When chef Johanne Siy was younger, she always wondered why women did the cooking in most people’s homes, while the men did so in most professional kitchens. Fast forward to today, she is now crafting gustatory delights and making her mark in the male-dominated culinary scene.
With her incredible love for food that first sparked in Dagupan where she grew up enjoying Filipino comfort cuisine, chef Jo set foot in a professional kitchen in 2010 and later took up formal education at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
“Travel and exposure to other people’s way of life made me realize that there are other careers apart from being a doctor, a lawyer, or a corporate executive, which is the path most Asian parents encourage their children to take whether or not they showed even the slightest inclination,” she told PhilSTAR L!FE. At present, she is working as the head chef of Lolla—a casual, sharing-plates restaurant along Ann Siang Road in Singapore, which features Mediterranean-inspired cuisine.
The journey’s been quite tasteful for Jo. Just recently, she was named Female Chef of the Year at the World Gourmet Awards (WGA) in Singapore—“the only national accolade that recognizes the efforts of key players in the food and beverage (F&B) industry, demonstrating exceptional service and utmost dedication to their craft,” as written on the award-giving body’s official website. The WGA particularly highlighted her outstanding culinary skills that have helped her redefine the standards of excellence on the F&B stage.
She could only turn out grateful for being in the presence of talented female cooks in an industry that’s still dominated by males. While she recognizes that more and more women are getting into food shows in the past years, she believes women chefs still have a long way to go. “The thing is, the number of women who stay on long enough to get to the top level is still very few,” she said. “Whether it’s societal pressure to eventually start a family, politics, or the physicality of the job, sooner or later, most women quit altogether.”
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The facts don’t lie: Last updated in April 2021, a survey of 7,000 chefs found notable gender imbalances in the hospitality field, with male chefs covering the majority (77%) of the restaurant and hotel restaurant scene.
Being a female chef is no easy feat. “As a woman in a field that requires stamina and strength, you are already disadvantaged from the get-go,” she explained. “Even more so when you go overseas, small things like the height of counters, the weight of the pots and pans make seemingly easy tasks harder for you.” She’s thankful for technological advancements and innovations in the kitchen, which have somehow helped her complete her tasks, “although not completely.”
“Thankfully, I realized this early on. I not only worked doubly hard, but more importantly, I tried to be resourceful and work smart,” she continued. “I am a firm believer that if you really think it through, there is always a way to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.”
That, along with the usual problems that both male and female chefs encounter including the varying taste palate of diners and the struggle of maintaining a work-life balance, make the job a one-of-a-kind adventure. “With the crazy hours, you hardly have time for personal commitments, let alone time for yourself,” she shared. “You get home from a busy service starving and so exhausted that all you can muster is a bowl of instant noodles.”
It sounds incongruous, what she said. “That’s why a lot of young chefs eventually burn out completely. It’s ironic that an industry that’s all about taking care of people finds it difficult to take care of its own people,” added the chef.
At the end of the day, though, she would not have it any other way. “When complete strangers tell you that the meal was life-changing, or that it brought them back to their childhood—that power that food has to move people and the fact that you are an agent of that—that is very rewarding indeed,” she mused.
Her advice for aspiring chefs? “Don’t go into it to make money or become famous—you never will. Never stop learning. Work doubly hard. Don’t skip steps. Don’t be in a hurry, enjoy the journey. Check your ego at the door,” emphasized Jo.
“Oh, and cook from the heart. Always,” she added quickly.
Article thumbnails from Johanne Siy's Instagram account