People | 20 QUESTIONS

Janice Wong: 'To really achieve success, you have to stay focused'

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Name: Janice Wong
Age: 33
Nationality: Singaporean
Occupation: Chef-artist
Likes: Creating, doing things from scratch, the arts, craftsmanship
Dislikes: Chaos, dirt, mess


1. You initially studied economics and finance before changing course and entering Le Cordon Bleu. What caused the change of heart? I was exposed to farming on an exchange program during my third year of university. One day, we were digging in the ground for strawberries. They were so fresh, so earthy — a flavor that I could never forget. This experience made me decide to become a chef.

2. How did your parents react to that decision? They were shocked. My dad told me many times that he wished I’d change careers because he knew how tough it was to be in the arts. But both my parents have always let me do what I want. When I first opened my shop in 2007, I was 24 years old, and my dad supported me most by letting me fail in the beginning — so that I could learn from my own mistakes — instead of jumping in to bail me out. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am now if I had been pampered. This is what I try to do with my chefs — support them from afar and let them work things out.

3. Why did you choose pastries as your focus? I saw a lack in the sweets scene in Asia — there were no progressive desserts. Even now in Japan, there are a lot of bakeries and cafes but you don’t have anything that is really “out there” and truly creative. You find desserts like that in the U.S. and Spain, but not really in Asia.

4. Who has been your greatest mentor, and what is the most important lesson you learned from that person? My greatest living mentor is my father, and my greatest nonliving mentor is Coco Chanel. In terms of chefs, I really enjoyed my time working at Alinea, in Chicago, with Grant Achatz. He was always looking at things differently and challenging himself, pushing the boundaries of the guest experience.

5. What’s the hardest part of your job? People management. Educating the kitchen and service staff about your philosophy — getting them to understand why you would put in an extra 30 minutes of work just to cut oranges in a certain way — is a challenge.

6. You have observed in the past that, while there are more women in the field of pastry than cuisine, most of the top pastry chefs are men. Why do you think that is, and how can female chefs overcome this disparity? There are a lot of talented female chefs out there, and they need to tell their stories. The media covers a lot of male pastry chefs, but we don’t hear enough about women chefs. Also, this industry is incredibly fast-paced and competitive, so you need a lot of stamina. I know so many great female chefs that eventually decide to give up.

7. What kind of edible installations are you working on these days? I’m doing one for Mikimoto in Singapore that will be made of thousands of chocolate pearls, set in a viscous water bath that will be mounted on a light box with lots of coral. I’m also working on artwork for my shop in Tokyo, where we’ll have four (nonedible) paintings that change every year. And I’m doing my first-ever museum installation, called “Imaginarium,” which will run from May to August in the Singapore Art Museum.

8. I heard that you are interested in using 3-D printers in the kitchen. Please tell us about that. We’re working in an era of super-high demand and very low supply. There’s no way our manpower costs can stay constant at this rate, so we have to think of ways to expand production. 3-D printing technology for the kitchen exists now, but I have only experimented with it at fairs because it needs to be more well developed. As a chef, you always have to focus on taste.

9. Name three things that you can’t live without. I need to stay connected, so my phone and my laptop go hand in hand. I can’t live without chocolate and empty notebooks. I have many notebooks that I carry with me everywhere because I have so many ideas.

10. I know that you glean a lot of inspiration from your travels. What are some of the most exciting places you’ve visited recently? Last year I went to several exciting food festivals — in India, China, Hawaii and Napa Valley. In India, there are a lot of spicy, heady notes to everything, and what struck me the most were the amazing scents. It’s the same for me here in Japan — I was just outside on the rooftop garden (of the Shinjuku NeWoman building) taking in the aromas of the cherry blossoms and wet soil.

11. Nostalgia plays a big role in your work. Tell me about a childhood memory that you recreated in a dish. When I was 3 years old, my mom used to put out strawberries and condensed milk on the table for me. Those flavors are now featured in one of my dishes, called Strawberry Caprese, which is strawberry ice cream with cherry blossom pearls, strawberries, a little bit of vinegar, and Chartreuse.

12. What’s your ultimate comfort food? Tiramisu. I eat it at least once a week.

13. You’ve had three major international openings in the past year. How do you keep up the pace? I actually feel less busy than before. I’m busy with the creation part, coming up with new dishes for every city, but my teams have matured so much. As we’ve expanded, everyone has really stepped up and become less dependent on me.

14. What can guests expect at the Janice Wong dessert bar in Tokyo? We’re going to change up the menu often, to follow the seasons. Right now, we’re using strawberries for spring, and I’m working on some desserts with mango and banana for summer. I’m also trying to adjust the flavors for the Japanese palate.

15. Will you be using any special local ingredients? We’re using ingredients from different prefectures across Japan. Pineapples and mangoes from Okinawa, for example.

16. You have had a long relationship with Japan. How has your impression of the country changed over the years? The Japanese are definitely embracing more diversity these days. There are more international brands than there were, say, five years ago.

17. You have done events with bartender Shuzo Nagumo and artist Ayako Suwa in the past. Any new plans to collaborate with local chefs or artists? We’re going to restart our guest chef residency program in Singapore, and I intend to invite Ayako Suwa back. She has developed so much as an artist, and we have great synergy.

18. What is something that you have dreamed about doing for a long time that you have not done yet? One thing is to take my line of sweets to the next level in terms of manufacturing — for example, to get to the point where we are producing 10 million pieces a year, rather than 10,000.

19. Who would win a fight between a lion and a tiger? The lion. I had a personal experience with a lion two years ago in Africa and was so intrigued by it. At first sight, a lion is very tame, but the moment you aggravate it, it’ll go wild.

20. Do you have any words of advice for young people? Everyone has a lot of dreams, desires, and aspirations, but it’s so easy to get distracted in this day and age, with all the exposure to social media and technology. Everyone is multitasking. To really achieve success, you have to stay focused.

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