Text by Cheryl Tay
Photos by Zurina Bryant
With a strong motivation to create and inspire, the sweet-faced Chef Janice Wong is a true inspiration not just in the kitchen, but with her peace-loving hold on life and her never-ending desire to share. Through the multiple platforms she created for sharing – 2am:dessertbar, 2am:lab, 2am:experience and her book “Perfection in Imperfection” – the internationally-acclaimed award-winning Chef Janice is known for her progressive desserts and her gift for creating and innovating the world of food (such as new textures, new flavours, new techniques).
I read extensively about her on the internet – about her background, accolades and various initiatives – and I first met her at an event about the pairing of wines and chocolates organised by the PMET Division of the People’s Association. She may have a lot of things on her plate (pun fully intended), but yet she manages to maintain a Zen-like soft-natured mild-tempered personality. Although cars and motorsports with the fast cars and high speeds deeply contrast her world of progressive desserts, there is so much I can learn from her, especially her outlook on life, her beliefs and her mindset.
For someone particular with how she spends her time due to her hectic schedule, I am highly appreciative of the one-hour chat I had with her to find out more about her vision and what drives her. In the process I found out her favourite car is the Jeep Wrangler since she was 14 because of how it looks and a weird item on her bucket list includes getting shot in the leg.
Q: What drives you?
A: The opportunity to create. We get approached to do projects but we don’t take on everything. I’m actually doing quite a lot of creative work and there is a demand for creativity but we need to see that the project can help us grow and give us the chance to create before we take it up.
Q: Any pre-conceived mindsets people have about desserts that you want to change?
A: People typically think desserts are just chocolate cake with ice cream or apple tarts or fondant, but there can always still be art on the plate and not just in cuisine. Desserts can be any part of the meal and need not just be something at the end of the meal.
At 2am:dessertbar we only serve progressive desserts – what we are giving to customers is not just a dessert but experiences, such as the design of the desserts, the changing of the texture, new flavours, pairing (with drinks) as well. There is something new all the time.
Q: What’s the ultimate goal for you?
A: The vision is to create and not to re-create. That’s why we set up 2am:lab. It isn’t just about serving people but to have a kitchen designed to create and experiment new things which we can then propagate. A restaurant would just be about preparing of products and doing service, with a schedule that allows no time for freedom to create or experiment. In this day and age we spend a lot of time recreating instead of creating.
Q: What was the turning point in life that got you to do this?
A: I was in Melbourne and always in the farms where the produce was fresh. I thought it was all great and needed to be on the plate. So that was what gave me the push to put good things on the plate! Yes, I’ve always had a sweet tooth since young so I love my desserts!
Q: You had the opportunity to pursue a career in finance, but you gave that up.
A: My father works in the banking and finance industry, so he wanted me to follow in his footsteps and was teaching me stuff like trading and all that since I was 20. I was offered a job right after university, at the age of 22, but I chose to give up banking as I didn’t want to step into that.
I don’t mind all that as I do like maths and numbers, but in that world it’s all about being driven by money and I don’t want to be driven by that. You’re always staring at the screen, always reading the news, thinking about your numbers and watching the markets. You can’t really have a holiday and you worry about a crash or a hurricane somewhere. There’s this constant worry and your happiness, mood and behaviour is dependent on the money you make.
I know what I want – to dedicate my life to food, create new dishes and serve people new food – and so I was determined to head in that direction.
Q: How did your father take it?
A: I told my father that I didn’t want to be like him and at that time he was shocked and didn’t quite understand why. But after so many years he’s really cool with me now. Things are great and he’s really supportive. I have a younger brother and he will be pursuing a career in that direction, but I also always tell him not to be driven by money because there can never be enough to be honest. In that industry especially, you always want more and when you have more, you want a bigger house and a bigger car and you keep upgrading. To me it doesn’t make sense and that’s not what my life is about.
Q: What is the purpose of your life?
A: I believe I’m here for the purpose to inspire. In fact I’m creating a food dictionary with new textures, new techniques, new recipes and hence new names. It is quite daring because people tend to like things that they are familiar with, but for us, yes we can go back to existing things and I’m sure we can do a pretty good job of re-creating but we’re not going to do that. Re-creating is over-done and someone else can do that. My purpose with 2am: is to inspire future generations and keep innovating new creations.
Q: Was it very tough at the start?
A: I knew I had to get relevant work experience and Singapore could not offer what I wanted. With my own savings, I just packed my bag and took off for New York, the first overseas place I went to.
Q: Where did you get the idea for 2am:dessertbar?
A: I got the idea from Room 4 Dessert in New York where the desserts are paired with drinks. It’s a brilliant concept! Using my savings and also some support from my dad, I started 2am:dessertbar at the age of 24. Once we broke even I returned the money to my dad.
Q: Do you get criticised for being young?
A: Yeah of course, people say things like “Hey you’re really young” and all but I just ignore them and just continue doing what I want to do. I never feel affected by any comments. I believe in energy conservation and I don’t really get angry. For example, the other day someone knocked into my car and I laughed about it. I even thought that someone should have knocked the other side and turned it into an art piece!
I have so many things to do every day and I just cannot spend time being bothered by these. I practise the art of Zen as well, which helps a lot because things can get really chaotic around you but when you’re at peace, you’re at peace. It really helps with the work and keeps you focused.
Q: Do you ever lose your temper?
A: I’m quite a calm and neutral person and I hardly get angry. I could get angry but when I do it is very well-controlled. What I do when I get stressed out is to paint! It is very interesting because when I’m not stressed, my paintings are loud and explosive, but when I’m very stressed, my paintings come out calm and Zen with a lot of pastel and soft colours.
Q: What kind of challenges do you face on a professional level?
A: It’s always about manpower – about finding the right people, finding people who believe in you, creative people, people who will stay with you and putting together the right team to embark on the project.
Q: A lot of people are very guarded about their recipes and methods, but you’re an advocate of sharing.
A: When you share, you never know what you might get back in return. You take a gamble when you share and it could backfire if someone sets up a shop doing the exact same thing, but not sharing isn’t the purpose. It is a risk to share but you can learn more.
Q: You’re on a very tight schedule and you’re constantly busy.
A: Yeah I just had a five-minute lunch break today! Every single day I have a full day, working about 20 hours a day, and my usual sleeping time is just four to five hours a night. If I’m off I try to get more than six hours of sleep. Sunday is supposed to be my off day that I save for paperwork but the months ahead are full! I don’t really go partying and all that, maybe once in a while to do some PR, but for me I really enjoy just staying at home and doing some reading if I can.
Q: Where do you find time for friends?
A: When I started I already knew I had to give up everything (with regard to social life and personal time). But it’s alright as I seek a lot of pleasure in my work and I meet so many people every day and I make new friends all the time through the events or demonstrations or classes I give. Part of it that you give up; in return you get a lot. I have a fair share of friends complaining of course, but the close ones will understand. I just saw my best friend that day for 10 minutes, after not seeing her for four months. We used to hang out all the time but she knows that’s impossible now.
Q: How do you manage time?
A: I’m quite calculative with time and its opportunity cost – I can’t afford to freely give two or three or four hours like that or the whole day is gone. That one extra hour given away can be dedicated to pushing yourself to create something new.
Q: Do you believe in work-life balance?
A: My work is life. Although a lot of people say to split up work and life, I feel that if you have a gift and have that passion, then I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think you should even try to have a balance in that case. If you feel comfortable and you’re at balance, working 15 or 18 hours a day is not really work for you because you’re constantly inspiring and creating and in my case, putting good food out for people.
Q: What about ‘me time’?
A: For work I travel a lot but every year on my birthday I will take one week off and go on a sabbatical. Last year it was Iceland, the year before it was Nepal and the Himalayas. This year it was supposed to be Mongolia but I’m changing to Barcelona.
Q: What about your personal life and starting a family? Are you seeing someone now?
A: Sort of! You can always find time if you want to. I did think about settling down but I will dedicate at least another good five years of my life to this. The journey’s already been five years and to be honest I never expected this day to come, to have all these (2am:dessertbar, 2am:lab, 2am:experience) and even have my own book.
Q: Who is your inspiration?
A: Coco Chanel (the influential French fashion designer, founder of the famous brand Chanel, whose modernist thought, practical design, and pursuit of expensive simplicity made her an important and influential figure in 20th century fashion). She dedicated her life to a craft and building a brand, with her influence that stays till today.
Q: Where do you get your inspiration to create?
A: I shut my sense of sight for three days to create new things. In those 72 hours I’m completely shut off from the rest of the world with no external influence. That’s when I start creating – new colours, new shades, new textures.
Q: How have you developed as a person through your experiences?
A: I haven’t been this calm, until about three years ago. I’ve changed a lot especially in the past two years. When I was younger, I was ambitious and hungry. When you open a restaurant at the age of 24, you are very rash and you get carried away by wanting to earn a certain amount of money within a certain amount of time. You just want to try and put everything out there and give everything you have in order to succeed. Ironically as the pace of my life picks up and gets faster, I actually became a calmer person.
Q: How do you deal with negativity?
A: I’m not so bothered and we are quite blessed as so far not a lot of bad stuff has come our way. We are doing what we are doing for a good cause and it’s not like we are expanding rapidly with multiple branches. We try to deliver what we can and as long as people see you trying your best, they cannot really fault you for that. Even if they do, I know I’ve tried my best.
Q: What’s next?
A: We are potentially starting a new 2am: project – details to be disclosed later. I’m also hoping to do a Volume 2 of my book. As for expanding 2am:dessertbar, it is a possibility and I wouldn’t rule it out but it’s not a priority at the moment.
Q: What do you want people to remember you for?
A: I read the story about the inspiration of the muffin somewhere and how this woman split the batter into smaller moulds. Cakes in the past were baked huge with icing on top, but that one step she did got people replicating it and today in this day and age, every single coffee shop in the world has something in the shape of a cupcake or muffin. No one knows who created it and I’m sure she never expected the extent of her influence to reach so far. I want to be like that.
Q: Any words of encouragement?
A: Your world is your imagination.
*This photo was taken from the internet.