Janice Wong, the diminutive Singaporean pastry chef, started with 2am:dessertbar in Holland Village. She later expanded her offering to 2am: lab, and Janice Wong Sweet Shop at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.
Janice has received worldwide recognition for her cutting-edge creations and is a regular on the global pop-up circuit—proof that 2am:dessertbar is more than just a sugar rush. She has recently been named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef, for the second year running, by the prestigious San Pellegrino Asia’s 50 Best for 2013 & 2014.
Chef Janice Wong’s never-ending passion for culinary arts has propelled her forward to test the limits of dessert making. The native Singaporean has learned from some of the world’s best chefs, including US luminaries Thomas Keller and Grant Achatz, virtuoso Spanish chocolatier Oriol Balaguer, and prodigious French pastry chef Pierre Hermé.
An undisputed favourite among sweet-toothed Singaporeans, her dessert restaurant 2am: dessertbar has redefined the dessert experience, pushing the boundaries between sweet and savoury, with carefully researched progressive dishes.
Janice started out studying finance in NUS. She took economics and went on an exchange program in Melbourne. She wanted to follow in her dad’s footsteps and go into banking and finance, but life had something else in store for her. Culinary arts beckoned, and she answered the call, and she hasn’t looked back since.
She has recently opened Janice Wong Dessert Bar in Tokyo, and a full plate restaurant in Hong Kong called Kubo House.
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The New Savvy: Tell us a bit more about your background? What were you doing before this, and what made you want to start this? And did you get to where you are today?
Janice: I started out studying in NUS finance. I did economics and then went on an exchange program in Melbourne. I wanted to follow my dad’s footsteps and go into banking and finance. But then, I felt so much joy when I looked at ingredients when I looked at food. I just wanted to be a part of this food culture and felt very inclined to be a curator of food.
When I picked up fresh strawberries, and I tasted the earth in the strawberries, I was like “This is amazing, this is not what we get in the markets of Singapore.” I think of myself as a curator. There is no boundary with what I would do with a mushroom. There’s no boundary what I would do with chocolate as well.
For me, being a curator means to take fresh ingredients and give the customers the best experience. Whether you’re eating from the wall, or the ceiling, or a plate, it should still be an amazing experience, and I wanted to give that to my customers. So I decided to join culinary school after graduation. I took my course at Cordon Bleu in Paris and then did my training back home in Singapore, New York, and Spain.
The New Savvy: Was it a tough decision for you not to pursue finance?
Janice: Yeah, for sure. I think my dad was very supportive of me doing finance. He did warn me that being a chef means long hours. You know, the starting pay is like $1,300, even $1,200. It is real, and it’s still real right now. The figures are still the same. Starting pay is very low, and hours are long. But I was not deterred by that factor because I wanted to do it. I felt that there’s going to be long hours in every business or discipline that you do.
Whether you’re an architect, or an artist, or a designer, there’s bound to be long hours of work if you push yourself hard enough. So these were not the main factors that deterred me. I think I had to be very careful and mindful of my decision because I was not too old, but I was not that young either. There are people in the kitchen that start at the age of 14, and I started at the age of 21.
Janice: Socially, no. Age was one factor I had to consider. In countries like the US and Spain people start out as early as age 20 or even younger, so I knew I had to work harder, which I was ready to do. Being a woman was another factor. I had a lot of male chefs that I hired in the beginning. That for me was fascinating.
I remember working in Melbourne and there were 20 male chefs, and I was the only female chef. And they would all be drinking beers at the end of the night. It was something I had to be comfortable with. I just had to accept the fact that there are more male chefs in the kitchen than female, worldwide. And we just have to do our best.
The New Savvy: Can you tell us more about the process or the hardest moments in your life? What happened and what transformed you?
Janice: I knew there were going to be new challenges every day. But I always knew that when you’re facing a challenge, it’s great to have the downs to celebrate the ups. And I always tell my team that you cannot have a perfect day every day. It’s just not possible. So my team embraces challenges.
There’s never a dull moment. Everybody’s thought process is different, so it’s not so much of how we react to the problem, but when we think different, we react differently. And so, that is a critical philosophy I impart to my teams, whether in Japan, Hong Kong, or Singapore. And now that the team has more than a hundred people across the three countries, it’s important to give them a lot of positive energy.
But having said that, there would be more challenges ahead when you want to continue to expand. And I am going to open my flagship in Singapore in August. It will be the first restaurant I have in Singapore doing sweet and savoury at the same time.
We have that happening in August in the National Museum of Singapore. Right now, the team is very busy planning for the new kitchen, from the new menu. The expansion is for sure one of the biggest challenges because you have to expand, yet you also have to be very mindful of your expansion. And I guess in Singapore we are nine years into Dessert Bar, and the second one is happening after nine years.
The New Savvy: Do you have any struggles or fears?
Janice: No. I’m a pretty happy person. I always think quite positively, and I impart that positivity to my team as well. So not so much on the struggles ahead, but I do foresee, in the future, of course, sustainability. Business sustainability is one big key. How can a café sustain? There are so many new cafes in Singapore. How are they going to sustain after 10 years?
You have rising rents; you have rising labour costs, and your percentage of profits are going to be less and less, as time goes on. So how do you think differently and break out of that area? I feel that that is one challenge for sure, across the country, across Asia.
The New Savvy: What’s a typical day for you like? How do you spend your free time?
Janice: I hardly get any free time, but I thoroughly enjoy what I do. Since I started the business, I have enjoyed every moment of my work. I feel that there is not one moment of dullness in what I do, because as you can see behind you, it’s a hanging chocolate yoyo. You know, we’re always dabbling with art, with food. There’s a lot of play.
There’s a lot of discipline, yet a lot of the game in my factory here. So behind me, I believe, there are two paintings, and right now it’s chocolate and marshmallow. So again, you know there is a lot of areas where we’re constantly pushing the boundaries. Hence, there is no dull moment, and there is no typical day. Let’s just say every day is different.
The New Savvy: What is the one moving force of motivation for doing what you do every day?
Janice: Thinking different. I think the reason why every person is so unique is that we all think very differently. There are a few projects I’m doing this year, picked up by different companies worldwide.
So for example, this year I’m going to Spain, and Harold McGee, who is one of the godfathers of the Science of Cooking, he’s the author of that and he’s a great guy, he put our name down for a movement by Mugaritz, a Spanish restaurant which does fantastic cuisine, and very progressive, and they have a lab. So they invited Heston Blumenthal and me to go to Spain, for four days of creativity. You know, it just feels wonderful to have been picked by such amazing chefs as Harold McGee and Heston Blumenthal.
Having now expanded to Japan, and also Hong Kong, you realize how small Singapore is, and Japan is a massive market for us. This for me is very, very important, to be very mindful of, especially here in Singapore. It’s great here, but the market is just very saturated, very small, here.
How can we break out of this market into the different markets, and also expand the philosophy? By taking on projects such as this. I will be going at the end of October, and for four days we’re just going to be thinking. We’re going to be thinking, and we’re going to be sharing, and then I will bring all that back here, and work on these new ideas.
This is a vital movement that nobody in Singapore does. There’s no such event where we invite chefs or local chefs. We don’t have such the culture of having a lab, and when I started out 2am:lab in Singapore in 2011, it was one of the movements I decided to make, to put everything back into research. It’s so important to put back money and resources into research to move forward
Janice: Think different. I think it’s crucial. I have a sign just over there, beside you, which says, “Think Again.” I think the primary asset that a woman has is not just the being, but it’s up in the mind. What you want. It’s about what you think that you want to be, and you go ahead and be it.
So it’s always about the courage. You can have an idea, but even more important is to have the courage actually to move forward and carry out the idea. So the asset of a woman is the mind. You set your mind to it, and then you do it.
The next part is to have courage. I think, being a woman, sometimes you maybe think a bit too much of the outcome. But I think to have courage is paramount. To have the courage to decide that you want this to happen, and then you make it happen. So my word for the women out there is really to have courage.
The New Savvy: What do you think are some of the challenges that women face, that stop them from pursuing their dreams, or become an entrepreneur?
Janice: Realistically, we are the bearer of children. So family. I think family is a huge factor. I also put my family first. I love my family, and sometimes it’s difficult to juggle between family and work. Realistically, you have to take a break. You cannot be working that hard, and also bearing kids, and then also be a super mom.
I think realistically; you have to give up something. You know, we only have so many hours a day. I believe that this is one imperative factor for a woman, to have to juggle family as along with work.
The New Savvy: What do you feel about women and finances in this day and age? Do you think they have the right financial mindset?
Janice: Yeah, for sure. If you compare to 20 years ago, it’s so different now. There are so many new markets that we have created for ourselves. Look at the cosmetic market. It’s great, and it’s booming. It’s slowly increasing. I mean it’s been increasing because many of us women now have more spending power to enjoy, for example, a meal with our girlfriends.
I feel that we want to make these indulgences for ourselves. We want to indulge. We want to pamper. So I think the career woman out there today, or the confident woman, they want to empower. Not just that, they want to indulge themselves.
So it’s different now from 20 years ago. Sometimes we rely on our partners to pay for certain things, but right now, really, we want to be able to pamper ourselves. And when this is changing worldwide across the emerging markets, such as India, China, and then the developed cities in the US, and in Europe, you do see this movement of women being more confident.
There are more and more women that are rising in the ranks. Today we have women leading large enterprises as CEOs or being chefs in star restaurants. So I feel this is slowly changing for sure, and in the next 10 years, it’s going to be so different.
The New Savvy: What kind of financial decisions have you made so far, and what are the biggest obstacles to planning a portfolio?
Janice: After three years of opening I felt that I could have taken on a lot of franchises. We had franchise options from Indonesia and China. For example, Shanghai, especially Jakarta. Three times we were asked to go to Jakarta. I didn’t take any of those projects, and I think that was an excellent decision.
Of course, it was very difficult. Of course, opening up franchises, having to expand your business is great. It’s great news, it’s great to the public eye that you are expanding, but I felt that when I opened 2am: dessertbar at the age of 24, the first thing I wanted to do was just to build a brand. And to build a brand you have to be patient. And we finally did it, but we are still building the brand.
I’m learning a lot from my Japanese partners on how to create a brand. We’re putting my name on the brand, Janice Wong. And to put an Asian name is in itself a challenge. And here we are, trying to build a brand with a female Asian name. Having a woman pastry chef as a brand, in Japan, is almost unheard of. All the top patissiers are male.
So this was something that I had to be very mindful of. So financially what I did was, I put all of my resources back into a lab. Back into a lab where I just churn out creativity. Where I could push the boundaries, do the art. I could create desserts to have no references. That came out of Master Chef in Australia last year, and it was a dessert that was showcased based on just raw ingredients and building it up.
That was the kind of thing that I wanted to showcase, and I’m glad that I had that platform to express my philosophy to the world really. Because it’s so important to do that to progress. So it was, of course, a tough decision. I mean nobody in their right mind would put all resources back into research at a very young age.
The New Savvy: So going back to the financial, what are the biggest obstacles to planning your financial portfolio?
Janice: The issue, of course, is we are in a developed city. We have rising rents, also rising labour costs. This is something that we have to be, time and again, very mindful of in our business planning. Food cost will increase very minimally, but the primary cost increase is the labour.
If you are in a food and beverage business, the rental is one key point. You have your orchard area that was on a high last year. This year it dipped a bit, but you have to be very mindful of how much you’re paying per square feet across Singapore.
The New Savvy: Is there something you think that all women entrepreneurs like yourself should learn, and what are your hopes for yourself and other women?
Janice: I’m always learning new skills. I just took up another coffee course at Better Brewsters upstairs, and I’m learning coffee. When I was in Japan, I was learning pottery, I was learning just different skills sets, and I love learning. So I’m thankful I have an outlet in Japan which is doing well because they have an entirely different sweets culture. And I’m taking in all these different ingredients.
It’s summer season now, so we have the Miyazaki mango, and the Shizuoka melon. I’m using Konnyaku and Umi from Guma prefectures. So I’m learning all the different ingredients from various prefectures, and then finding out how they’re made. So I wanted to find out how Konnyaku was made, and even the Japanese were surprised that I want to learn so much about their food.
I’ve been doing it since 2011; we were engaged by the different prefectures, and I would spend a week on the farms, and I would create the books. And the books are for free, and it’s all on my website, janicewong.co. Our website is where you can find the art, you can find the books, and you can download the books, you can find recipes there. I wanted to share all these good recipes.
Curiosity is something that I have in my personality, and I never stop. So right now I am launching Mod-Chinese cuisine in my new restaurant. And it’s something I’m not comfortable with, but yet I am challenged by it, and I just want to do it. Because again, it’s not doing something you’re just comfortable with all of the time, and so this for me is, I hope the advice to other women out there.
Sometimes if you’re doing something you’re not very comfortable with, but dare to take the risks, the rewards are very rewarding.
The New Savvy: What are your hopes for yourself and other women?
Janice: I continue to build the brand. We’re already planning the next outlet in Japan. I have very good partners there. ANA Foods is my partners, the airline company; and they have built Sadaharu Aoki’s brands for the past 10 years in Japan, and now he has six outlets in 10 years. And I feel that if we continue building a brand, not just in Japan, but also in the rest of Asia and the world, I hope that we can be very successful at being a successful Asian brand worldwide.
I think this is a very big challenge because if you see all the other patissiers and all the other brands, there are very few women who have managed to put their name on a brand. You have Pierre Hermé, you have Pierre Marcolini, Ladurée in itself is a name, but I do feel this is going to be one of the biggest challenges, but yet it will be extremely rewarding worldwide when other women get inspired as well.
To be honest, we have a lot of female Japanese patissiers that come through our doors in Japan. According to a survey done in Japan, to be a pastry chef is one of the top career choices for women. So a lot of them are very inspired that a female chef has been given this platform to showcase progressive desserts. And it’s always been the male, so I guess being in Shinjuku Station in Japan, has changed the way of even the Japanese women being inspired.
The New Savvy: Time for some fun questions! Who is your role model, and why?
Janice: Living role model would be my father. He’s always been a mentor. He allows me to make mistakes, but at the same time is always keeping an eye on me. So every time I have some issues or problems, I’m always very ready to pick up the call and go, “Hey dad.” So yes, my dad has always been a role model in my life.
Coco Chanel is another. She dedicated her life entirely to her craft, her passion. Her love for making hats couture. I love her quote that says, “I don’t do fashion, I am fashion.” She believed in what she did. She broke all boundaries that a female can’t do it. If you look at her background, you realize just how courageous she was. So she is one woman who inspires me, because she had all the qualities of determination, discipline, also courage.
And now, I am studying Karl Lagerfeld from Fendi and Chanel because he has so many personalities, and he’s able to manage these three personalities of his, very well, which is something that I never believe I could do. I am half an artist. I’m also half a chef. So 50-50.
I do have my art in galleries. So I do paint as well under acrylic on canvas, under glass. I do glass art, and I do ceramic art. And I never thought I could do it, so he’s also quite an inspiration, to have three personalities in one.
The New Savvy: If you could invite three persons to a dinner party, famous or otherwise, which three would it be and why?
Janice: I think photographer Annie Leibovitz. I believe she’s great. I would love to invite Karl himself. I think he’s such a fun guy. I would also have loved to invite Alexender McQueen. He was someone who also did n’t think so different and pushed the boundaries.
The New Savvy: What’s the side of you that the public never sees?
Janice: I am very zen. There is no anger in me, but then again, I guess the public does see that because a lot of interviews are just very calm. When something bad happens, I just let it go and move on. I don’t like to waste energy. I don’t like to waste time as well.
So, for me, it’s always about thinking efficiently, thinking different. And the team appreciates that because we’re always moving forward. We don’t dwell on issues and problems, and we’re always a very progressive team. So I support creativity a lot, and that’s maybe one thing that the public doesn’t see that I support even my chefs.
If they want to move on to another place that is different, I thoroughly recommend that, because in life you have to move forward. You can’t be stagnant at a single location. And even if you are, it’s also okay, because everybody is different and we need that diversity to make an entire city, or the earth, so unique for what it is.
If everybody is so progressive, it would be very chaotic.
The New Savvy: How can we improve women’s relationship with money?
Janice: That’s a very interesting question. I think we’re naturally prudent in our personalities. We like to save. The other part I guess is real to be more diversified with our resources. We focus a lot on one thing, and sometimes we might need to put our resources into different areas.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in