It was the taste of a strawberry that changed everything for Janice Wong. Picking the fruit straight from the plant and popping it into her mouth, she discovered that it had earthy notes and even a little bitterness.
This revelation came when Janice visited a farm while studying economics and finance on an exchange programme at the University of Melbourne. It would turn her career around and lead her to become one of the most famous pastry chefs in the world.
It inspired her to train at top culinary school Le Cordon Bleu Paris and led to her working alongside celebrated chefs like Will Goldfarb, Oriol Balaguer, Grant Achatz, Arzal and Pierre Hermé. But ultimately it prompted Janice’s return to Singapore, the place where she was born and where she realised she wanted to share some of the flavours she’d recently grown to love.
“That strawberry had so much more than just strawberry flavours,” Janice explains. “In Singapore there’s not much farming because we’re so small, so we have to import a lot. I explored new tastes in Australia, France and other countries, and I couldn’t wait to bring them back to home. Discovery is a big part of my life. I fell in love with new experiences and I wanted to create that for my guests.”
Janice opened her first restaurant, 2am:dessertbar, aged 24. With puddings at its heart, it’s designed to be an indulgent experience. In the decade since, she’s opened shops, restaurants and bars across Southeast Asia, as well as 2am:lab, a non-profit culinary research laboratory and development space.
Janice’s global reach extends to include Melbourne, Hong Kong and Tokyo, but it’s Singapore that excites her most in terms of food, creativity, modernity and experimentation. “I really love that Singapore is so progressive, a place where people constantly try to reinvent themselves,” she says. “There’s a real focus on innovation and that is right there in modern cooking. The history of Singapore inspires me, too. There are so many cultures here and that means there’s a confluence of cuisines — of Indian, Malay and Chinese, and a little bit of Western too, because we were a British colony until 1963.
“We’re a young city and we’re small. We’re in a great location but we don’t have many natural resources and so we concentrate on food and flavour. We embrace that — for us the best way to hang out with a friend is looking for the best egg tarts or laksa — whatever it is we crave that day. I’m not sure there’s any other small place in the world so utterly obsessed with food. And lots of it is great — we even have a hawker stall (Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle) with a Michelin star. I’ve watched Singapore grow for 30 years and I’ve never seen a country so dynamic in every single discipline. Singapore is tiny, so we are able to move faster.”
It was Janice’s passion for her city state that led to the creation of her Signature Singapore series of chocolates, with each featuring a flavour redolent of her home: Kaffir Lime Caramel, say, or BBQ Bakkwa Pork Praline Poprocks.
Janice believes it’s important for visitors to Singapore to understand that not so long ago the food was simpler, less progressive and cheaper. Although that kind of cooking is still available, Janice loves the fact there’s so much more variety today. The opening of Marina Bay Sands casino in 2010, with its huge array of fine-dining restaurants, was, she says, a “game changer”.
In 2011, the same year Janice was named Pastry Chef of the Year at the 2011 World Gourmet Summit, she expanded into what she calls ‘edible art’. “I filled a gallery space with a marshmallow ceiling so that everybody could climb up and eat it,” she says, laughing. Janice now does 40 installations a year — avant garde and organic, they were initially inspired by Singapore before heading off on a less-specific journey of pure imagination. “I’m very playful, and I like to innovate and introduce all these things into my edible art. I love to play with a multitude of colours, textures, flavours and even perceptions.”
Three to try
01 Chicken curry noodles
“This is one of my favourite dishes, and I love Heng Kee Chicken Curry Noodle (at Singapore’s Hong Lim Food Centre). That shop has been there for 30 years, and I remember when I first tasted it as a child — it’s a memory that’ll never leave me.”
02 Oyster omelette
“This is such a great creation — eggs, oysters and a little bit of starch to give it some texture, enhance the flavour and allow it to have some lovely, frilly crispiness. It’s made even better with the chilli sauce it’s usually always served with.”
03 Singapore laksa
“We adopted laksa from Malaysia and changed it. Ours has a spicy soup stock the colour of a sunset, flavoured with coconut milk and dried shrimp and topped with, say, cockles, prawns and fishcake. I love the one from 328 Katong Laksa, opposite my shop in Holland Village.”
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)