There was a time in Asia when few women and girls would dream of becoming a chef. But in societies with an ingrained paternal ethos, ‘Girl Power’ is now being embraced in kitchens, from Beijing to Bangkok. With gutsy faith and sheer grit, an exuberant array of female chefs cleared all the hurdles in their path, achieving recognition and spearheading Asia’s dynamic gastronomic scenes. Here’s a round-up of the leading and most promising female chefs to watch in Asia in 2021.
DeAille Tam, chef-founder of Obscura
Prior to being crowned Asia’s Best Female Chef 2021, DeAille Tam had been recognised as the first female chef in mainland China to helm a Michelin-starred restaurant. A protégé of two-Michelin-starred Bo Innovation’s chef-owner Alvin Leung, Tam, along with her life partner Simon Wong, came from Toronto (via Hong Kong) to Shanghai to work for the now-defunct ‘X-treme Chinese’ restaurant Bo Shanghai.
The Hong Kong-Canadian duo blazed a trail late last year, launching an innovative modern Chinese restaurant Obscura. Mesmerised by Chinese heritage, Tam is taking the plunge to unravel the time-honoured treasures in food, wine, tea and incense. Inspired by chef Ferran Adrià’s molecular gastronomy, Tam elegantly yet amusingly portrays a spectacular spin on food-meets-science. “[Having] majored in engineering it comes naturally applying science to food, and it’s part of me,” says Tam.
Zoé Chen, pastry chef at Lunar
Zoé Chen kicked off her pastry journey at Le Cordon Bleu Paris in 2012, before completing a stage at the iconic Le Meurice hotel, sharpening her skills under chef Cédric Grolet, who was himself named The World’s Best Pastry Chef 2018.
Through various twists and turns, she ended up as pastry chef at the modern Chinese cuisine restaurant Lunar. Alongside executive chef Johnston Teo, formerly of Asia’s 50 Best regular Odette, they are re-imagining quintessential Chinese dining with subtlety and simplicity.
Delving deep into Chinese traditional pastry art, while adhering to meticulous classic French techniques, Chen creates decadent desserts that resonate in the hearts of local diners. “Pastry has long relied on imports like dairy products, butter and fruit paste, thus leading to a challenge to accomplish sustainability at utmost,” says Chen, who has pledged to use as many local ingredients as possible to raise environmental awareness, while delivering delicious contemporary Chinese desserts.
Angela Lai, pastry chef of Taïrroir
Moving to Taiwan in 2015 proved a wise decision for Angela Lai, as the Singaporean was awarded the title of Asia’s Best Pastry Chef in 2021. She accepted an offer from Taïrroir’s chef-owner Kai Ho, which transformed her outlook, and allowed her to explore Taiwan’s terroir, as well as traditions such as pong pia from Tainan, and papaya milk and toast from Taichung.
“I believe respecting traditional recipes is important, as that is where our foundation starts,” says Lai, who merges handed-down Chinese pastry recipes with French techniques. “I love to play with different types of textures and I like to use acidity, bitterness, spice to balance the sweetness in my desserts, sometimes with a little touch of Asian flavours.”
Angela Lai's signature pong pia
When it comes to the development of pastry art in the next five years in Asia, Lai expects to see more health-focused desserts and the rise of a less-is-more aesthetic.
Vanessa Huang, chef-owner of Ephernité
Late-bloomer Vanessa Huang studied at Ferrandi Paris in 2002 in her 30s, and honed her skill at Paris’ two-Michelin-starred Astrance, in 2014. After settling in Taiwan, she launched French restaurant Ephernité, which was recognised with a Michelin Plate in the Taipei and Taichung Guide. Dedicated to a farm-to-table ethos, she has created a one-of-a-kind supply chain for better sustainable dining. At Ephernité, Huang encourages farmers to grow an assortment of fresh and seasonal ingredients, which provide inspiration for her dishes. Brought up in a vegetarian family, Huang is a champion for the welfare for the planet. “It’s been a while, I keep contemplating on how to harmonise a plant-based diet into our daily life, as well as to ponder over cooking techniques for artsy and delectable dishes,” she says.
Vicky Lau, chef-proprietor of TATE Dining Room
The first female chef to lead a two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Asia, Vicky Lau is rightly lauded for her innovative French-Chinese cuisine at TATE Dining Room. A graphic designer-turned-chef, Lau opened TATE in 2012 betting big on her obsession: a balance between innovation and tradition, from East to West.
Lau’s unique blend of French and Chinese cuisines aims to get the most out of what makes each one special, whether it’s the texture of a finished dish, or the quality of the ingredients themselves. “In Chinese food a lot of the dishes try to achieve different textures within the single ingredient, whilst French cuisine focuses on a mixture of ingredients. Since we are not bounded by one region, the variety of ingredients are a lot higher,” says Lau.
Following Lau, a slew of young chefs are joining the lines. “I think Chinese cuisine will have huge movements as they [young chefs] travel physically and virtually around the world exploring different techniques and craftmanships. Some will embrace the tradition while some will take up the challenge of innovation,” she says.
Garima Arora, chef and owner of Restaurant Gaa and HERE
Aged 32, chef Garima Arora was the first Indian female chef to gain a Michelin star in 2018 with her modern eclectic Gaa restaurant in Bangkok, where she applies Indian techniques to Thai ingredients. In March 2019, restaurant Gaa made its debut on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list at No. 16 with the Highest New Entry Award, and shortly after, claimed its place at No. 95 on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Gaa is currently ranked at No. 46 on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 list. In 2020, the Mumbai-born chef opened HERE, a concept based on the traditional Indian breakfast canteen.
Le Cordon Bleu trained, Arora honed her skills in some of the best kitchens in Europe, including time spent under Gordon Ramsay and Rene Redzepi, who she considers one of her greatest culinary influences, before finally joining the Gaggan Group in Thailand, and later flying solo.
Today she is rediscovering and reforming the narrative on Indian food through her cooking and her not-for-profit initiative Food Forward India.
Tam Chudaree Debhakam, chef-owner of Baan Tepa
After studying for a university degree on food science in the UK, followed by culinary school in New York City, Chudaree ‘Tam’ Debhakam started working for chef Dan Barber. Harbouring dreams of sustainability inherited from Blue Hill at Stone Barns, she opened Baan Tepa in Bangkok in March 2020.
Tucked away in the heart of downtown, Baan Tepa has created an oasis and a new dining experience. “We want to have our very own herb garden in the back where the cooks and diners can learn more about the ingredients we are serving. The goal is to push the boundaries of Thai food and cooking whilst working closely with organic producers around the country,” says Debhakam.
With accolades rolling in for her restaurant’s food-waste reduction, Debhakam is pushing the limits through a pipeline of programs, such as compost in the garden, fermentation, and centuries-old varieties of plant-based produce. “Because we don’t have a fixed menu per se, this gives us the flexibility to use whatever is available and in season given it makes sense on the menu. Sourcing ingredients produced locally and responsibly is key for us.”
Natsuko Shoji, chef-owner of Été
After three years under the tutelage of Florilège’s Hiroyasu Kawate, Natsuko Shoji left her role as sous chef at the age of 23. Since Été’s inception in 2014, Shoji - the 2020 winner of the Asia’s Best Pastry Chef Award - has fronted Asia’s gastronomic scene by taking intimacy-dining to the extreme.
Été’s exclusive ‘haute couture’ approach encompasses introduction-only bookings, only one table seating six guests, one service per night, and fashion-inspired cake pre-sells, and as such has caught the attention of the 50 Best Discovery list.
“Because of Covid-19, I feel the importance of the bond to the customers more than before,” Shoji says, adding that she has recently launched a new cake shop that allows everyone to relish her luxury and sustainable cakes.
Cheryl Koh, pastry chef of Tarte by Cheryl Koh
Having had stints with a line-up of Michelin-starred restaurants - including Lasserre (Paris), Don Alfonso 1890 (Sorrento), and the now-closed Cépage (Hong Kong) - Cheryl Koh opened Tarte by Cheryl Koh, under the Les Amis Group in 2015. A year later, she was named Asia’s Best Pastry Chef 2016.
A subscriber to the French food writer Curnonsky's quote, that simplicity is a sign of perfection, Koh has been flying the flag for artisanal tarts and other confectioneries made from scratch with great finesse. “I source for the best-in-season fruits and ingredients for the tarts. Not complicating the flavours, and pairing them with elements that bring out the best in their flavours, textures, as well as to put the enjoyment of the fruits and pastries as the priority. I would predict the level and choice of pastries and desserts are going up in Asia," says Koh.
Lisa Tang, co-founder and chef of Kausmo
Lisa Tang made a splash in 2019 as she co-founded Kausmo, while also being nominated 2019 World Gourmet Summit Rising Female Chef. Also trained by Les Amis Group, Tang aspires to create thoughtful dining and living by challenging food norms.
The 26-year-old originally learned about responsible culinary philosophy while training at Primo, an award-wining farm-to-table restaurant in Maine, in the United States. This appreciation of ingredients prompted her curiosity about the food systems in Singapore.
“It was surprising to learn about the rather hidden layer of food wastage that comes from the aesthetic filtering of fruits and vegetables. These might be over-ripened, over-stocked, oddly-shaped and sized, specifically for retail standards. Such filtering is very much superficial and does not compromise the quality of the produce,” says Tang, who has pledged to help raise awareness of this at Kausmo.
Besides honouring those imperfections, Tang hopes to engage in a wider conversation about how to better support local farmers and create a more holistic, thoughtful approach to consumption as a society.
Kim Bo-mi, chef-owner and chef of Mitou
Dreaming of opening a restaurant before the age of 30, Kim Bo-mi returned to South Korea after working in Japan for four years at a ryokan called Aura Tachibana, and at the restaurant Kappo Muroi. Along with her boyfriend, the chef Kwon Young-Woon, Kim took the bit between her teeth and opened the now much-coveted restaurant, Mitou, in early 2018.
Rather than a traditional Japanese restaurant as such, it conforms to the idea of modern Japanese cuisine in Korea. “Showing a new style and taste that you can only see in Korea with a modern twist, but still keeping the form of Japanese cuisine,” explains Kim.
Rooted in Japanese culture and craftsmanship, while being imbued with Korean influences, Mitou earned a star in the Michelin Guide Seoul 2021.