Women chefs are still a rarity but that could change soon

Ms Akane Eno at Sushi Kimura.
Ms Akane Eno at Sushi Kimura.PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Back when she was a trainee in a Japanese restaurant, Singapore-born Aeron Choo was treated like any other male kitchen staff. She worked equally long hours and had to carry her fair share of heavy buckets of hot water.

No one batted an eyelid when she inevitably spilled some and scalded herself. Once the last customer left the restaurant, the now 23-year old was forced to do the 'woman's job' of washing all the socks and aprons that everyone in her male-dominated kitchen had worn that day.

"No one cared because they see it as your choice," she recalls. "You choose to work as a sushi chef. So you cannot cry in front of them no matter how much they bully you. You cannot show them that you're weak, otherwise you're finished." She pauses. "Maybe when you go out to throw the rubbish, then you can cry."

This may be an extreme example of gender bias in the restaurant industry, but it's not entirely unheard of. From being automatically delegated to pastry work, to having to go further to prove themselves, female chefs both in Singapore and overseas have had to deal with the mindset that most capable chefs are men.

Chef Choo eventually chose to start her own restaurant here in Singapore - the four-month-old Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar - where she now has the freedom to do things her own way.

She is one of the small, but steadily growing, number of female chefs here in Singapore, that includes forerunners such as mod-Sin chef Shen Tan, chef-restaurateur Violet Oon, Petrina Loh of Morsels, and Crackerjack's head chef Alysia Chan.

Crackerjack's Alysia Chan. PHOTO: CRACKERJACK

Chef Chan reveals that there are plans to set up an organisation dedicated to supporting up-and-coming female chefs here in Singapore.

Working with her on this project are Chef Loh, executive chef of Gordon Ramsay's Bread Street Kitchen Sabrina Stillhart, Latin American cocktail bar Vasco's head chef Jennifer Lee, as well as the managing director of The Culinary Institute of America, Singapore, Eve Felder.

"We're not very interested in man-bashing, but nurturing the next generation of female chefs. It's about connecting, teaching, and providing networking support," explains Chef Chan, 37, who first headed a kitchen four years ago at the now-defunct nose-to-tail restaurant, Wolf.

She observes that while there are indeed more female chefs working their way up the ladder, the scene is still mainly male-dominated. "Maybe it's the Asian thing where parents think being a chef is a blue-collared job. Some people think all chefs do is drink or take drugs, so parents don't want their daughters around that. There's still a stigma attached to it."

But changes are afoot, she adds. "There are so many people who have graduated from culinary school and are out in the industry, but are just not well-known yet. I have a feeling in the next five to 10 years, they will be the new generation of ladies in the spotlight as head chefs."

At the moment, she can already name a few. One of them is 27-year-old Josephine Loke, who started her career at Pollen, and worked at restaurants like Tippling Club and Odette before taking on her current position as sous chef at Open Farm Community in Dempsey.

Open Farm Community's Josephine Loke. PHOTO: OPEN FARM COMMUNITY

She shares that in order to get to where she is now, she had to have an innate fighting spirit, plus take the initiative to learn and show that she was serious about her work. "I believe if there's a will there's a way. This industry is about what you can offer. So you need to be tough, and not let guys walk all over you, but you must also have the skills to back up your cockiness of course," she says.

She points out that there are actually benefits to having girls in the kitchen. "We don't serve NS. Maternity leave happens rarely. Most girls in the kitchen are more work-driven and don't think about marriage. As a general observation, we are more disciplined, meticulous, and more hygienic."

Meticulousness is something that Akane Eno's superiors have noticed too. The Japan-born 39-year-old started learning to cook at the age of 23, and is now sous chef at three-month-old Sushi Kimura at Palais Renaissance.

Her current head chef, Tomoo Kimura, says that gender doesn't matter in his restaurant, and that he "appreciates Chef Eno's aesthetic touch" when it comes to food presentation.

For Chef Eno, it wasn't an easy journey, especially since she started out discouraged by the fact that most kitchens - not just Japanese ones - were made up of men.

"A lot of people think when a girl joins a restaurant that maybe she might leave after getting married. So they may never treat her seriously, and just put her at the counter to be a mascot, or perform simple tasks. But I didn't want that," says Chef Eno, who has been working in Singapore for about two years.

"I think it's tougher for ladies especially when we are trainees. We need to put in more effort to prove ourselves than guys at the start, but once we have developed our skill - although I'm afraid this is just wishful thinking - gender becomes less important," she adds.

Local chef Sarah Lin of Carvers & Co and burger joint Wolf Burgers has been leading male-dominated kitchens for the last four years, and still finds it a learning process.

Wolf Burgers' Sarah Lin. PHOTO: WOLF BURGERS

One of the things she's picked up over the years is that "guys are very logical, and literal". "I realised I had to reason with them and be very logical too. Because I guess sometimes guys view females as emotional or volatile, so I had to learn to be calm and confident," she says.

Of course since she is married - her husband is one of her business partners - one question she often gets is when she will likely have kids with such a busy work schedule.

She says with a chuckle: "There are no plans yet, but I suspect I will still be in the kitchen if it happens. I would still be very hands-on, even if it means bringing the kid to the restaurant. Or when they're old enough, teaching them to work in the kitchen. It'll teach them some life lessons!"