Cooking together at an all-female chef luncheon at Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong, chefs Vicky Lau, Bee Satongun, Margarita Forés, and Natsuko Shoji presented six courses highlighting not only their personal style of food, but also that of their places of origin – Hong Kong, Thailand, Philippines, and Japan respectively.
It’s often assumed that in Asia, a region known for its rich culture and history, the role of women is conservative. In some ways, that can be true. Forés, the recipient of Asia’s Best Female Chef Award in 2016, recalls what it was like when she started cooking professionally around three decades ago: "When I started in the Philippines, my first professional experience was at the Hyatt Regency Manila. There were zero women in the kitchen at that time. It was a little bit difficult for the chefs than to take me seriously in the beginning.”
"A cultural issue"
Even nowadays, Lau, who was named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2015, says there is still a rift between the genders, both inside and outside the kitchen, especially in Asia. “It’s to do with culture. This happens across all industries. A lot of women don’t ask for what they deserve. I always encourage women to ask. ‘I want a raise, I want to do this, I want to have that.’ All the boys do it, but the girls never ask for what they want. Because society teaches them they should shut up. ‘Don’t ask for so much,’ ‘Be submissive,' It’s definitely an Asian thing.”
However, this isn’t to say that women shouldn’t embrace their so-called feminine traits, says Lau, whether it’s the way she delicately plates a dish of Chinese yam with Ossetra caviar to look like flowers, or a compassionate management style, as long as it’s a constructive quality. “Working as a team together and being compassionate is very important. Actually, good leaders should be compassionate. You need to know that everyone is different, and you need different methods to handle different people. I think that makes a good leader. Men and women can both be compassionate, it depends on your personality.”
"It depends on people"
Bee Satongun of Paste in Bangkok and Laos is one of the few fortunate female chefs for whom gender has never mattered. “When I started to work in the kitchen with [husband and chef] Jason [Bailey], he treated everyone the same way. Whether you’re male or female, you still have to do the job,” she recalls. “A kitchen is high pressure. When you’re dealing with pressure, it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, you feel it,” says Satongun, who was named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2018.
Natsuko Shoji of the highly sought-after four-seater Tokyo restaurant été is known for her delicate cakes, such as Miyazaki mango slices shaped into delicate roses. She has an all-female team, but she says, “It doesn’t need to be that way. I take a lot of inspiration from women’s fashion, which may be why there’s the impression that it’s a female-skewed operation.” What Shoji, once a sous-chef at Florilège (number three on Asia’s 50 Best Restuarant 2019 and holder of two Michelin stars), is keen on, however, is highlighting female chefs and chef-owners. “Female chef-owners make up a very small proportion of the industry, which is why they deserve to be in the spotlight. When there are as many female chefs as male, we won’t need awards just for female chefs. Awards such as Asia’s Best Female Chef give women a goal to work towards,” she says.
"Learn from each other"
Shoji, the youngest of the four chefs, says that she has “learned a lot” from female chef-owners like Lau. Lau says, “I never thought that I’d play such a role, but throughout the years, there have been women who have come to me and told me that I inspire them, and that moves me.”
Awards and newfound attention make being a female chef in today’s world seem like a breeze, “but that's really not true,” says Lau. Forés adds, “The move is towards acknowledging the strengths of the chef, regardless of gender, but it’s not going to happen overnight. The reality is that the industry has historically been male-driven.”
“We haven’t solved one fundamental problem,” Lau says, which is that women may choose to give birth. “A lot of times because of this, people block themselves from achieving what they want. [Others] would say, how would you work in a kitchen when you’re pregnant? How are you going to continue with your career? That’s a concern.”
All four chefs agree that no matter your gender, passion, and drive for their work are essential. As Satongun says, “Whether you’re male or female, you have to know how to keep your passion alive. It’s like a fire, you have to keep it burning.”