City Weekend

Don’t be put off by the sexism in Hong Kong kitchens, say city’s leading female chefs

They urge aspiring chefs to continue to pursue their dreams and to overcome barriers in the industry such as sexism, long hours and physical labour

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 January, 2017, 11:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 January, 2017, 11:02am

Hong Kong’s aspiring female chefs should not be put off by the industry’s unsociable hours, the heavy physical labour on the job, and the sexism which often abounds in the kitchen, some of the city’s leading female chefs have said.

The trio of chefs, who have forged highly successful careers for themselves despite facing various barriers, all encouraged young chefs not to give up on their professional dreams.

Peggy Chan, who founded Grassroots Pantry in 2012, said a typical shift could be as long as 14 hours, when she was working in kitchens in 2004, but said this had decreased to a more manageable 10 hours in recent years.

She said she had encountered multiple instances in her career of male chefs “belittling” her, despite the Hong Kong government outlawing sexual discrimination in 1995.

But fortunately, she said, it had not dissuaded her from pursuing her dream of opening her own restaurant, adding that she encountered less and less sexism as she achieved professional seniority in the kitchen.

Hong Kong’s May Chow of Little Bao and Second Draft voted Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017

“That experience has also made me a little stronger and given me a thick skin,” she said.

Chan, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Ottawa, Canada, and obtained a dual business and restaurant management degree in Switzerland, went on to say that she had fought to convince her family that her goals were achievable. “My father was not to supportive at first – I told him I was going to be a manager, which I am now,” she said.

“Chinese fathers generally don’t want their daughters to slave away in the kitchen. My mother was more supportive because she was a cook. But later, it was the value of the degree I got and where it could take me [that convinced my father].”

Meanwhile, Little Bao owner May Chow said she had been forced to prove she could tough it out with the male chefs.

Favourite Hong Kong restaurants of vegetarian Peggy Chan, Grassroots Pantry founder

“I always wanted to get into the hot kitchen but I always got sent to the pastry or cold section,” she said. “I was too young and didn’t know how to [ask for] it. Sometimes, my peers would want to make my life easy and give me the easy jobs because I’m a girl. I [suppressed] most of my ‘feminine’ side to be one of the boys.”

And Vanessa Im, who graduated from the International Culinary Institute in 2005 and went on to found Hong Kong-based sweets business T.Confectionery in 2015, said she had worked hard to earn the respect of male colleagues by dealing with the physical demands of the job.

“This job requires a lot physically, which can be tough,” she said.

“I would advise girls who want to develop themselves in this industry to strengthen their physical condition; this is important.”