Top chef Lanshu Chen: Women are under-represented in the food industry

Lanshu Chen, Asia's leading female chef, says women areunder-representedin the industry, writes Gillian Rhys

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 9:17am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 February, 2014, 12:44pm

Taiwanese-born, French-trained chef Lanshu Chen is describing her favourite meal to eat off-duty: "Yaki-soba. It's a childhood memory - my favourite dish from my mother. It accompanied me many times when I stayed up late studying."

The yaki-soba-fuelled late nights and hard work have paid off. At 33 years old, not only is Chen owner and head chef of Le Mout, a fine dining restaurant in Taichung, Taiwan, she has been named Asia's best female chef.

"Growing up in Taiwan, food has always been an integral part of my heritage," says Chen, who will officially be presented with the title, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot, at the second Asia's 50 Best Restaurants awards in Singapore on Monday evening.

"From an early age, I appreciated the pleasures that derive from preparing and sharing meals," she says.

Chen recalls that during her childhood, her aunts were all fantastic cooks and were constantly in the kitchen, whipping up Taiwanese and Chinese dishes. Chen was inspired, and would read cookbooks for fun.

But her route to stardom was not straightforward. Unusually for a chef, Chen first headed to university, where she chose to study languages and literature. After that, she moved to France, where she trained in patisserie at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris.

"I used to cook Taiwanese dishes and Chinese cuisine when I was a child, and I fell in love with making pastry when I was in high school," she says. "I didn't want to be a professional chef then but I committed to spending two years exploring my interest in cooking overseas, just to see if I could make it."

The two years turned into four, which included a year at the professional cooking school ESCF-Ferrandi. "After I'd finished the course at Le Cordon Bleu, I realised I loved cooking. I devoted myself to learning about the French culinary world. By my fourth year in Paris, I was planning to open my own restaurants," she says.

Following a stage at the French Laundry in the US, Chen moved back to Taiwan and opened Le Mout in 2008 with the aim of serving the best French food on the island. "When I returned to Taiwan and visited the French restaurants, they didn't match my expectations," she says.

"I wanted to introduce authentic French cuisine, but add my own interpretation. I discovered there are many special ingredients in Taiwan that I could use. I use those ingredients with French techniques, and sometimes I combine them with luxury produce from other countries."

Examples include oyster and pearls, a dish adapted from one by the French Laundry's Thomas Keller, with a nod to bubble tea. "Here we soak our tapioca - you know, from the pearl milk tea in Taiwan - in Chinese bacon stock overnight, and we add Sichuan pepper.

It is cool to be a chef. It allows me to share my feelings, passion and memories through food

"The oyster is lightly coated in lemon butter to draw out the natural sweetness. So we use a very French way to cook, using a combination of French and Taiwanese ingredients."

Chen is clearly proud of the bounty of local Taiwanese produce, citing, as examples, eggs from the Silkie breed of hens, sprouts from the angelica tree and line-caught wild amadai fish from Taiwan's northeastern coastline.

She particularly enjoys cooking with vegetables and seafood. "The large variety of vegetables and seafood in Taiwan gives me a lot of opportunities to be creative." Le Mout's menu changes about every six weeks according to the availability of ingredients. While she shies away from naming a signature dish ("I think a signature dish needs to be recognised by others, not claimed by myself") she does have some favourites.

These include mustard leaves that have been fermented in the traditional Taiwanese method, then wrapped around a whole, deboned pigeon stuffed with truffled pearl barley.

"In Taiwan, or even China, no one sees being a cook as a dream job," says Chen, a statement which may give some clue as to why she did not want to be a professional chef while growing up. "But I think it is cool to be a chef. It allows me to share my feelings, passion and memories through food."

Chen thinks physical inferiority to men may be the reason that women are not equally represented in a professional kitchen. "Being a professional cook in a restaurant is to devote all your time to this career. You have to be very determined to make this commitment," she says.

Her view compounds the widespread industry belief that the unsociable hours and the physical consequences (burns and knife cut scars are the norm, along with the deathly pallor of people who rarely see daylight) have traditionally put women off entering the profession.

Those who do tend to stay in patisserie - but not Chen. "For me, cuisine is a place to explore the ultimate possibility of flavours and textures. I prefer to be able to do everything and not only focus on the sweet part."

She credits her mentor Jean-François Piège, with whom she interned at the Hotel De Crillon in Paris, as the catalyst for that decision. "He treats food like an artist, and crafts an art piece.

"After seeing him at work, I made the decision to move from pastry making to French cuisine," she says.

With noticeably fewer women than men in the industry, William Drew, Asia's 50 Best Restaurants spokesman, says the best female chef award is a necessary thing.

"We believe that shining the spotlight on a female chef will highlight their success in what remains largely a man's world. Celebrating talented women in this profession is important, as the perception of the industry is still quite macho," he says.

Chen thinks an advantage of being a rare female in the professional arena is that "it's easier to be seen in the kitchen". But she usually plays down the fact she's a woman.

Chen can probably look forward to increased interest in her restaurant as a result of the award. Duongporn "Bo" Songvisava, the inaugural Asia's best female chef and co-owner of Bo.lan in Bangkok, says: "Not only did we see an increase in the number of guests, but the type of diners changed.

"They had read about our restaurant and came in more knowledgeable. Our guests now ask questions about the ingredients, how we source our products, and the cooking techniques," she says.

Chen is remaining grounded about the changes the award may bring. "Maybe the guests will come with higher expectations. But it won't change me too much. I am still looking for ways to be better."