Janice Wong has been very busy since her last MasterChef appearance in 2015. She’s expanded her Singapore-based 2am Dessert Bar brand to Tokyo and Hong Kong and begun dabbling in savoury food with a dim sum restaurant in the Singapore National Museum.
Now she’s set to bring her signature brand of edible art to the MasterChef kitchen, and convince the contestants to play with their food.
Can you tell us a bit about your recent ventures?
Well, this [the 2am Dessert Bar expansion] is really new for me too; for nine years we have not moved out of Singapore but once you find a good location, find a good partner, you start to expand. The dim sum concept started in around 2013, when I launched Dim Sum [a cook book co-written with dim sum expert Chef Ma Jian Jun]. What’s really interesting about this new restaurant [Janice Wong Singapore, located in the Singapore National Museum] is that we focus on flour; it’s a flour-forward restaurant. When you go to a Chinese restaurant, you don’t know all the different types of ingredients that are used there. That’s the thing we want to educate [diners about].
You blew everyone away with you magical dessert, Cassis Plum (pictured below), in 2015. What does it mean to you to return to MasterChef for Dessert Week this season?
It’s very special because it’s not only desserts this time round; this week is actually about edible art! We’re pushing the boundaries to create a 4.6 by 3-metre-high edible wall featuring over 5000 edible flowers – it’s just amazing. It’s part of the Invention Test in which the contestants take inspiration from the wall to create something that’s never been done before.
You’re known for creating edible art, whether that’s putting art on a plate or a dessert on a wall – what draws you to explore this concept?
In 2011, I started to change my philosophy a bit. Ever since I started [as a dessert chef] in 2007, it was always about food as art. But in 2011 I started my first edible art piece, which was a four-metre-long marshmallow ceiling and gummy walls, and huge canvases that were painted with food. That was art as food. I’ve never stopped since. It was great, people loved it. It was very addictive; I think we’ve done up to 100 installations since.
You've recently completed a staggering 26 dessert installations, some for fashion and jewellery labels Louis Vuitton and Tiffany and Co. – what do you think draws people to your edible art?
I think the addiction started in 2011 in Singapore when people saw [my edible art] on social media, then it soon travelled worldwide. This year we had [an installation] in Moscow, last year in New York, London and China. I hope other pastry chefs start to think bigger; not just [about making] a small cake, for example, but what if we made a thousand cakes and put them on the wall?
I do believe this is the new, modern-age, buffet-style [way of dining]. We were able to feed over 20,000 people in Madison Square Park in New York City with only one server. Basically, we stuck 20,000 chocolates to the ceiling and everyone had fun and helped themselves!
A YouTube clip shows diners at your 2am Dessert Bar licking chocolate off what look like tree logs…
When you eat off the walls and the ceilings, it’s not something you do every day; it gives you a little tickle, it makes you laugh and it makes you happy. Just to be able to say, “I licked chocolate off the wall today” [is] beautiful.
How would you describe your artistic style?
Very progressive, very organic. I think ‘organic’ is the key word for me; my customers, my clients, guests, they know that Janice isn’t going to stop at what she’s sketched. That’s how creativity should be.
Have you used any unconventional ingredients in your desserts?
Yeah for sure: porcini mushrooms. [The dish is] plated beautifully on a log steamed with a perfume, an edible essence that we made that smells like sandalwood. The porcini mushroom is infused then steamed like a flan, and I put a salted caramel cookie cap on top of it. I never thought I’d use mushrooms in my dessert, but I’ve also used fish bone as a twill; [it’s] cleaned of all the fishy notes and then I just kind of grill it and bake it. Once you don’t limit yourself to only thinking ‘pastry’ then your world gets bigger.
What are your favourite dessert flavours right now?
I’ve always loved matcha, anything with green tea and anything with coffee.
Does your edible artwork expire or ‘go off’?
I soak all my paintings with resin and they kind of last forever; it’s a very good medium!
As someone who invents dishes all the time, what advice would you give to the contestants or any aspiring cooks?
I always say, for one, it’s really about celebrating perfection and imperfection. Sometimes you’re really striving for perfection and it can kill your dish, whereas if you really celebrate the imperfections in life and just enjoy, then it’s just going to be a beautiful dish.
You were very impressed with the contestants in 2015 (you even asked, “can I hire them?”) - what was your experience with this season’s contestants?
I think [the show] has always been very consistent with the quality of contestants. That’s what makes the show so special. This season has a good mix of contestants – a lot more guys – who are good at savoury and sweet as well.
Final question: if you could only eat one dessert for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?
It’s always a tiramisu, hands down. It’s been that way since I was nine, it was the first dessert I ever learnt to make. It’s light, it’s fluffy… the combination of coffee sponge with mascarpone cheese? I mean, that’s just so brilliant.