Crowned Asia’s Best Pastry Chef two years in a row, Singapore’s Janice Wong talent doesn’t stop with desserts. Her edible art installations have been shown across the world, from New York to Hong Kong. She is a force majeure in the culinary world and breaking barriers in the art world. There are no boundaries between art and food for Wong.
“This is the chocolate room,” Janice Wong, acclaimed pastry chef/artist, says with a sweep of her arm around a busy area in her experimental kitchen. The space is filled with rows of pots of chocolate in dozens of colors and flavors. Young chefs-in-training buzz around trays of bonbons that look more like ornate jeweled beads than sweet edibles. A giant canvas with Pollack-like streaks of multi-colored chocolate takes up one wall. On another wall there is a canvas with eighteen thousand ginkgo nuts sprayed with chocolate.
Singapore’s Janice Wong, two-time winner of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef and a skyrocketing career is in perpetual motion. One day she is at work in her art studio/test kitchen. The next she is in the air on her way to Tokyo, New York, Hong Kong or Melbourne for a show of her edible art or an opening of a new spin off of her hugely successful 2am:dessertbar. With exhibits around the globe she clocks as much as four hundred hours in the air per year. How does the edible artist survive all that travel? She laughs. “Night flights. That’s how I sleep.”
She obviously doesn’t take much time to sleep otherwise, at least not since the launch of her first dessert venue in 2007. Her Singapore dessert bar’s strange and beautiful edibles catapulted her from the world of gastronomy into the art world while she was still in her twenties. Her A-list restaurant served items that were gastronomically stunning. The Cassis Bombe, a glorious confection of elderflower yoghurt foam, choya granita, yuzu pearls and yuzu rubies was immediately popular.
Another confection that wowed Singapore’s sweet aficionados was Purple Potato Puree, a concoction of blackberry parfait, lavender marshmallows and fruits of the forest sorbet. The progressive desserts, with their drips, whorls and odd shapes, were also visually astonishing like small sculptural or architectural wonders. “I love bold organic architecture,” she says. A fan of buildings such as Frank Gehry’s Museum Bilbao she says that both sculpture and architecture influence her creations. She describes her desserts as “art on the plate.”
There was, she says, nothing in particular in her childhood (she grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo) that propelled her toward a career as a pastry chef. She did love sweets, enjoyed cooking with her mother and eating out with her “foodie” parents, but unlike many fine chefs, she did not set out early on to make a career of the culinary arts. In a family where filial piety and high expectations demanded she be “successful”, she dutifully studied economics at a university in Melbourne and then headed toward a career as a bond trader.
While in Australia she had, what she describes as a pivotal experience in the field of an Australian farm. It was a eureka moment she says. She picked a strawberry from the ground and its freshness suddenly made her want a career with fresh food. But it was something less bucolic and most certainly less happy that Wong attributes to her switching gears. She had a terrible car accident and resulting head trauma. That, she says, was the event that unleashed her creativity and a sudden passion for art and cooking. “It’s a long story,” she says, but in short, when she healed, she headed off to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. That was followed by stints in restaurants in Paris, New York and Chicago. She worked with culinary luminaries such as Pierre Hermé, Grant Achatz, Thomas Keller. The training was tough. “Usually it was something like twelve hour shifts and twenty men and me!” It took time to break down barriers, she says. “Once they saw what I do, the barriers fell.”
Wong is still breaking barriers and challenging convention. The woman who took an unexpected route from economics to a culinary career, is also known for her unexpected combinations of textures and flavors. She pairs chocolate and caviar, praline and BBQ pork and seaweed flavors with marshmallows. The “unexpected” is part of her aesthetic and what her audience of admirers now expect from her. Her fans got that recently at the Singapore Art Museum which hosted Wong’s fanciful installation piece Underwater Labyrinth, a luminescent re-creation of an underwater world of corals and sea life made of isomalt sugar, chocolate, marshmallows and gumdrops.
Wong travels all over the world with her work. Today she has successful spin offs of her Singapore eatery in Hong Kong and Tokyo. “Traveling is a huge inspiration for me,” she says. Recently much of that inspiration has come from Tokyo. She lived there for some time as a child and a few months ago returned to open a restaurant in the metropolis that she says is the best city for desserts. “It has a unique sweets culture of its own and has opened my mind.” Kyoto, with its Zen Gardens, isn’t a business destination but one of her favorite escapes. Nothing, however, beats the Maldives, she says, where she loves to dive.
Wong continues to push the envelope in her “laboratories” in Singapore and Tokyo where she hosts both chefs and artists. She sees her work as experimental, developmental and most importantly collaborative. She says she is not concerned that her ideas will be stolen. In fact, she shares recipes on websites, sponsors other chefs to come to Singapore with the purpose of sharing their philosophies and developing new recipes. She says she has already collaborated with artists, musicians and architects in addition to chefs. “I want to build a community,” she says. “There are no limits with art or food.”