Meeting Janice Wong
Janice Wong walks with an unassuming air and is happy to stop and chat with Living Foodz even as she works on an edible installation. Both words in the last sentence are importance. The edible part is about making candies of different colours that reinforces Wong’s journey and accolades when she won the title of Pastry Chef of the Year in 2011, 2013 and 2015 from the World Gourmet Summit Awards and the title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef from Restaurant Magazine consecutively in 2013 and 2014.
The installation part is an art movement that many dessert chefs across the world have started adapting over the last few years as a result of the Instagram age we now live in. “Can you imagine a world without artists?” Wong ask in mock horror and adds, “Today, art, food, architecture and design are all inter-connected and I’m trying to join all these elements in my installation today. I haven’t done anything like this before.”
At the Mumbai edition of World On A Plate where we meet, Wong is busy overlooking the installation that is the centerpiece of not just her masterclass but a fitting end to a day of culinary masters such as Ranveer Brar, Adriano Zumbo, Masterchef Australia 2016 winner Elena Duggan and Masterchef Australia judge Gary Mehigan showcasing the best of global cuisine in their respective masterclasses.
Wong invites participants outside the enclosed space where the masterclass is held and into the open environs where her assistants have made a wall that she encourages everyone to break. “The reactions I get when this happens is incredible. I love seeing people being part of my installation rather than just looking at it,” Wong says.
Wong studied economics in college and like many competitive young Singapore folk was all set for a career in numbers. But, while studying economics in Melbourne, she became interested in food and to know if she was cut out for a career in the industry she enrolled herself in Le Cordon Bleu in Paris to prove her mettle. “Juggling economics and artistry didn’t go together after a while. I never planned to do this and I’d heard that artistes are not paid well so turning into a pastry chef was a huge decision,” Wong says.
That veritable institution played a formative role in her culinary journey but it was meeting legends such as Ferran Adria and Grant Achatz that finally made her start her pastry journey. When asked why she picked desserts over savoury upon graduating. Wong says it was first-mover advantage that she was looking for. “When I was 24, there was no one who was doing desserts in Singapore. Doing something new is always cool and it really paid off,” she says.
Today, Janice Wong says her focus is on building her brand and opening in new places and newer countries. She’s already established in Singapore and the Hong Kong market knows her well too. She’s now shifted her focus to Tokyo and says that the Japanese market is hard to crack as the level of culinary awareness is quite high.
A Pastry Masterclass
Wong likes to talk slowly and precisely, trying to draw you into her words so that you at once feel comfortable. Wong’s masterclass starts off similarly as she reveals the making of Cacao Barry Inaya that features Cacao Berry 65% Inaya, salty caramel, chocolate soil and yuzu sorbet so good that you want to keep gulping mouthfuls of it! She holds the audience’s attention with quick repartees, answers questions confidently and creates an aura for her dish so that when it’s done everyone’s looking over their shoulder as servers bring the dessert portions to the table.
It is a masterclass on keeping a crowd engaged for almost an hour, creating curiosity about the dish despite having a workbook detailing the recipe while also keeping a hawk-eye on making the actual dish so that it tastes and looks perfect. When you ask her about it she says with confident calm that chefs are keen on learning as well. “It becomes more challenging when there are timelines and operations to look after but when you see an inspired audience, you get inspired yourself as well.”
She’s excited to be back in India again she says too. This is her fifth visit and she knows the crowd in India appreciates a good dessert. She might not be opening her signature restaurants anytime soon in the country but she’s sure the Janice Wong brand will be here soon.
“What I find most unique about India is that men and women both like desserts equally. That’s not usually the case outside,” she says. Like the Hong Kong and Tokyo branches, the Indian brand will be mixed with desi influences so Wong is currently on a mission to find good Indian sweet shops to see what works with the audience here.
The Coco Chanel Influence
As a tiny but influential republic, Wong understands that there is no Singapore specialty she can take to the world. In fact, during her most famous moment when she challenged Masterchef Australia contestants to create a complex dessert, she chose the cassis plum that has since become a signature fixture at her 2AM dessert bar in Singapore and other locations.
“Singapore is more about the mixture of different cultures and influences so we don’t have a dessert we can call our own. What we have is limited as we’re a young country. Instead, I think it’s important to do something new and share it with the world,” Wong elaborates when asked about the cassis plum and having a Singapore dessert to call her own.
Across her eating joints and locations, be it the 2AM dessert bar, pastry shops named after her and Wong’s savoury restaurant at the National Museum of Singapore, the philosophy is the same. “The Janice Wong brand DNA is strong and we work with colours and imagination along with our influences,” Wong states. Her website states that Wong is “in pursuit of perfection in imperfection, and an appreciation of imperfection in perfection, presenting an artistic, gastronomic world of flawless imperfection and flawed perfection.”
It’s a different way of looking at art in general and making desserts in particular. So it comes as no surprise that Wong doesn’t look at other chefs for inspiration but a timeless beauty who created a name for herself that still stands the test of time – Coco Chanel. “She is an inspiration to me. Coco Chanel built a brand for herself and that is exactly what I want to do with the Janice Wong brand. We have six restaurants across Asia right now but we want them all to be unique and like Coco Chanel,” she says gushingly.
If her masterclass, audience reaction and quiet determination behind her low voice are anything to go by, we’ll be betting on the Janice Wong brand before long too.
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