Photo courtesy of Jimmy Wong, taken by Mikaela Duhs
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student Jimmy Wong doesn’t have a culinary degree to his name (he is studying food science, however). Nonetheless, the fine dining dishes coming out of Dench, the “restaurant” he runs out of his studio apartment, are as intricate as the plates at the Michelin Star-caliber restaurants he’s worked at. These include The Plumed Horse and Chez TJ, two long-standing establishments on the Michelin Guide from Silicon Valley, and Lazy Bear, a San Francisco spot with two Michelin Stars that also got its beginnings as a pop-up.
Despite the lack of formal culinary training, The Plumed Horse and Chez TJ gave Wong a shot while he was still in high school. Wong had just gotten his first job as a busboy at a local Japanese restaurant and had worked his way up the front of the house. However, as he told Foodbeast, he wanted to learn more about the back end and sent resumes out to every four-star restaurant on Yelp in his area to apply for that opportunity.
“Lucky enough for me, the only ones that got back to me were the ones with Michelin Stars,” he says.
That summer, he staged for both Chez TJ and The Plumed Horse, working in plating and presentation as well as prepping the pastry side of the kitchen. Getting his “butt kicked” back there, as he describes it, confirmed his passion for both food and cooking at the fine-dining level.
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Wong
Instead of going to culinary school, however, Wong chose to get a bachelor’s degree in food science. He wanted to sharpen and refine his recipes with a molecular understanding of food the chefs he’d worked with didn’t possess. His knowledge is displayed in the dishes he serves out of Dench, like his signature 62-degree tea egg. Wong cooks it at three different stages to ensure a runny yolk infused with plenty of tea flavor. His desserts also incorporate a seasonal fruit foam that he stabilizes using lecithin, a common emulsifier in the food industry.
While Wong’s been in school for a couple of years, he just opened up Dench this past fall. He got his own studio apartment for the very first time, and had just completed his apprenticeship at Lazy Bear while curating his menu, design, and style for the pop-up over the summer. Wong then released his first round of reservations on social media, but was nervous that they wouldn’t fill up and he would have to beg people to come in. But the local response was enough to fill up all available slots in just a couple of hours.
Photo courtesy of Jimmy Wong
Operating the restaurant takes up the same time as a couple of college classes for Wong. He’s prepping for 15-20 hours before dinner service, and spends up to 30 hours total on the restaurant weekly. Wong calls it a challenge to pull off while in school, but also says that “if I didn’t have the pop-up I’d suffer in school, too, since I wouldn’t have the creativity outlet.”
Now that Dench is up and off the ground, Wong is using it as a playground to test out dishes for the restaurant he wants to open some time after he graduates. The $45, seven-course tasting menu changes every month or so based on what’s local, seasonal, and sustainable. The money made that isn’t going towards the cost of materials is helping Wong get through school as he looks to the future.
Post-graduation, Wong wants to go abroad and have experiences he can utilize to inspire even more new dishes. He would also love to work for other top pastry chefs, namely at spots like Singapore’s 2 AM Dessert Bar and San Francisco’s Mister Jiu’s. With the culinary cred he’s already got under his belt and the work he’s putting in to run his own restaurant to get him through college, Wong definitely has a bright future in cooking where those gigs and a whole lot more are possible.