When I was instructed to arrive at 37 MacTaggart Road at 7am on my first day, I realized that I wasn’t going to 2am:dessertbar, Chef Janice Wong’s restaurant. Through her Instagram account, I knew that she had to be doing a lot of production for her speciality chocolate candies and catering items, but I assumed that it was all being done at the restaurant. A production facility? Was that where I was headed?
Several thoughts raced through my head. Was I going to be sitting on a production line, slapping stickers on boxes of chocolate? Was I going to be wearing one of those catch-all hairnets? Was I going to learn anything? Wtf, man.
When I exited the MRT station that first day, I was in a gritty, industrial area of Singapore—as much as Singapore can be gritty. As I continued to pass by buildings that screamed, “I have an assembly line inside!,” I knew my fate was sealed. Then I spotted a discrete sign, “JW Sweets Factory,” and up I went to the third floor.
I held my breath when I opened the door and didn’t exhale because I was a bit confused. Had I just stepped into an art studio? The environment was not unlike an underground Lower East Side art gallery of sorts. Then I realized all the canvases I was looking at were Chef Janice’s edible chocolate art pieces, post-event and now being housed in her factory’s lobby. I readily admit I was wrong in my assumptions—I blame it on an over-active imagination.
Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory would have been a better comparison. I could technically lick the chocolate canvas like the fruit-flavored wallpaper.
And the kitchen itself? Because the facility opened only in November 2014, everything is still spotless: the floors, countertops, appliances and glass doors. In fact, those doors are so clear that I’ve already smacked into one. And because all the walls are transparent throughout the kitchen, everyone saw it. #winning.
Like Aberdeen Street Social, these cooks want for nothing in terms of tools, equipment and space. By my observation, this factory was built with expansion in mind because much of it is under utilized and used for storage. In addition to her restaurant, Chef Janice has recently begun selling chocolate candies and other sweets in pop-ups at area malls, so it’s only a matter of time before she opens a brick and mortar store. But for now, her factory has ample space.
Space. Every cook knows what a luxury it is. The feeling of balancing sheet trays in both hands straight from either the oven or freezer and desperately searching for countertop space to rest them on. Or wedging oneself into a 7-inch space between two other cooks at a station to finish prep. Or best yet, cooking at the stovetop and needing to transfer the food onto a sheet tray resting on, not a chair or speed rack, but a trash can. Trust me, it’s not what we want to do, but we get desperate.
At JW Sweets Factory, I have my pick of any countertop; beautiful, galvanized stainless steel work tables measuring roughly 6-feet in length. That’s the equivalent of sleeping on a king-size bed in my own bedroom in my own apartment in New York City. There are more low-boys (counter-height chillers) than I have fingers because I couldn’t count them all, and some freezers stand completely empty. My favorite? The walk-ins would have been more comfortable to stretch out in than my room in Washington, DC, and they have two doors. It’s downright luxurious and I should not get used to this.
While at the factory, I can tell I will get heavy practice in chocolate because of their tempering machine, which is like a deep well of melted chocolate that is continuously being stirred and held at the perfect temperature of 30-32 Celsius. Any kitchen that has this machinery is serious about chocolate.
The fellow cooks and interns have been great and inviting. Language comprehension is on my side again. Most of the kitchen staff speak English and my mediocre Mandarin comes into play here. It’s a nice reprieve—I can understand jokes again. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.
There is also an in-house dim sum chef at the factory, whom everyone refers to as “shi fu” or master. And while I’m still trying to grasp what his role is in Chef Janice’s world, it’s fun to have Ma Shi Fu in the kitchen, not only because he’s a good-humored guy, but because he’ll teach you how to make dim sum. If his deft skills at pinching together filled mochi balls are any indication of his technical ability, I’m ready to learn.
Singapore itself has been a lovely city so far. It covers such a small area, but it still feels large to me because much of it has been unexplored. Without doubt, it is as clean, organized and orderly as everyone says it is, but I haven’t developed the sterile sentiment other visitors can attribute to this country. Maybe it’ll take more time, or maybe it won’t be the Singapore I experience. We’ll see.
All in all, a good start to my stay and I’m looking forward to what it bears.
Photo: The mural on the facade of the loading dock for “Tasty Plaza,” the building that houses JW Sweets Factory.