It’s not often a dessert pop-up comes to the table with serious word-of-mouth street cred and an award-winning actor’s stamp of approval, but there’s nothing typical about pastry chef Jimmy Wong’s claim to fame. Sure, he staged for a number of local Michelin-level restaurants including Plumed Horse in Saratoga and Chez TJ in Mountain View as a junior in high school — a popular route for some chefs looking to break into fine dining — but Wong more famously made headlines five years ago for his pop-up, Dench, which he hosted in his San Luis Obispo studio apartment as a junior in Cal Poly’s Food Science program.
“I was basically serving a 7-course tasting once a week for four people,” Wong says. “It was in my studio apartment, so the table was two feet away from my bed and two feet away from the kitchen, and it was a very intimate experience — but it was a lot of fun.”
Wong continued to stage at other restaurants over his summer breaks from Cal Poly, but since graduating in 2019 he’s also done a brief pastry chef stint with chef Nick Muncy at Michael Mina’s restaurant before the pandemic. He eventually joined the Sunday Family Hospitality Group for almost a year and a half, helping to open Sunday Bakeshop and Sunday Social. Now, Wong has brought back Dench to Tribune in Oakland as of June, running the pop-up on Saturday nights and featuring a multi-course dessert tasting menu. While his college pop-up was more about showcasing techniques he wanted to try and featured a mix of both savory and sweet courses, this time Dench is fully focused on desserts. Wong is incorporating flavors he grew up with into his reimagined and playful desserts, along with local ingredients — think a sake kasu and melon dessert with the lead ingredient sourced from Den Sake Brewery; an egg tart shaped to look like an egg, but with non-traditional egg tart flavors; or a sesame ball truffle with sesame ganache and a raspberry pate de fruit at its center.
Wong has carried over one fun element from his college days: a certain level of interactivity and access to the chef. He plates all of his desserts at the bar and invites guests to watch, take pictures, or chat with him as he works. “It’s a different dining experience where you’re actually able to go up and see how things are plated, and see how things are made, and ask questions if you have any,” Wong says. “That ties back to what I was doing in college because there’s no choice [in a small space]. It is fun being able to talk to guests and have them be a part of it as well.” Wong’s goal since high school has been to eventually open up his own place, although he’s still figuring out the timeline to turn that dream into a reality.
As for whether Dench’s namesake, Dame Judi Dench, approves — turns out she wholeheartedly does. For a senior project, Wong assembled a cookbook titled — what else? — Dench. and sent along a copy to the dame herself. At his request, she signed Wong’s cookbook in 2019 and returned it, writing, “How lovely to have a restaurant named after me!!”
Dench is currently popping up Saturday nights at Tribune (401 13th Street, Oakland). Tickets are $65 for a multi-course tasting and reservations are available for August via Tock.