Janice Wong – Chef / Restaurateur of 2am:dessert bar, talks about her career to date, her food vision and upcoming high tech gastro Lab which is set to open in a couple of months.
With an impressive resume and a hunger for continuous innovation, Janice hopes to constantly push the boundaries of Singapore’s food culture, creating new techniques, textures and flavours for present and future generations.
After years of thinking that she would follow in her parents footsteps with a career in finance, while on a university exchange in Melbourne, Janice decided she wanted to swap a career in finance for food, after being blown away by the fresh produce she encountered in Melbourne. Janice finished her economics degree at 22 and much to the surprise of her parents, made the bold move to study pastry at Le Cordon Bleu, France. 6 years later Janice has worked at some of the best kitchens in the world and heads up her own restaurant 2am: dessertbar.
STEPHANIE HUDSON: After working at Les Amis, you had brief stints in Thomas Keller’s Per Se kitchen, Grant Achatz’s Alinea, Will Goldfarb’s Room4Dessert and Wylie Dufresne’s WD50. How did you get the chance to work with some of the big names in the international arena?
JANICE WONG: My contacts with Les Amis were pretty close so they referred me to go to New York… The moment I arrived I went to Will Goldfarb’s restaurant, knocked on his door literally and said “Hi Chef, I want to work here for a bit, 2 months minimum …”. I showed Will my resume and told him where I’ve trained and Will said, “Okay, you start tomorrow.” I arrived at 6pm and started the next morning at 11am!
I worked at Will Goldfarb’s place and I moved on to WD50. Their sous pastry chef … Rosio Sanchez … came into the bar one day … we talked, I asked to try out there and she said yes! She’s now the pastry chef at Noma.
It was a lot of referrals. When I went to Chicago it was because of L20. My father knew the owner…one thing led to another and I stayed on for a while there. A lot of the chefs at L20 worked at Alinea and through Alinea…Grant has close ties with Per Se, so it’s a very close network.
If you really want to do it it’s possible … you just need to jump on all the opportunities.
HUDSON: From the many chefs you have worked with who has influenced you the most?
JANICE WONG: Alex Stupak… It was a short time working with Alex but I guess it’s because of his philosophy. He is a very humble chef…and he was always creating… always moving faster than the rest … and I actually take that philosophy with me.
HUDSON: How would you describe your vision in food at the moment? How would you define Janice Wong’s cuisine as at 2010?
JANICE WONG: We really concentrate on the balance of flavour, texture and temperature…in that order.
Normally when we create, I’m always sitting down with my full dessert and I eat the entire plate not just taste it, because then I know how much to put on each plate… Like chocolate mousse …if you put too much it becomes so overwhelming … and so it loses that sense of wow… Everything on a plate has a purpose…I can’t really explain in words but you’ve got to come to Singapore and have the experience yourself!
Paring desserts with wine … It was the first time in Singapore that a whole dessert menu had been matched with wine. Red wines, white wines, dry… different acidity levels. In Singapore no-one used to drink wine with dessert but now everyone does. At least at 2am.
My sommelier is from Chicago, he was the sommelier from L20…He’s been with us for one and a half years and his vision is also to challenge people’s palettes to introduce new things to them so we work very well together.
HUDSON: The espuma gun or the siphon, would you say this is the most used gadget in your kitchen? What other chef tools do you use at the 2am kitchen?
JANICE WONG: The siphon we use in a lot of our cooking shows, we are doing it today … using the siphon as well… you can do a lot of different textures with it … and we used it a lot last night (at Sepia).
We use the sous vide supreme machine a lot because we are normally doing a lot of sous vide with chocolate, infusing flavours in the chocolate.
The pacojet… but now at the Lab it’s more the microscope. Whenever I use it there’s always someone (from Polytechnic) to explain things to me … water content, how it mixes…The idea when you create … you have to know the structure first …You cannot create successfully without knowing the structure…I need to make my structure stronger, more elastic so what are the ingredients I need to put into my recipe…
HUDSON: And what about Molecular Gastronomy ingredients in your desserts?
JANICE WONG: If we do it’s about creating different textures … it’s always the garnish, a little surprise…I would never serve it, like little balls as the main dish.
HUDSON: On the vinegar table dish you had that little garnish on the top … what is that?
JANICE WONG: That’s yuzu sauce that’s encased in isomalt.
HUDSON: Before a dish goes on your menu how long does it take to perfect?
JANICE WONG: To create it’s pretty fast – it could be a day it could be a month but to evolve it takes a long time because we listen a lot to our customers, we listen to their comments…Also seeing what’s left behind on the plate is very important, how they eat it at first and it keeps evolving. I would say about a month, 2 months, might even take half a year. Some of them right now to this day are still evolving.
HUDSON:The Chocolate Coral H20 dish that you’re also demonstrating at the Showcase today. What sort of techniques do you use to create it?
JANICE WONG: The inspiration is more like honeycomb and of course the structure with corals … they have little holes everywhere… We are using the siphon to incorporate air into it, but once you deep freeze it and you cut it open you are able to see the holes. We are also spraying it so you get the colour you want. We are spraying it black.
HUDSON: And what sort of texture is the inside?
JANICE WONG: Mouse …it’s all mouse but the beauty about it is that it stays as a structure. “It looks hard?”, I interject … Yes looks are always deceiving!
HUDSON: And the chocolate coral dish on your menu …
JANICE WONG: It (the siphon) was actually used for my signature dessert which is the chocolate water coral, made of purely chocolate and water, designed for women with babies, who always came to 2am in the middle of the night craving for chocolate but they can’t become too full. So we created a dessert for them that’s healthy, no sugar added …actually a lot of our sweets have no sugar in it, or I replace it with something that’s naturally sweet.
HUDSON: And the vinegar table dish you have on your menu, what sort of flavour of chocolate is that?
JANICE WONG: It’s also a chardonnay white wine vinegar…very different. We do a mouse like texture but there’s no cream or milk in it… It’s very silky, very light.
HUDSON: And your family?
JANICE WONG: My family are encouraging. They try not to be part of this because they think it is absolutely insane … “Why are you not sleeping again?”… We tend not to sleep for 2-3 days and then sleep after that.
HUDSON: In terms of personal qualitites, what do you think it takes to succeed in the competitive culinary scene on an international level?
JANICE WONG: For me it’s to keep an open mind … There are so many chefs out there who are craving for success and the most important thing for me is to take a step back, to look from an outsider’s perspective … and try to be as focused as I can. The dangerous part is being in your small little world and not talking to other chefs … I talk to many chefs and the important thing is to share …I share a lot with different chefs from all over the world. In Italy Loretta Fanella, Loretta was the head pastry chef at El Bulli for 4 years and she retired from there recently … We share concepts. Again you cannot do everything on your own.
Portrait: The Ninja Review
HUDSON: What’s on the horizon for Janice in the future?
JANICE WONG: We’re opening a laboratory…It’s the first of its kind in Asia. We’re calling it the 2am lab … we are going to do it as a thinktank.
The idea is to just keep creating and to create textures and techniques for the future generations, present and future …for us that is the most important right now and that will be the core of our business.
It will be very systematic. We’re going to focus on a few ingredients every month and create new textures … and the creations …we’re definitely going to test them with the customers at 2am: dessertbar.
We are tying in with a school as well … (Republic) Polytechnic at Singapore. We need all of this equipment …We’re allowed to use all their equipment so things like microscopes, freeze driers… just to study the structure of what we create.
No customers are allowed inside. We will do one cooking class a month and we will invite chefs over from overseas. The main thing is to reach out to the professional kitchens in Asia for them to come and learn. The demand is there but there is no-one doing it…We’ll do consultation for restaurants as we are creating all the time. That’s what we hope to do…It is quite a unique project and we do have very good sponsors as well.
We’ve already started…I am trying to create liquid tablets … chocolate liquid tablets … am going to see how that works out ….
…Keeping in tune with all the new gadgets that are coming out…Mixers that have temperature control, pressure control things like that…
I wish we were living in the stone age and everything would be as pure as possible but the reality is we have to accept the fact that technology is growing with us and so we need to embrace it.
You can read more about Janice Wong at 2amdessertblog.com
Chocolate Coral h20 – I will add this to my must eat list. Hopefully it will still be on the menu when I make it to Singapore. But most likely will have evolved into something even more spectacular.