Trauma can be a transformative, but it’s usually how you deal with it that shapes you as a person. Culinary artist Janice Wong reveals her experience
BY WAYNE CHEONG | Dec 1, 2015 | Women We Love
Before I arrive at Tasty Plaza, a re-furbished industrial building that now houses local F&B entrepreneurs, Janice Wong, 32, is conceptualising an edible art piece for Bloomberg that’s due in 10 days’ time. Her kitchen-slash-office occupies most of the third floor.
She is petite, smaller than she appears on camera or in pictures. Attired in a white chef’s jacket, at first, Wong looks a little nonplussed at my appearance, and then, like a switch being turned on, smiles a little before getting up to greet me.
Janice Wong is a household name, at least, when it comes to confectionaries. And if you’re one of the many ardent viewers of MasterChef Australia, you must have squealed a little when she appeared to present her Cassis Plum, a blackcurrant-based plum-shaped frozen dessert, during the Pressure Test episode of Week 9 in the latest season.
She has come a long way since switching from a life of economics to the culinary world. Her enrolment in the pastry programme at Le Cordon Bleu, Paris dominoed into working for restaurants like Alinea and Per Se, before opening her own establishment called 2am:dessertbar in 2007 (and later, other out-lets locally and overseas).
Known for her easy union of desserts and art, observe her as she prepares an edible art installation—creased glabella, posture slightly bent as though ready to pounce—and you’ll see a painter filling in the blank spaces of a canvas. It’s a level up from plating like hanging lollipops from the ceiling or applying gummy paint to a sheet of glass. People like our taxonomies, everything in its place, like blind men describing an elephant, we call her a pastry chef, an artist, a writer... all these terms are correct as they are different facets of the same polished gem, but when pressed, she likes to think of herself as a curator.
“You’re basically creating experiences. You’re creating moments, stories. That’s what I want to do. That’s the difference with cooking. I know I have to produce mochis for some-one’s wedding, and it will be done. But when it comes to art, you can’t vomit it out.”
“Vomit”. Interesting word choice.
It took little resistance for people to swallow what she is offering. “I’ve wondered for years how people might take to what I do,” Wong says. Affirmation of her artistry came in the form of a sold painting, her first, when her work was displayed at last year’s Creatory, a festival celebrating 60-plus tastemakers from all creative disciplines. “It was these black-and-white panels with red and green splashes on them. Even though it was priced at SGD2,000, someone snapped it up and we hung it on his wall.”
As she shows me around her workplace, she speaks with the measured grace of a docent. Wong is in the midst of salvaging an artwork that she’s done for demonstrations and events. “I’ve been up till 5am,” Wong says in a tone that sounds like an apology but isn’t.
There are too many to note. While she takes time to slowly explain the provenance of certain pieces, you’re overwhelmed by the sheer number. One looks like a whorl of fuchsia and white ginkgo nuts and chocolate flowers, spiralling out from the centre. Another is a miasma of drips, each layer thickened over the other. They are all wrapped in cellophane. Wong can’t bear to throw any of her art away. Six months ago, the space was completely empty; now it’s piling up. Every piece is a story, pages added to a thickening book but she’ll eventually run out of space and might have to move to somewhere bigger.
Wong waves her hand over to another part of the silver and white room where a team (garbed in the same white top/ black pants ensemble as Wong) whips eggs into a frenzied froth and prepares ingredients; that’s where the production happens. She has more than 20 people working for her, workers who possess the same perceptiveness and perseverance as Wong herself. “Everybody helps everybody,” she says.
Soft music pipes from unseen speakers in another room. “The people you see now are the interns and the juniors,” she explains. The senior chefs have taken the day off after working at an event attended by 250 patrons last night.
For putting this much effort into her confectionary, is Wong a taskmaster in the kitchen? Her response forms like pearls being stringed. “I’m quite a perfectionist.... But I would say it’s also because I push myself pretty hard. It’s never easy working in the kitchen.
“And...” Wong adds, “I think if I had to work under me, I wouldn’t last.”
"Living in Japan raised the bar on flavours. the bread is different, the flour is softer; you don’t really think about these things until you grow up."
In the many Interviews that Wong has given, she has said that her parents, Steven and Agnes Wong, never stopped her from “putting things in [her] mouth”. She was always tasting things. She remembered the flavour of sushi when she was three, when the family relocated to Japan due to her father’s job. “Living in Japan raised the bar on flavours. The bread is different, the flour is softer; you don’t really think about these things until you grow up.”
She describes her parents as “foodies”, always taking her on food jaunts. “When we were stationed in Hong Kong, I’d travel with them by boat, followed by a hike just to find the saltiest duck that I’ve ever eaten. I questioned, ‘Why am I eating this?’ I was young and didn’t understand why. It was a special duck on Lantau Island or something like that.
”This is how Wong developed her palate. It’s a mind map of tastes that will prove useful in time to come.
Wong points To a kitchen trolley where brown mottled white chocolate pieces sit in trays. They look too numerous to count. As though reading my mind, Wong says, “This has 2,500 diamonds.” She sees my eyes grow slightly wider. “Sugar diamonds,” Wong clarifies.
The “diamonds” are meant for the Dubai Community Theatre & Arts Centre’s (DUCTAC) Urban:ness exhibition. The showing consists of work from 17 artists from Singapore, UAE and India, touching on the impact of urbanisation in Asia. “They asked for a Singapore map,” Wong says. This is her sixth Singapore map that she’s doing this year. Other variations of her Singapore map are either stored in her office or other places like the Singapore High Commission as well as the Singapore Tourism Board in Kuala Lumpur.
It’s not strictly a “work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction”, but repeating motifs of the Singapore map bears a faint shadow of originality. Wong can’t be faulted for that. She is but a humble servant to her clients.
“I worked with a graphic team for a Tiffany & Co event,” Wong says, “Instead of the predictable yellow and black theme we went with black, white and gold in a chocolate New York City skyline with 3,500 sugar diamonds hanging above it.”
Ex nihilo. To begin from an empty space is far more challenging for Wong. When her clients give parameters, like asking for the piece to contain a map of Singapore, that’s just the framing; the freedom of ingredients and play is still open to her.
To Wong, the art is always the base and the food is the complement. Remove the element of food and the art is still present but how far will she go for her art? Try going blind for 72 hours. In 2010, Wong voluntarily surrendered herself through three full days of sightlessness. Take away one sense and the rest of the senses will compensate for its loss. Without sight, Wong’s imagination kicked in, forcing her to consider the reality of the world as a blind person who has never seen a tree and has no concept of the colour green. Without any preconceived beliefs, Wong created a whole new world in her own image.
“I need to compliment my team,” Wong says. “Without them, I wouldn’t be out here thinking of ideas, talking to you, telling my story. They work well together, whether I’m there or not.” But Wong is still the linchpin of the entire operation. She is kept busy, though busy is too fine a point for what she does. Her e-mails can be startlingly curt. Replies come in fits and spurts that leave nothing to ambiguity like her relationship status. “It’s difficult to maintain a relationship. I have been busy, but if it comes, it comes. I’m kind of a floater. But when it happens, I’ll make time for it.”
This is a fact: you will never see Janice Wong angry. Disappointed, yes; but a deep, seething anger? No. It does her no good. “If there’s a bad situation—and there will be bad situations—I try not to dwell on it and focus on the positive instead.”
Travel helps too. It expanded her world-view. Since young, she has been afforded opportunities for cultural exchanges. She’s a sponge that absorbs some of the culture and the philosophy, and in turn, she’ll then apply in her own fashion.
Her art style ranges from the colourful to the muted and she likes having an open palette, from art and pastry to culinary and product design. With everything that’s presented for the taking, it might imply that Wong isn’t focused—that’s the one comment she gets most of the time, but that’s far from the truth. She’s keening like a knife. With such surgical implementation, anything less than perfect is verboten. Art is art, but what she does is based on her own standards, not anybody else’s.
“A lot of culinary students say they want to be a chef. Then it’s hard for them to be an art-ist; it’s hard to think out of the box. Take an éclair, for example. You think of it as a choux pastry; it needs to be long; you need to fill the piping bag... you’re used to that structure.” It’s little wonder that Wong receives résu-més from all over the world. “When people say that they want to join me after seeing my Instagram, I’m like, oh no... I mean, they see the picture, but they don’t see the four weeks of work that went into it. This is always what people see and want, but they don’t know the preparations behind it.”
Seeing how the rabbit appears in the top hat doesn’t take away from the magic. In fact, knowing how it came to be, that’s the turn of the trick.
This is years ago. At around seven in the morning in Tasmania, Australia, Janice Wong and her then-boyfriend get off a jetty and into a car. They travel by road, without a care in the world, except in the comfort of each other’s company, and then a bang and a scream of tyres and lungs. An explosion of glass as Wong smashes into the windscreen headfirst. The bonnet of the other vehicle that has just smashed into them, is in a crumpled state. Behind the wheel, a teenager reeling from an alcoholic dream and would later transpire that the offender does not even carry a valid licence.
Today, Wong shrugs off the episode, like she’s recalling the weather or what she had for lunch; the accident is just another moment in a series of moments, but the ramifications dog her. The faint scar on her foot left behind by the burns, the first six months after the accident hobbling on crutches, her revolving door visits to the hospital are trivialities compared to what Wong refers to as the “jolt to the head”, the head trauma. “I used to study French. I was excellent at my studies. Good at mathematics,” Wong pauses. “But since the accident... it’s been the opposite.”
Wong doesn’t proffer many details about her ailment (“It’s too long to talk about”) but her memory isn’t what it used to be since the incident. “I don’t remember much... faces, names. Probably after this interview, I won’t remember your name after you walk out of the door,” Wong says. “But if there’s an application like if I spend time with you and a bond forms, the memory sticks.”
This doesn’t always work. Take learning a new language. Wong is opening an outlet in Tokyo, Japan next year in April. During the initial stages, she always had a translator to help with meetings and deals, but she wanted to speak the language (“I wanted nothing to be lost in translation”). So she signed up for a one-month intensive course at Bunka, but the language escapes her. She figures that even if she were to abandon everything else and set her concentration solely on learning the language, she would still be incapable of mastering this new skill because of her condition.
“I’ve given up in a way,” Wong says. “But I still have hope. Right now, I’m just focusing on everything else that’s easier.”
“I’m Christian so I still pray for the return of my memory. And I believe it can happen. It would be something, wouldn’t it?”
There are inadvertent silver linings. In the past, she didn’t cook. She had no interest in anything culinary, despite her upbringing, but the injury unlocked her artistic side. She started painting and cooking. Six years after the accident, her parents finally see how different their daughter is: the once timid Wong is now able to speak in public, to strangers.
And then there are the visions. Recurring visions. When she sleeps, her dreams are lucid to a point where they’ll jolt her awake and she’ll jot them down, ideas for her art.
Counter-intuitively, her inability to recall is a boon in the kitchen. Since she can’t remember recipes, she creates on the spot. For example, if a final product is a cheese-cake, Wong will retreat into her knowledge of ingredients and pick out the fundamentals (sugar, butter, eggs, cream cheese). As other pastry chefs adhere to the rigours of a recipe, Wong “makes it on the fly”.
“As an artist,” Wong adds, “you have free expression, no boundaries. I apply that to my work as well as how I manage my staff and all that.” This approach netted Wong the titles of Pastry Chef of the Year during the World Gourmet Summit Awards in 2011, 2013 and 2015 and the “Asia’s Best Pastry Chef” award from Restaurant Magazine in 2013 and 2014, among others. (She does jot down her recipes in notebooks, “but I misplace them,” Wong says wryly.)
So hypothetically, what if doctors come up with a solution that can restore Wong’s ability to remember?
“I’m Christian so I still pray for the return of my memory. And I believe it can happen. It would be something, wouldn’t it?” Wong muses. “Combining what I can do with the ability to remember recipes and the stuff that I’ve learned... that would be pretty powerful.”
Janice Wong stands before the canvas, as empty as the storehouse of her memories. Its starkness frightens and excites her as she presses the first tips of her brush to the surface, bringing her universe into focus.
First published in Esquire Singapore's December 2015 issue.