Why are there still so few female chefs in Asia?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 January, 2015, 6:56am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 January, 2015, 12:36pm

This week, the third Asia's best female chef title was announced, with Hong Kong's Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room becoming the 2015 winner of the award aligned to the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants competition.

"The aim is to promote and celebrate female talent in an industry that remains very male dominated," says William Drew, spokesman for the award. "We would love to reach a position where this award becomes unnecessary but I think we are some way off that situation yet, unfortunately."

Lau agrees: "I do think it's necessary to recognise female talent in the culinary industry.

"There are only a few female chefs behind Hong Kong kitchens. This could be due to the fact that chefs aren't valued for their craft, or because women are discouraged to pursue this career because of the physical conditions of working in a professional kitchen."

The under-representation of female chefs exists worldwide. Ten years ago, when I joined the launch team of a food magazine in the UK, I was approached by a bright young woman who had trained with Jamie Oliver for the original brigade of his Fifteen restaurant in London. She wanted to write a feature on why there were so few female chefs.

My editor, a female veteran of the food industry, told me the reason was that the hours were not conducive to having a family. The young chef also wrote about the antisocial hours, the macho culture, lewd conversation, unflattering clothing and hard work resulting in varicose veins and scars.

This experience is echoed today by Peggy Chan, chef and owner of Grassroots Pantry in Hong Kong. "Unfortunately, it is a rare breed of woman who is capable of making it through the hours, the screams, the heat and physical pain, the sexist comments, foul language and the feelings of belittlement," says Chan. "Not to mention the sacrifices involved, especially when it comes to personal time for relationships: no Friday night outings with girlfriends, for instance."

Asia kitchen present particular problems - working a heavy wok over open flames for instance.

"It is more physically demanding for an Asian woman much smaller than a man, let alone managing a male-dominated brigade," Chan says. "And there are existing archetypes present in the psyches of Asian cultures, such as men being the head of the household."

Lau also believes that traditional cooking techniques may play a part. "In Asia, perhaps more women choose to be in patisserie rather than cuisine due to the nature of the cuisine itself. For example, in a traditional Chinese kitchen the equipment can be quite weighty," she says.

In the West, names such as Alice Waters, Angela Hartnett, Elena Arzak and April Bloomfield may be well known but can you name an equally prominent Asian female chef?

Perhaps Duongporn "Bo" Songvisava of Bo.lan in Bangkok, who was the inaugural Asia's Best Female Chef winner, or Lanshu Chen of Le Mout in Taiwan, who won last year, are familiar names.

Ping Coombes, the Malaysian-born winner of MasterChef UK 2014 says: "There weren't really any well-known female chefs when I was growing up. It still is a very male-dominated industry. In Asia, I feel women are still viewed as the home cook. I always looked up to my mother when it came to cooking."

I do think it's necessary to recognise female talent in the culinary industry
Vicky Lau, Chef

Chan adds: "I grew up with a culinary-certified mother who cooked massive feasts at home and thought women were meant to cook at home, not in professional kitchens. The ratio of male to female at my culinary school was about 80 to 20."

Both Vicky Lau and Lanshu Chen cite male mentors (Sebastien Lepinoy formerly of Cepage in Hong Kong and Jean-Francois Piege at Hotel de Crillon in Paris respectively). Songvisava was a protégé of David Thompson at Nahm.

Janice Wong of 2am Dessert Bar in Singapore, twice named Asia's best pastry chef, names Gunther Hubrechsen at Les Amis in Singapore as a mentor. (He now has his own restaurant, Gunther's.)

Of the female chefs they admire - Anne-Sophie Pic from France and Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn, San Francisco - Lau and Chen cite US and European examples, rather than Asian ones. (Lau also mentions her successor, Chen.)

Female chefs are often found in the "ghetto" of the pastry section. Chan says many instructors at catering college tried to convince her to take this route "rather than tough it out in the male-dominated hot kitchens. There was always a clear distinction, almost as though it's an expectation for girls my size to take the more feminine, meticulous and less "intense" path in order to be considered a chef.

Chen made a conscious decision to move out of patisserie. Angela Hartnett's advice to young female chefs? "Don't take the option of the pastry section."

If women aren't making it to head chef, they aren't getting the media coverage either. Chef and media consultant Jason Black says: "We sadly live in a world where we only champion the people at the top (be they male or female). If I had to ask you the name of the sous chefs at 99 per cent of the restaurants in Hong Kong, you wouldn't be able to answer."

Black's cookbook calendar sold for charity and featuring notable Asia-based chefs sparked a controversy earlier this month, one of the reasons being the lack of female chefs featured. But he says the selection is pragmatic.

"This project was done at my own cost and I was very lucky to secure Ermenegildo Zegna as a fashion partner this year. They only make a men's range. Given that it is not a 'best of' [chefs] publication, having an all-male line-up publication worked."

That said, Black argues that, classifying by gender is wrong. "Everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed," he says.

"I think Grassroots Pantry is one of the best restaurants around and [chef Esther Sham's] Ta Pantry is one of the best private kitchens, too. They are such because of the skills of the chefs behind them. That they are run by female chefs for me is a complete non-issue."

But he adds: "If championing chefs based on their gender or ethnicity is a way of encouraging people to enter the industry then it's OK."

When I ask Thompson if he thought there were any female Thai chefs to watch out for he says: "There are many young, up-and-coming Thai cooks [male and female], which is just fantastic. But I have my eye on Chef Nan Bunyasaranand who runs Little Beast in Bangkok."

Lau thinks the situation is changing. "I have noticed ... over the years more female chefs making an impact in Hong Kong and the world's best kitchens, especially in traditional Chinese kitchens, due to advances in technology and materials.

"At my own kitchen at Tate, there's a female to male ratio of three to one. A happy coincidence but also a sign of the times," Lau says.