This article originally appeared in the latest April edition of Foodie: A Woman's Place. Read it here!
Vicky Lau, Peggy Chan, May Chow and Calista Goh have all made a big impact on our city’s culinary culture as well as the notion of the professional kitchen being a man’s world. We talk to these game-changing ladies, along with Lanshu Chen in Taiwan, Janice Wong in Singapore, Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava in Bangkok to gain insight into how these ladies are breaking the glacé ceiling all over Asia
Vicky Lau is this year’s winner of the Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef award at Asia's 50 Best Restaurants and owner and head chef of Tate, a restaurant renowned for telling eloquent stories through its dishes. She tells of her rise to the top of the food chain.
I think I was in love with cooking long before training with Le Cordon Bleu, but that was where I discovered that food, as a medium of expression, was a far more liberating canvas to explore creativity, because it has the added dimensions of taste and smell. I believe that Hong Kong is a place for opportunity and entrepreneurship. I wanted to make a home here for my passion for creative work.
I think that regardless of gender, the dining industry would be tough for anyone. I can’t think of any factor that would make this particularly harder for women, other than the fact that a woman being in charge tends to intimidate some people. People tend to think that it’s more challenging physically for females, but you learn to adapt.
My own [cooking] style is quite feminine, in the sense that I try to be creative and present the dish artfully. I try to “design” dishes that are visually colourful and interesting, and pay a lot attention to detail. Then again, this could just be my personal style. Every chef brings their own personal style into what they do.
"the more women are noticed in this field, the more it disproves the misconceptions"
My management style is rather relaxed and friendly. Every staff has a different personality and different things that they get excited about; for me it’s knowing which factor gets them out of bed every morning. On top of that it’s about trying to be playful and cooking for yourself to make yourself happy, and not just the customers.
Women have made great strides as cooks, but there are few working in professional kitchens now, and I think many women are discouraged because people think that cooking in these kitchens is physically more challenging. That’s why it’s important to recognise female talent in the industry. The more women are noticed in this field, the more it disproves the misconceptions, because there is living proof that women can take on this career and succeed.
Peggy Chan is renowned in Hong Kong for her wholesome vegetarian flavours at Grassroots Pantry and Prune. She explains how she’s working to change Hong Kong’s culinary landscape.
I’ve always felt the need to fight for equality and justice, even if it means going against the status quo. Whether through our food philosophy- to source local, organic and to lessen the consumption of food factory produced meat; or to stand against how a standard chef-restaurateur may look, act and behave. All of it adds to the breaking of molds- to change our pre-set ways of thinking, and to collectively move us into creating a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable world.
It’s tough [to be a woman in the industry] not only because is it physically demanding and the hours eat your soul away, but also because you have to be mentally tough in order to succeed, which goes completely against our natural womanly instincts. A sense of comradery evolves within this industry, as though you are in it together to prep for battle every day. If you make one mistake on the line, it ultimately screws everyone else’s timing up. You have to be completely self aware and take responsibility for your actions, which I find women handle far less well as we tend to act out of emotions rather than logic. You have to be prepared to be told you’re not good enough, and not cry about it.
"you have to be prepared to be told you’re not good enough, and not cry about it"
Imagine carrying 25L stockpots and standing on your feet for 10-12 hours straight. Imagine the heat on a 35 degree summer day and the restaurant is full, the kitchen is slammed. And at the end of a 12 hour shift, your work station and stovetops must be scrubbed spotless. People like us don’t have ‘friends’ and ‘acquaintances’. We have colleagues, family and people who understand us and are in it together. We speak restaurant language 99 per cent of the time and that gets us more excited than any girl gossip. Don’t even think about weekends and public holidays. Failed relationships are a norm. With that said, it’s all only a sacrifice if you aren’t able to see it as gradual, earned experience.
I have once been called a gentle dictator. I spend time explaining the science behind my training- the ingredients used, the techniques used to handle it, down to how a station should be set up in order to operate service as efficiently as possible. I also build my staff out to hold onto proper integrity, to stay humble, to be honest about themselves and to help each other out no matter their position. If a staff member happens to not get something done to expectation, I choose to empower over belittle. I provide them the freedom to play, and to create in their free time, which seldom happens in a male-dominated kitchen.
All of the above adds to the good and the bad. I work better with men as they are more receptive to logic, and being spoken to softly. Women tend to see it as competition because of my Demeter style of management, as gentle, nurturing women in power are often bullied by female counterparts. I study Jungian psychoanalysis in my free time and the psychology behind men vs. women interaction is quite interesting. For female chefs to reach success, it can no longer be driven by the existing traditional method where one has to work up the ranks over a lengthy period of time. Female chefs should extend their knowledge in entrepreneurship, and truly understand why they’re even in it.
12 years ago when I first started out, kitchens were a lot more sexist than they are today. I learnt very early on that in order to stay in the industry, a woman must make herself as unattractive and unapproachable as possible so to not become the targeted victim. It sounds sadomasochistic, but that’s the kind of treatment a lot of women were faced with, and I stood firm against it in order to get to where I am today.
What’s next for you Peggy? Come summer 2015, watch this space, HK!
May Chow delighted bao-lovers all over the city with the opening of Little Bao.
She describes her leadership style and what being a woman in the biz is all a-bao-t
I am only inspired by positives. I am Chinese, a woman and gay. Life could have been tough but it’s actually amazing. I have had a chef job when my chef was abusive. I told myself I deserved better and left – but he threw tantrums at everyone, both men and women. When I first became chef owner we were short staffed. For the first month, I didn't eat the first bite of food until 10pm and we worked 12-14 hours a day. My starting team was dedicated and strong. There were days where my dishwasher called in sick so I dishwashed. I bartended, I hosted and I waitressed. Now it is finally running smoothly and the restaurant can run without me. I'm an extroverted person so I'm very vocal about what I need. I ensure we have clear steps for all tasks so that they know their role and duties.
"I am Chinese, a woman and gay. Life could have been tough but it’s actually amazing"
When I first started out, guys were really nice and helped me carry heavy things and had extra patience to teach me. I quite enjoyed it and used it to my advantage. I think it’s also easier to stand out as there aren't as many female chefs. I think if one can hold their own in any kitchen, hard work and talent can strive through anything. I don't think there are disadvantages and maybe that’s why I'm here and I feel I deserve what I have. Sometimes, your own fears can be your worst enemies. I think woman have become more and more powerful which inspires younger girls to achieve their goals. I don't think the industry is stopping women from cooking. There are plenty of inspirational women chefs and it’s only increasing.
What’s next for you May? We are currently building a central kitchen that will serve multipurpose. It will serve as a prep kitchen for catering and Little Bao. It will also serve as an incubator for our future projects which I already have some in the works but can't share yet!
Calista Goh is the brains and brawn behind vegan raw wholefood shop Anything But Salads. She describes her vision for the female food future
I have a strong desire to solve thelack of healthy eating options by providing customers with quality nutrition in a creative, delicious and nutritious way.
People tend to liken my leadership style to that of Steve Jobs – visionary, creative, tough, always demanding excellence in everything we do and always looking for ways to break the mold of the ordinary. At the same time, these qualities are softened with nurturing, education, and flexibility. Our corporate culture is based upon shared values of integrity, honesty and quality.
"in my experience, gender has always been a secondary or nonexistent consideration"
I have never been a believer in gender-related disadvantages. Whilst it may have been difficult for women before, female chefs like Julia Cook defied stereotypes and societal limitations. If you’re passionate, dedicated, talented, ready to learn and eager to continue improving, then gender is moot. You work long hours, carry equipment and you’re constantly on your feet – but this is nothing. Your body and mind acclimatizes quickly.
At present, there are more and more female foodpreneurs coming forward in business and executing their ideas. I do believe industry perception has changed. At least in my experience, gender has always been a secondary or nonexistent consideration.
Lanshu Chen’s restaurant Le Mout earned the title of S. Pellegrino Best Restaurant in Taiwan at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards this year as well as winning last year’s honour as Asia’s Best Female Chef
I decided to open my own restaurant because I wanted to create something that combined the beauty of French classics, an efficient and precise American working system, and my roots in Chinese culture. Being a professional cook in a restaurant means you have to devote all your time and spirit to this career to be good. I train my chefs in a military way but manage the team with a lot of communication and explanation. I never feel offended by debate or different opinions. The truth does not fear contention.
I am always craving clarity, and it’s the same in my kitchen. We are looking for perfection together. I am not very outgoing person and I always feel more comfortable working alone in the kitchen. But nowadays, the restaurant business needs me to meet with and talk to people about what we are doing. If I would like to reshape our food culture, I need to stand out and speak on behalf of my team.
I think the perception in the industry has been changing along with our family structure and the position of a woman in society. So the number of female chefs will certainly increase. As a cook however, I think there is no gender difference in the kitchen. “Chef” should be a neutral term, so there is no need to debate if there are enough female chefs out there.
Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava, chef and owner of Bo.Lan in Bangkok, and Asia’s Best Female Chef 2013 describes her love of fresh flavours and gender equality on the pass.
There was a gap in the Bangkok Market available for just the style of restaurant I wanted to open, I was very young and energetic and crazy, plus there seemed no better place to have a Thai restaurant than in Thailand itself, especially Bangkok. I really value fresh ingredients (most of which don’t travel very well and I like to use artisan product that cannot be exported to anywhere in the world.
"these days if you can work, you can work, whether you are a boy or girl does not matter"
I would say it is a bit tougher [for women] especially physically (long hours on your feet and having to lift heavy stuff). However, mentally, I think women probably cope better. It is also tough if you want to pursue both your career and motherhood. Work hours for this career are a bit unusual.
I believe that gender is not the issue anymore. These days if you can work, you can work, whether you are a boy or girl does not matter.
Janice Wong, chef and owner of 2am:dessertbar in Singapore and named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef for two consecutive years, reveals her sweet side.
When I was working in New York, I was always inspired and amazed by the creativity and sophistication of dessert restaurants there. Moving back to Singapore, I could never find a place that satisfied my midnight cravings for gourmet desserts and hot chocolate. That marked the opening of 2am:dessertbar, which was born out of a personal passion and inclination towards progressive desserts. Pairing desserts with wines and cocktails was also a natural thing for me to do, because that is how I enjoy my desserts. Although that time spent at work is time spent away from family, friends and social activities, I don’t regret it. I love what I do.
"the advantage of being a female in this industry is that you instantly stand out"
Since the gender ratios are still skewed towards men at the moment, the advantage of being a female in this industry is that you instantly stand out. The disadvantage is that you definitely come under greater scrutiny. Statistically speaking the top chefs in the world are still men, but this is changing.
These top chefs list their female inspirations:
Chef Vicky : Chef Lanshu Chen of Le Moût, Taiwan tries to use local ingredients in her French cooking and Chef Dominique Crenn of Atelier Crenn, San Francisco whose creations are heavily influenced by her heritage as well as her artistic flair.
Chef Peggy: Alice Waters a successful chef-owner, she is also a slow food educator, a woman of belief, conviction, and a woman of heart who cares enough to utilize her trade and her status to help make the world a better place.
Chef May: April Bloomfield, Nancy Silverton, Alice Waters and Julia Child.
Chef Calista: Julia Child inspired me with her courage, determination and passion for food. She defeated societal stereotypes to become a household name in America! Ani Phyo is very inspiring with how she made raw vegan cuisine accessible to many.
Chef Lanshu: Chef Anne-Sophie Pic in France, Annie Féolde of restaurant Enoteca Pinchiorri and I worked with Chef Bo of Bo.lan in Taiwan, and she impressed me a lot with her efforts in preserving the old memory of her culture and the value of nature. The achievements of these female chefs have amazed people with their determination. They demonstrate a different kind of beauty.
Chef Bo: Maggie Beer, Kylie Kwong and Alice Waters.
Chef Janice: Elizabeth Falkner, who is hailed as one of America's Top 10 Pastry Chefs.