toes.
Tell us about any recent kitchen disasters.
We were engaged by Tiffany & Co about three months before their event in October. They wanted us to create the New York skyline, with buildings constructed out of chocolate and diamonds made out of sugar for the sky. It was very exciting but the installation was also very fragile. During transportation from our factory to the event space, one of the buildings broke. That was at least a week of hard work gone. Every piece was hand-cut, so it was heart-wrenching to see, but the team came together and made another piece in six hours.
Usually, you’re the one delivering the surprises with your amazing food art installations, but you were in for a surprise at the event...
During that same Tiffany event, the host went on stage to announce the arrival of dessert and introduced my art installation. Right after that, at least 100 guests were on stage eating the artwork. It was amazing—normally, people would be adamant to go on stage and eat off a piece of food art, but because we’ve been doing this consistently over the past four years, it’s not awkward any more. As much as it’s unconventional at the beginning, we’ve made it normal by spending a lot of time educating.
You did over 40 exhibitions or installations last year, for galleries, fashion brands and even banks. That’s quite a feat. Do you ever turn down project requests?
Yes. We can’t do everything. It really depends on the demands of the desired look and how long that would take. Someone asked us to do a skyline of Singapore within two weeks and I replied that we can’t manage something like that in less than six weeks. We don’t want to do something just for the sake of doing it. These exhibitions are new to Singapore, the world and even myself. I am growing with it and thoroughly enjoying it.
What other surprises can we expect from you this year?
I am working with the DesignSingapore Council on possibly creating a curriculum on food art this year. I’ve never thought of myself as a lecturer, let alone an art lecturer. I am 32, a good age to share what I have learnt over the past eight years.
Are you as unconventional in all other aspects of your life?
Yes. My life is extremely organic. As much as I would love to put a structure to what I do every day, it just doesn’t happen. Even in the kitchen, we’re continuously adapting; you can’t put a structure to the process of creating. Adaptation is very important and I use that word a lot.
How would you describe being a female celebrity chef in Singapore and Asia?
It’s challenging being at the forefront, but I never really thought about the gender balance, perhaps because I am often very absorbed in my own work. I’m not afraid to work with male chefs, neither do I feel like I have to work harder to prove myself. I have male chefs working with me and I believe it’s all about having mutual respect.
Have you any advice for aspiring young chefs?
Think far ahead. You’ll want to have that strong desire to want to do certain things right there and then but you must accept that circumstances will change over time with the different environments, different people and different economic climate in every city you work in. So plan ahead and be very prudent, something I wish I had done more of when I was younger.
Photography: Lionel Lai/Acepix
Hair and make-up: Benedict Choo