Starting your own business when you’re still in your 20s is both brave and just a little crazy. But it’s also highly admirable. It takes a lot of confidence to strike out on your own and say to the world, “I think I have what it takes to succeed.” Last month, 24 year old Janice Wong opened one of Singapore’s coolest new dessert restaurants. Which, considering that this feisty young woman only started her culinary training two years ago, is no mean feat. I first met Janice more than a year ago, when she was shlepping away in the kitchens of Les Amis. I then ran into her again when she was helping Chef Justin Quek prepare a dinner for some private banking clients. She’s always struck me as eager and ambitious, which is why is wasn’t too great a surprise when I heard that she’d opened her own establishment.
2am Dessert Bar opened on 15 September 2007. Last week, I popped in to have a quick chat with Chef Wong and to taste some of her new creations. Over an hour, I tried four desserts: warm chocolate tart, wild nettle, salted caramel, and blood orange sorbet (pictured above); blackberry parfait, lychee air, basil, and pinenut cake (pictured last); “smoked” cheescake, blood peach foam, mango and breadcrumbs; and “Twix”, which is a burnt caramel mousse, peanut crumble, home-made Valrhona chocolate ice cream. I enjoyed all four dishes. I think what I liked most was that they were all relatively light, even the chocolate tart. The very last thing you want when having dessert is to feel uncomfortably full afterwards. These desserts were good, slightly sexy and left you satisfied without wearing you out. I also liked that the flavours were all fresh and that the ingredients all high quality. At between S$13 – S$15 per dish, given the complexity of and ingredients in each, they’re well worth the expense.
After devouring the dishes prepared by Wong and her colleague Chef Kok Yen Yen, formerly of Les Amis, I sat down for a quick chat with the young entrepreneur.
Q: So, when did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
A: It was actually only 2 years ago, when I was 22. I was still in NUS (National University of Singapore), living in Melbourne on an exchange program. It was amazing being there, seeing all the produce, going to visit cheese farms and wineries. Everything was so fresh. It just made me realize that I wanted my future to be in food. Of course, I had to finish my degree at NUS to make the parents happy. But the minute I finished, I ran right into the kitchen.
Q: So, what did you do?
A: I enrolled in the Cordon Bleu in Paris. I spent three months doing a course in pastry there. After that, I came back and spent 6 months staging under Gunther Hubrechsen at Les Amis.
Q: Wait, can I ask why you decided on pastry?
A: Actually, I would have preferred to go into cooking (savory food), but the scene is just so competitive. As a woman, I knew it would be easier to gain acceptance in the dessert kitchen.
Q: Okay, and after Les Amis?
A: After that, I spent three months doing this TV show called Star Chef. That was quite an experience. I never really planned on doing it. I followed a friend who really wanted to be on the show. There were 120 people trying out for just 12 places. For the audition, we were asked to make something in just 10 minutes. I had asked Gunther for his advice on the challenge. He said that I should keep whatever I wanted to make as simple as possible. Which is something I would hear from both Gunther and Chef Sam Leong (who was a judge on the TV show) throughout the competition. When I first joined the show, I would try and put everything on one plate. Sam would tell me to remember simplicity was the key to a great dish. Sam also told me that I can’t cook (savory food). He said that I should just stick to what I’m good at. He said that I should just do desserts. After the show, I went to New York, where I worked for Will Goldfarb at Room 4 Dessert, followed by a really brief stage under Wylie Dufresne and Alex Stupak at WD-50. I love Will Goldfarb. I actually planned to do a stage at ChikaLicious but the day before I was supposed to leave Singapore for NYC, they called and canceled my stint. A good chef friend then arranged for me to work at one of his friend’s places but I had my heart set on staging at a top dessert restaurant. So, I flew to NYC and went straight from the airport to Room 4 Dessert. I didn’t have an appointment or anything. I walked in and asked Chef Goldfarb if he’d take me in. Which he did. But for the first week, the only thing he’d let me do was mop his floors. I knew it was a test though. And after that week, he let me cook with his team in the kitchen.
Q: What made you decide to open 2am as opposed to spending more time working in other people’s restaurants?
A: Actually, from the time I decided to go into food, I knew that I wanted to open my own business within a year and a half to two years. I kept trying to come up with ideas and proposals that I would show my father. For a while, I wanted to open a sandwich shop but the numbers just wouldn’t tally. Until I came up with the concept for 2am, my dad rejected all of my proposals. But like I said, I really wanted to open something sooner than later. I know I’m not the most experienced chef out there. Take someone like Chef Pang (from Canele). He really inspires me. He’s a great chef who really knows his techniques. Me, by comparison, I’m just a simple girl trying to make people happy with good food. Look, I know I’m young and really inexperienced. I’m sure I’m going to get slammed by a lot of people. But what I’m making comes from inside. What I’m doing makes me feel really good and, more importantly, hopefully it will make my customers happy.
Q: Some of your desserts are pretty exciting. Have you ever eaten a dessert that’s made you go, “wow”?
A: Oh yeah. The Creamsicle at WD-50 is so good! It’s a frozen cylinder of orange juice filled with vanilla liquid… I think it’s ice cream. It’s served with orange flower water gelee, roobios foam, and butternut squash puree. When you break into the tube, the ice cream spurts out. It’s genius and delicious, but it’s also so incredibly simple. And utterly inspiring. It’s what we try to do with every dish we create and serve here.
2am Dessert Bar
21A Lorong Liput
Tel: +65 6291 9727
Open 6pm – 2am Mon – Sat