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As part of an ongoing series, Culture Trip Hong Kong brings you interviews with notable chefs and founders of restaurants in Hong Kong, introducing you to the most indulgent cuisine. Here we speak to two-time Asia’s Best Pastry Chef winner Janice Wong, who has recently brought her ‘2am: dessertbar’ from Singapore to Hong Kong and Tokyo.
It all started when Singaporean Janice Wong was visiting a farm in Melbourne, Australia during university. ‘It was an opportunity for me to understand about the food. Melbourne has a lot of fresh ingredients and produce. And when I did that, I just fell in love with it. I wanted to become a curator and take those fresh ingredients onto the table. This was the moment when I wanted to become a chef.’
The then 22-year-old economics graduate went to Paris to study at the Le Cordon Bleu. ‘My parents were quite affected by my decision. But after one year, they saw the change in me and how serious I was. Now it’s fine,’ Wong laughed lightly. Being a lover of desserts and all things sweet, Wong decided to focus on being a pastry chef. With the diploma in hand, Wong then worked in various leading kitchens including those located in San Sebastian, Chicago and New York. ‘I wanted to know about the theory – how the chefs see a tomato; what would they do if they receive a potato. This experience has also changed my life. When I saw so many chefs, all with different approaches, I attempted to find my own.’ At the age of 24, Wong returned to Singapore in 2007 and opened her first restaurant, 2am: dessertbar, at Holland Village.
Wong said there is a story behind all the desserts that she created. ‘When it comes to designing a dish, everything is thought out very carefully. We don’t do something just because of the sake of doing something. We plan the story; we get inspired by something – an ingredient, a person, or an art piece. It’s really important to share these stories with the guests and let them feel your inspiration.’
For instance, the signature dessert, Chocolate H2O (HK$128), is designed specifically for women. This 65 percent dark chocolate dessert is paired with Evian water and yuzu sorbet but without any sugar and cream. ‘There are a lot of women that come to the dessertbar and say ‘I don’t want to get fat, but I love chocolate.’ So I created this dessert that is non-fattening and healthier.’ Other signature dishes at her newly opened Cobo House by 2am: dessertbar in Hong Kong include the intriguing sweet-and-sour Cassis Plum (HK$138), the mouthwatering Tsujirihei Green Tea Tart (HK$108), and Hong Kong’s essential local snack, the egg waffles, which are filled with unusual flavors such as popping praline candy or beer ice cream (HK$108). These egg waffles, also known locally as ‘gai daan zai,‘ are designed exclusively for Hong Kong; they are paired with salted egg yolk and sweet malt ice cream, playing on hot and cold, sweet and salty.
Wong’s egg waffles and many other items on the menu are inspired by her Hong Kong experience when she was a kid. She attended Singapore International School in Hong Kong when she was between ten and 12 years old. ‘I used to play squash at Sha Tin, and I would find food on the way home. I also traveled with my parents to Lantau Island for the seafood, mantis shrimp, abalone; they are all showcased in my menu here. It is more of sharing my story with the customers.’
Apart from having desserts, the 2am: dessertbar in Hong Kong also offers mains and a lunch menu. For example, they have duck breast with foie gras (HK$248) or potato soup with caviar and Spanish ham roll (HK$108).
After Hong Kong and Singapore, ambitious Wong is opening her third 2am: dessertbar in Shinjuku in Tokyo in April 2016. And being a female chef means she faces extra challenges to stay in the game. ‘Working in the kitchen is very long hours. It’s a job that you have to love. A lot of my female friends who are chefs, once they have a baby, it’s very difficult to get back to the kitchen, working seven days and standing. You rarely find top mothers being at the top of their game and having to juggle children and being so competitive in the kitchen. In the future, if I ever have this experience, then I have to adapt. But for now, my focus is really the food and the restaurants that are opening.’