Past the pitch-black tunnel, a ceiling of blue icicles dusted with seaweed-green spots hangs low enough to be reached on tiptoe; in the middle of the room, a 3 x 1.2m wall of navy, purple, pink, red and baby-blue corals stands protected in its own accordion tank. Instead of fish, Hershey’s Kiss-shaped lavender sponges of different sizes reside, while 3.6 x 3m canvases of Pollock-style artwork hang along the walls of this gallery. A small garden of moss and soil lay unmoved in the back. This is still life, brought to life.
The pieces in the room are 2am:dessertbar chef Janice Wong’s creations and, of course, all edible. The icicles are marshmallow with nori; coral sculpture is isomalt, made into resting places for dots of lavender marshmallow; Boiron cassis and mango purées are the paints on the canvases; lychee is used in the gumdrop wall; and white chocolate is the base of the green moss. These ideas and recipes have been taken out of Wong’s latest book Perfection in Imperfection, the first volume in a planned tetralogy, is exactly what the title says it is: imperfect.
This spineless 134-page composite combines disparate functions: an all-in-one coffee-table tome, memoir, art book and cookbook. In it, 29 dishes, each requiring seven or eight individual recipes, are listed with the barest preparation instructions. These recipes are taken straight out of the 2am:dessertbar kitchen, and scattered across the four sections: ‘Origins’, ‘Colours’, ‘Textures’ and ‘Memories’. The cardboard-backed book is black, so grease fingerprints show up readily, while the front cover is overlaid by a crumpled, half-torn sheet of black paper, upon which the misaligned title of the book is emblazoned in gold. This, as we should now come to expect, is Wong’s idea of renegade perfection.
‘[My publisher] sat there for days, and crumpled [each of the 3,000 covers] up corner by corner so it didn’t get too crushed,’ Wong explains with a palpable sense of admiration for their work. She goes on to point out that the sides of the handmade book’s pages are black, not the usual white; the spine was left exposed; pages were sewn together; and the recipes presented with skeletal instructions. This lack of detail is not intended to frustrate the reader, nor to jealously guard her recipes; on the contrary, Wong explains that the aim is to allow users room for creativity. This, then, might be the perfect open-source cookbook. Take the recipe, tweak the ingredients, come up with your own version: chefs are meant to be inspired by the visuals, to plate and put things together their own way. Clearly, this is no tome for amateurs, but it is not out of reach either.
Although aimed at chefs and those with intermediate cooking skills, the recipes are surprisingly straightforward, and the utensils everyday. Crème brûlée is plated with a piping bag; ganache for moss is passed though a sieve; and chocolate given a fibrous surface makeover with a stiff brush. Wong had no qualms about sharing 2am:dessertbar’s signature recipes for a future with better recipes: ‘[2am] is always evolving, always creating. What bugs me is that Singaporean and Asian chefs hold back. [There should be a] community for sharing.’ This generous, far-sighted philosophy also underpins Wong’s idea to start up a lab.
An independent culinary research and development facility on the second storey of off-the-beaten-track mall Fusionopolis, 2am:lab will be the first of its kind in Asia – a permanent flavour-, texture- and technique-testing ground for local and international chefs. ‘As chefs we have no research and development support in Singapore,’ Wong laments, so with the help of Singapore Tourism Board, the lab’s 1,000-flavour wall, a brainstorming room and guest chefs like American pastry wunderkind Will Goldfarb (the first guest chef), the lab aims to stimulate ideas and realise potential.
The end-goal of the lab, though, is to inspire. ‘I try not to do the whole [Willy Wonka] garden thing,’ Wong explains. ‘It’ll also not be like [the now closed molecular gastronomy restaurant] El Bulli – we want to create everyday food, like a new form of bread, and not call it “bread”. Perhaps with technology, we might see the fruits of our labour faster.’ The idea even comes across through the website: set out like a periodic table, you can search for ingredients and discover tried-and-tested flavour pairings. ‘It’s free information [for all],’ Wong says.
Maybe with this inspiration, we won’t all need to be sampling soil – or perhaps we’ll open up more to the notion? ‘I started eating soil last year,’ Wong recalls, ‘because when you cook, instead of imagining, you should be able to describe [flavours] accurately.’ The boundaries of her experimental world are indeed vast, and its goals farreaching. In the next two years Wong hopes to release the second of Perfection in Imperfection’s four volumes (‘The inspiration for the next one is Iceland,’ she divulges); learn to make dim sum and publish a recipe book on it and its many textures; write a book on the plants and herbs of Singapore (‘Foraging is the “in” thing now’); and experiment with shutting off another sense.
For now though, she’ll be padding her flavour-memory banks at the lab by day, and plating up $14-$16 plates by night at 2am:dessertbar. Lest you thought she’d still be out of reach, Wong plans to ground herself even further with critter-themed experimental dinners at the lab. Think she’s gone crazy? Read the clause in her book: ‘Defects are meant to be.’ That’s imperfectly perfect.
2am:lab (#02-13 Connexis Tower, 1 Fusionopolis Way; www.2amlab.org). Classes cost approximately $900 for three days (eight to nine hours per day). Perfection in Imperfection is published by 2am:lab Pte Ltd and is on sale at www.perfectioninimperfection.com. $70.