Famed for her whimsical confectionery and desserts, pastry chef Janice Wong is also an artist, an entrepreneur and the face of her fast-growing empire of all things edible

SINGAPORE (Jan 28): A little over five years ago, Janice Wong was best known as the chef-owner of 2am:dessertbar, a late-night dessert hideout on the second floor of a shophouse in Holland Village. Her name has since evolved into an F&B brand of its own — one with a strong presence in Singapore, Japan, Macau and, more recently, the UK.

Her concession debut at London’s Harrods department store took place just a few months ago in November, beginning with the introduction of her chocolate crayons — the latest to join Wong’s line of namesake commercial products, which are inspired by her imaginative and quirky approach to presenting food as visual art.

Instead of conventional wax, Wong uses chocolate to create “crayons” of different flavours represented by colours, from dulce de leche to fruit flavours and peppermint. We were hoping to view these innovations up-close during our visit to Janice Wong at the National Museum of Singapore, but this slipped our minds once we stumbled upon the deluge of other sweet treats found within the retail-cum-dining space.

Dessert wonderland

Stepping past the sunset-hued drop screens and chocolate-painted tables, the first thing to catch our attention is a looming montage of shelves lined with chocolate paint jars, brightly packaged teas and assorted chocolate boxes. These are arranged meticulously to frame a massive abstract painting created using Wong’s brand’s series of chocolate paints. Above the counter on the other end of the room is another piece that I interpret as koi fish swimming in circles, painted on canvas with chocolate paints and marshmallows. Both artworks on display, however, are not meant to be consumed. They are coated with layers of resin to preserve their form and pigments — unlike many of Wong’s other sculptures and installations, which often invite the audience to reach out and taste.

When I ask if these sugar-rich creations would disintegrate easily or attract pests, especially in their edible forms, her answer is a firm “no”. “We’re usually quite careful to take hygiene precautions. For example, last year we organised an exhibition, A Taste of Bally, in Ginza, Tokyo. We preserved the edible artwork for two days and wrapped every lollipop with plastic. If we are running a two-hour event, we basically put out the art for consumption only half an hour before the event begins [in line with most catering practices]. Think of it as a buffet on the wall.”

Wong, who spent a number of her childhood years in Japan and Hong Kong before studying and working in Australia, France and the US, attributes much of her success to the international exposure she gained from a young age. “My parents are foodies, so growing up, I got to venture out with them to try all types of cuisines ranging from sushi to burgers and dim sum. From that experience, I was able to build a memory bank of flavours and textures, and that has definitely influenced my growth as a chef. It enables me to be quite flexible with my usage of ingredients,” she shares.

Soft-spoken yet eloquent, the 35-year-old clearly has no trouble holding her own in the male-dominated culinary world, with numerous awards to show for it. Her talent is not limited to sweets, either. Throughout the interview, we are treated to intricately crafted, multicoloured bites such as crispy-skinned Chilli Crab Radish Puff topped with a dollop of glistening caviar and Chicken Chilli Oil Dumplings laced with viola petals and purple potato chips. Each represents Wong’s interpretation of a conventional dim sum dish and is an intriguing sight to behold. Many of the recipes for these creations can be found in Dim Sum, a 2013 publication that she co-authored with dim sum chef Ma Jian Jun. Her flair for food photography is also showcased in a number of her other published cookbooks, the latest being A Taste of Kochi Citrus (2018).

“When it comes to food, I don’t categorise [it] as ‘sweet’ or ‘savoury’. I think of dim sum as similar to pastry-making, where instead of baking, you are cooking using different types of doughs and [creating] different textures [compared with confectionery],” says Wong, who has been making dim sum since 2012. “I don’t get as much practice with dim sum as I would like to, but every time I come here [to the National Museum outlet] I try to be as involved as I can in the kitchen.”

Around the world

Despite her busy schedule, Wong remains a global citizen. In February, she will be spending Chinese New Year aboard Belmond’s Eastern & Oriental Express as a guest chef. The four-hands collaboration will see Wong traverse Thailand and Malaysia on the luxury train before the three-day journey concludes in Singapore. She also dedicates a significant portion of time to culinary collaborations with hospitality and F&B entities in Japan, travelling to various precincts and cities to work on semi-permanent menus and dishes, which are mostly created with the area’s specialty produce.

“Our next project in Osaka is a collaborative effort with the Ritz-Carlton. We’ll be offering a five-course degustation menu there over three months. In Kumamoto, our confectionery and cake creations will mostly feature chestnuts and will be available for a year. As Shizuoka is famous for its melons, I’ll get to juice ridiculously expensive ¥3,000 [$37.30] melons to make different products exclusive to the prefecture.”

Wong is beaming as she details these upcoming projects, which she refers to as “satellite events”. When questioned further, she bashfully admits to having covered about half of Japan’s 47 prefectures to date. “I spend about a third of my year travelling to Japan. For work, of course,” she says with a wink. “Last year, I took some time off to visit Tokyo Disneyland with a Japanese colleague of mine and just really immersed myself in the theme park. It was a lot of fun, but at the same time, it was also work-related, as we create a lot of similarly fun experiences [with food] that go beyond the plate.”

True enough, the homegrown chef’s pioneering genre of cuisine — and art — has earned her immense appreciation overseas. This year is also shaping up to be the biggest yet on the artistic front for her self-named concept brand. For one, Wong has been commissioned to design a 10-day exhibition in March at Solaria Plaza in Fukuoka, Japan, as the shopping mall celebrates its 30th anniversary. Another major art project will commence soon in Seoul, Korea, as an edible art experience spanning three years. It will be the largest and longest-running project to ever be curated under the Janice Wong brand name to date.

In Singapore, she is set to further expand her retail presence with the launch of the Janice Wong brand at T Galleria by DFS on Scotts Road, with another launch planned at DFS Changi Terminal Three.

All in a name

“Janice Wong” and the brand’s logo — which is also Wong’s signature — prominently appear across all of her restaurant and retail storefronts as well as product packaging designs. But this was not always so, as Wong only decided to make the business an eponymous one in 2014 when TWG co-founder and Group MMM chairman Manoj Mohan Murjani came on board as an investor and to chair Wong’s company. The first seven years of her entrepreneurial career was dedicated solely to 2am:dessertbar and edible art installations before Murjani came into the picture.

“As CEO of the company [Janice Wong Singapore], Manoj has played a major role in our business. It was because of his vision and encouragement that I was finally able to say ‘okay’ to putting my name on the brand in 2014,” says Wong.

While the company’s brand reach and product offerings have picked up dramatically since then, Wong divulges that the biggest challenge is not in running different business concepts across multiple locations but in the research and due diligence required to support the expansion process. “For every country that we plan to set up shop in, we do a lot groundwork in finding out more about its consumer culture, spending power, currency and so on. That is where the workload becomes very extensive, because we really can’t afford to second-guess these aspects,” she explains.

Following the latest concession launch at Harrods, Wong says the next step is to introduce her line of chocolate bonbons (below) to the UK market. It is likely to focus on Singaporean flavours, she adds. While market research is still in progress for this, the existing Singapore Signature Series of Janice Wong chocolates currently offers pop rocks and pralines with flavours such as Chilli Padi, Gula Melaka Pandan and BBQ Bakkwa Pork.

“Our brand is currently at a place where we aren’t considered big, but we’re not exactly small either. Therefore, we still have the freedom to change our current product offerings according to different cultures and consumer habits and behaviour — for example, creating products that have longer shelf life or are more travel-friendly for our international audience,” says Wong.

“It is still a completely new experience for us to be developing a brand out of Singapore at this scale. We now have about 200 [stock keeping units] in our inventory, and for them to be spread across different markets with different climates and consumer preferences, it becomes very challenging and yet exciting at the same time.”

This article appeared in Issue 866 (Jan 28) of The Edge Singapore.

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