Janice Wong: Performance Pastry Art and Pure Imagination

by Rebecca Cohen with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno Antoinette Bruno
June 2013

You’re in a world without sight. An aroma transports you, and a single bite explodes into your consciousness, creating impressions vastly more complex than taste alone. Citrus is bright yellow sunshine, the velvety warm sensation of chocolate’s earth flavors coats your tongue, and you shiver at the bracing, icy breeze of menthol. Textures are shockingly immediate and at times unexpected. This is the hyper-sensitive state of sensory perception Janice Wong enters to unleash her inner creativity, an outlet that finds expression through a particularly delicious medium: pastry.

Pastry chef and owner of Singapore’s 2am:dessertbar and 2am:lab, Wong moves easily between the worlds of pastry chef and artist, blurring the distinction between the two. She periodically undertakes intervals of self-imposed sightlessness, remaining blindfolding for as long as 72 consecutive hours in order to gain new “perspective.” The first time she tried this, Wong was anticipating a heightened sense of taste and smell. “But what I got out of it was imagination,” she says. “I was really in touch with myself.” Unburdened by visual clutter, her imagination ran wild as she conceptualized the raw data she received through her remaining senses. She began designing foods with no visual references, imagining what they would look like if she had only their taste, smell, and feel, to inform her expectation of their visual form.

Purple: Purple Potato Purée, Cassis Sauce, Lavender Marshmallow, Fruit Sorbet, and Cassis Parfait

Purple: Purple Potato Purée, Cassis Sauce, Lavender Marshmallow, Fruit Sorbet, and Cassis Parfait

Cheese Avalanche: Cheese Mousse, Biscotti, Marinated Figs, Cantaloupe, and Dill Flowers

Cheese Avalanche: Cheese Mousse, Biscotti, Marinated Figs, Cantaloupe, and Dill Flowers

Sweet Salty Popcorn: Popcorn Parfait, Yuzu Parfait, Popcorn Powder, Malt Liquid, Passion Fruit Sorbet, and Dill Flowers

Sweet Salty Popcorn: Popcorn Parfait, Yuzu Parfait, Popcorn Powder, Malt Liquid, Passion Fruit Sorbet, and Dill Flowers

Pastry Chef Janice Wong of 2am:dessertbar - Singapore

Pastry Chef Janice Wong of 2am:dessertbar - Singapore

One of the most arresting aspects of Wong’s style of pastry is her complete and unapologetic break from tradition. She is boldly establishing a new realm of desserts by creating sweets with few or no points of traditional reference. “Most chefs create with memories from their past, tastes they have in their memory banks,” she says. Wong’s menus don’t feature French technique or renovated childhood favorites; instead she creates with the inspirational jolt born of a single color, as in her Shades of Green dessert, or the compelling texture of a lava rock, which she mimics in her Chocolate Water dish. Embracing the beauty of natural imperfections, Wong shuns layer cake conventions in favor of coral-inspired confections. Even her “classic” desserts, like a cheesecake of smoked tofu, are hardly recognizable as such.

And while she employs the most modern techniques to achieve her ends, she doesn’t abide by architectural constructions and prim platings—instead she favors textural landscapes and Pollock-like splatters and smears. “The more natural it is, the more beautiful it is,” she says. “It’s really not super avant-garde. It’s just being inspired by all the objects around us, and being creative, being original, thinking outside the box.”

It’s not only in the dining room of 2am:dessertbar that guests experience Wong’s art. She also presents edible installations for guests to view, touch, and, of course, eat. She once created a suspended chocolate Christmas tree that clocked in at 150 kilos. At the 2011 launch of her cookbook, Perfection in Imperfection, Wong constructed seven pieces: a 3-meter-by-1-meter edifice of isomalt coral, lychee gelée wall hangings, a white chocolate-moss covered sugar rock, splatter paintings of currant and mango purée, an intricate bread chandelier, and a ceiling of nori-marshmallow stalactites. Guests were encouraged to nibble on certain components of each piece. The book, a tome of frame-worthy photos and innovative recipes, is not intended as a catalog of finished items to be reproduced at need, but as a tool to unleash creativity. “It’s for you to free your imagination, for you to discover,” says Wong.

Wong has also invited others to share their own ideas in the setting of her experimental kitchen, 2am:lab. Instead of opening another location of 2am:dessertbar, Wong “decided it was important to invest back into research in order to grow more.” In her custom-made space she holds workshops and demos and invites chefs from all over the world to bring their imaginations to the table. “One can create [alone], but with many minds the creative spirit is more energetic and produces better results.”