#TrueCalling: Janice Wong

IN COLLABORATION WITH HUAWEI,
featuring photos shot on the new Huawei P10, co-engineered with Leica.

Why do we do what we do? What is it that drives us, day after day, to pour our time, effort, and our heart and soul into the art, the beauty, the solutions and magic we create?

We pursue our dreams and chase them into our reality not because it is the most natural thing to do, or the easier way to live. Quite the contrary. It is hard work, it is dedication (sometimes to the point of obsession — do we see a few nods?), and many have described it to be a lonely journey. So why do we do what we do? Because, quite simply, when all is said and done, it gives us joy and feeds our life’s purpose. And hopefully, by doing what we do, we’d be spreading a little of that joy, and a little light to the people around us and, who knows, the rest of the world.

In a new seven-part series entitled #TrueCalling, we’ve partnered up with Huawei to bring you the stories of seven women — creators,

doers and, yes, dreamers — to find out what makes them tick. How has whipping up a new recipe, making sculptures, or capturing moments from around the world, for example, brought them happiness? What interesting lessons, people and ideas have they encountered along the way? We’re going to give you a glimpse into their worlds through our lens.

First stop: Janice Wong’s office. Here, the 34-year-old culinary artist and founder of 2am: dessertbar — who calls world famous chefs like Thomas Keller and Pierre Hermé mentors, and was named, twice, Asia’s Best Pastry Chef by the prestigious San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best — took us on a little behind-the-scenes tour of her chocolate-filled kitchen, fed us some of those chocolates (which are more like objets d’arts, really), made some Easter eggs and regaled us with anecdotes from her culinary adventures.

Love the imperfections.

Karman Tse: What was the first dessert you ever made?
Janice Wong: Tiramisu. When I was nine, I think, that was the first thing my mum taught me to make. We were living in Tokyo then, so a lot of her inspirations, her techniques were all from Japan — tiramisu was one of them, and that was the first thing I learned, fell in love with, and I’ve continued using the same recipe until now.

KT: Oh, was she a dessert chef, too?
JW: No, she was kind of a home cook, she takes care of us, but loves to be in the kitchen.

KT: At what point then did you realise this is what you wanted to do as a career?
JW: : I’ve always told the story about the strawberry. That was the one thing that changed me when I was studying in Melbourne. I had a four-day week at school, where I was studying economics. So, on the other three days, I would go to farms or learn to make new

things. I’d just go to places like Yarra Valley and there’s all these blueberry farms and strawberry farms. I ate a strawberry off from the ground, and that made me realise that what we get here in Singapore is very clean — which means everything is washed and you get a one-dimensional flavour. But what you get off the farm is a sort of earthiness, layers of different flavours, sometimes even smokiness.

This is something that we don’t get if we don’t go to the farm to smell the produce, smell the surroundings. I think that’s one thing that lacked in my childhood. There’s so much more to food than what we see here, so about about 12 or 13 years ago, after graduation, I decided to start my training in culinary. I worked for different people, went around to see new things and explore a lot of different cultures. At that point in time, in Singapore, there wasn’t as much cultural exchange as now, and of course, technology is the key now to helping people understand what is Peruvian food, for example. In the past, it was difficult. So that was the game changer, and I realised that I wanted to do this for life.

KT: And when did food become art to you?
JW: In 2011, when I finished my first book, Perfection In Imperfection. I needed to feed 400 guests and kind of let them taste my book. I was thinking, how can everyone have the same experience? It’s 400 people, that’s a lot. I wondered, what if I made a marshmallow ceiling, put my recipes on the wall? No one was doing that at the time. So, that became a hit, and we kept getting more and more requests…

KT: 2am: dessertbar has expanded to Tokyo and Hong Kong in addition to three outlets in Singapore, including a restaurant — which is so great. But that must also mean that your job scope has changed tremendously from the time you started. What would you say is the sweetest part of your work now?
JW: I guess it would be the ability to change people’s perception and people’s life. Changing somebody’s life is a bit extreme, but to change the perception of somebody’s thinking of a pastry, I think that really was what I have always

Either you grow or you don’t. So, you choose.

WHAT MAKES ME HAPPY IS

MAKING CHOCOLATES. IT’S REALLY

 NICE AND ZEN TO BE DOING THAT.

set out to do. When we started 2am: dessertbar in 2007, we wanted to change the way people thought of desserts as just an after-meal experience. We changed that, and I think it has made a very big difference now in Tokyo. I just saw an Instagram post, someone posted “dessert for lunch”, and it’s great. Tokyo is the only market that we do desserts for lunch, and it’s full. I’ve never seen this in any other culture.

But, because we’ve been consistently trying to engage with our customers with flavour, with design, I guess over the years, people started to really enjoy what we do and accept that this is going to be an experience. So they’re not expecting something “normal”. I mean, we do normal as well, like tiramisu, but we also go to the other extreme. If you asked me 10 years ago if I would imagine this day, I probably wouldn’t, but the consistency of always wanting to change people’s perception has been the constant.

KT: Earlier, you said you have fresh ideas every day. Do you ever get stuck for inspiration?
JW:
No, no. Maybe when I was younger, but that was because you were more hungry to perform, and now… I just let things be. The more you don’t try, it just comes naturally, if that makes sense. It’s a lot easier to work in this manner. I think the main thing is that we have the power to change, to inspire. And now that we’re international, we have even more, so whatever decision we make could be detrimental or it could be extremely inspiring. That has taught me, of course, to be a bit more careful. I think in the past, I could do whatever I wanted with a small little shop. Now, we make one new dish and it goes out to five places, so as you grow, for sure whatever you create will affect more people and be an educational tool as well. But I guess this is also a blessing, because how else could you have wanted it?

KT: With all these ideas, what do you do with those you don’t get to execute right away?
JW: Oh, put them in a little container, compartmentalise. One of the skills I’ve harnessed over the years was

compartmentalisation.

KT: Does it get scary when you realise your business, your dream has actually grown bigger than you could have imagined?
JW:
No. Either you grow or you don’t. So, you choose. And I think everybody always chooses growth — it’s a natural course of somebody’s life, that’s why you keep moving forward to improve your skills and everything, so no, I think it’s quite natural, it’s nice, it’s comfortable. I would say it’s about the balance — the fine balance between business and being an artist.

KT: Throughout this journey, has there been a particularly tough setback, and how did you bounce back from that?
JW: Hmm… I don’t remember. Yeah, I just keep moving forward. I guess it was small, little bad decisions, but then again, it’s normal, it’s kind of every day life… But that’s nice because I don’t waste brain space remembering stuff like that.

I have always kept my focus on the things that are important,
that’s why I have so much time. I mean, I just do.

KT: That is a good approach. So, you must get asked this a lot: How do you do and accomplish so much given the same 24 hours we all get?
JW:
 Keep your focus. I have always kept my focus on the things that are important, that’s why I have so much time. I mean, I just do. You try your best to be efficient.

KT: Even keeping focus is a skill, too. I mean, how do you not get distracted by the noise of what others are doing, or by social media and, as you said, “just focus”?
JW:
I don’t read other people’s stuff, and I don’t bother. So, every year I have this thing where I just say, I’m not going to bother about what other people do. I mean, last year, of course, there was this huge trend of the salted egg croissant and cheese tarts. We never made a single salted egg croissant, it’s too easy, it just too easy to follow. It was all over social media. But we were just doing what we were doing, and we just kept at that.

If we spend all this time reading about what people say about us, then it’s very difficult. There will always be naysayers. But I also have a very good approach: I like to listen to bad feedback that are constructive. So if somebody says our service is awful, we have to address that. I don’t think we can close one eye, and people have said that about our new restaurant because we were expanding so fast. But then once you fix that problem, then you just keep trying to improve.

KT: What is your mantra, or a favourite quote?
JW:
 I have a few… My own is always “love the imperfections”. But I also like Dr Seuss’ quote: “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells.” (Laughs) That’s just amazing.

KT: What makes you happy?
JW: What makes me happy is making chocolates. It’s really nice and zen to be doing that.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY  //  Karman Tse
SHOT ON  //  Huawei P10, co-engineered with Leica
QUOTE & PARFAIT IMAGES  //  Via JaniceWong.com.sg
EDITORIAL ASSISTANCE  //  Terri Teo

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