Chef Janice Wong: “If it doesn’t taste good, why put it on a plate?”

Updated on December 22 2015

In many ways, Janice Wong is a study in contrasts. Softly spoken yet self-assured, clearly rational but almost unassumingly creative, the Singaporean chef isn’t afraid of pushing the boundaries — in fact, she seems to thrive when she throws all notions of boundaries out the proverbial window.

“It’s probably hard for people to understand what we do,” she says of her two Singapore dining rooms, 2am:dessertbar. “Usually desserts are crafted in such a way that it’s sort of like a homecoming, [they’re] very comforting. One has not broken the boundary of really making it into artistry. You’ve gotta have the guts to be different and not necessarily think of the numbers.”

Janice Wong - Cassis Plum
Wong’s cassis plum has gained a cult following in Singapore and abroad.

And it’s the blurring of the lines between art and food that has seen Wong become one of the world’s most celebrated pastry chefs. A three-time winner of Pastry Chef of the Year at the World Gourmet Summit Awards and twice named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef by industry bible Restaurant Magazine, a life at the pass wasn’t always on the cards.

Wong actually completed a degree in finance and economics in Melbourne before chasing her true passion and enrolling in a pastry course at Paris’ Le Cordon Bleu.

Not that it necessarily was a hard call for her: “The question is do you continue the pursuit of your passion or do it just as a hobby,” Wong reflects. “I think the decision came quite easy because I was young, and I had very little to lose.”

And while she was influenced by Melbourne’s richly diverse culinary scene — on her days off school she’d visit farms t0 explore produce and ingredients — she saw Singapore as the place from where she could build her empire. After successful ventures in Holland Village and Marina Bay Sands, Wong has turned her attention to Hong Kong.

Janice Wong - portrait
For Wong, “there is no line between art and food”.

We sat down with the chef while she was in town to talk desserts (obviously), the most lavish order she’s ever taken, and what to expect from her first Hong Kong dining room:

I always saw myself as a curator… hence I was able to have this versatility to not see my craft as just pastry — it could be confectionary, it could be desserts, it could also be savoury.

I’m very comfortable in Hong Kong… because it’s not foreign to me [Wong spent three years at Hong Kong’s Singapore International School while growing up]. It’s more being comfortable yet pushing the boundaries and challenging myself with different ingredients. For me it’s about the ingredients — if it doesn’t taste good then why put it on a plate?

Hong Kong will be the first time… where I’m showcasing my culinary versatility — there’s about 12 desserts [we’re bringing] from Singapore, but you might be very surprised that there will be entrées and main courses. It’s a farm-to-table concept — we don’t have all the produce, it’s not like Scandinavia where we have cows in the back of the yard, but we try our best. It’s all the same philosophy from entrées, to mains, to desserts — we’re focusing on ingredients.

Janice Wong - salted caramel
Wong’s range of chocolates are art in a box, each one its own canvas.

I’m working on the egg waffle… as a Hong Kong exclusive. It’s such a nostalgic, childhood thing, so playing on it will be a very signature dish to Hong Kong. Hong Kong flavours are very similar to Singapore, so things like five spice will be on the menu — we’re actually making our own spice mixes and tea as well.

The focus for Cobo House by 2am:dessertbar… is on creating lifestyle and art — it’s an intimate setting where we’re focused on fine dining but we’re going to welcome you into this space where you feel like you’re at home. There are going to be signature painting collections on the walls, and sculptures. I’ve even put some of my paintings on the wall as well. We want to find the balance between lifestyle, art and food.

There’s always room for dessert… Some people can eat five desserts in a row — I’ve had a couple eating S$150 worth of churros, that’s like 40 or 50 churros. That was the most absurd order we’ve had, we congratulated them for finishing it off.

Greek-Cypriot by way of Melbourne, Nik is a lover of sneakers, country and western music, Jeff Probst, oversized scarves and three-quarter lattes. He occasionally tweets, badly, @nik_iforos, and lives in a state of constant FOMO on Instagram @nik.iforos.