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Posts from the ‘Asias’s 50 Best Restaurants’ Category

Is a Woman’s Place in the Professional Kitchen?

Vicky Lau, Veuve Clicquot Asia's Best Female Chef 2015
Vicky Lau, Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef 2015

[UPDATE: Vicky Lau has become the first female chef in Asia to gain two Michelin stars with the announcement of the Michelin Guide Hong Kong and Macau 2021. Here’s a look back at when Chopstix interviewed Lau in 2015.]

Asia’s Best Female Chef 2015 is Vicky Lau of Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong. Lau becomes the third winner of the award and will be officially presented with it at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony at the Capella Hotel in Singapore on March 9th.

“The aim is to promote and celebrate female talent in an industry that remains very male dominated,” says William Drew, spokesman for the award, sponsored by Veuve Clicquot – a drinks brand associated with a strong, woman boss. “We would love to reach a position where this award becomes unnecessary but I think we are some way off that situation yet, unfortunately.”

“I do think it’s necessary to recognize female talents in the culinary industry which has traditionally been dominated by males,” Lau agrees. “There are only a few female chefs behind Hong Kong kitchens. This could be due to the fact that chefs aren’t valued for their craft or it could be because women are discouraged to pursue this career because of the physical conditions of working in a professional kitchen.”

“BONITO” - marinated katsuo / bonito dashi geleé / daikon roll / datterino tomato confit by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong
“BONITO” – marinated katsuo / bonito dashi geleé / daikon roll / datterino tomato confit by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong

The under representation of female chefs can be seen worldwide. Ten years ago when I joined the launch team of a food magazine in the UK, I was approached by a bright young woman who had trained with Jamie Oliver for the original brigade of his Fifteen restaurant in London. She wanted to write a feature on why there were so few female chefs.

My editor, female and a veteran of the food industry, told me the reason was that the hours were not conducive to having a family. There were also a few others: the young chef wrote of not just the anti social hours but the macho culture, lewd conversation, unflattering clothing and physical hard work resulting in varicose veins and scars.

This experience is echoed today by Peggy Chan, chef owner of Grassroots Pantry in Hong Kong. “Unfortunately, there’s only a very rare breed of women who are capable of making it through the hours, the screams, the heat and physical pain, the sexist comments, foul language and very often feeling belittled,” says Chan. “Not to mention the sacrifices involved especially when it comes to personal time for relationships: Friday night outings with girlfriends, starting a family etc.”

“AGED MANDARIN SEA BASS” - pan roasted suzuki sea bass / aged mandarin peel jam / lobster orange sauce/ fennel pollen / baby fennel by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong
“AGED MANDARIN SEA BASS” – pan roasted suzuki sea bass /
aged mandarin peel jam / lobster orange sauce/ fennel pollen / baby fennel by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong

It seems that in Asia, there are specific problems. “It’s tough enough in French kitchens, let alone working a wok over massive open flames in Asian kitchens,” says Chan. “Physically, it is much more demanding for an Asian woman much smaller in size to man and manage a male dominated brigade. And there are existing archetypes present in the psyches of Asian cultures (men as the head of the household).”

Vicky Lau also believes that traditional cooking techniques may play a part. “In Asia, perhaps more women choose to be in patisserie rather than cuisine due to the nature of the cuisine itself. For example, in a traditional Chinese kitchen the equipment can be quite weighty,” she says.

“There is no place for women in the professional Chinese Kitchen,” says Margaret Xu the owner of Yin Yang and one of the first female chefs in Hong Kong. “It’s a male dominated, chauvinistic crowd and there’s a lot of heavy duty labour – handling big woks and whole pigs. Some male kitchen kitchen staff tend to think physical strength means competence as a chef.”

“WRETH” lightly poached gillardeau oyster / chinese licorice root oxtail consummè / kimchi pickled daikon / sweetcorn kernels / braised wagyu beef tongue slice
“WRETH”
lightly poached gillardeau oyster / chinese licorice root oxtail consummè / kimchi pickled daikon / sweetcorn kernels / braised wagyu beef tongue slice

In the West names like Alice Waters, Angela Hartnett, Elena Arzak and April Bloomfield may be well known But can you name an equally prominent Asian female chef? Perhaps Duongporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava of Bo.lan in Bangkok who was the inaugural Asia’s Best Female Chef winner or Lanshu Chen of Le Mout in Taiwan who won last year.

Veuve Clicquot Asia's Best Female Chef 2014 Lanshu Chen at Le Mout, Taiwan
Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef 2014 Lanshu Chen at Le Mout, Taiwan

Ping Coombes, the Malaysian born winner of MasterChef UK 2014 says: “There weren’t really any well known female chefs when I was growing up as it really still is a very male dominated industry. In Asia, I feel women are still being viewed as the home cook. I always looked up to my mother when it came to cooking.” Similarly Chan says: “I grew up with a culinary certified mother who cooked massive feasts at home and always thought women were meant to cook at home, not in professional kitchens. The ratio of male to female at my culinary school was about 80:20.”

Both Vicky Lau and Lanshu Chen cite male mentors (Sebastien Lepinoy of Cepage in Hong Kong and Jean-Francois Piege at Hotel de Crillon in Paris respectively). Songvisava was a protégé of David Thompson at Nahm. Janice Wong, the two times Asia’s Best Pastry Chef, of 2am Dessert Bar in Singapore names Gunther Hubrechsen at Les Amis in Singapore who now has his own restaurant there, Gunther’s.

And Lau and Chen cite European and US fellow female chefs they admire –  Dominique Crenn at Atelier Crenn, San Francisco and Anne-Sophie Pic from Maison Pic, France – rather than Asian ones. (Although Lau also mentions her successor Chen).

Female chefs are all too often found in the “ghetto” of the pastry section. Peggy Chan says numerous instructors at catering college tried to convince her to take this route: “rather than tough it out in the male dominated hot kitchens. There was always a clear distinction, almost as though it’s an expectation for girls my size to take the more feminine, meticulous and less ‘intense’ path in order to be considered ‘a chef’. Former Asia’s Best Female Chef Lanshu Chen made a conscientious decision to move out of patisserie. Angela Hartnett’s advice to young female chefs?: “Don’t take the option of the pastry section.”

“ZEN GARDEN” - mignardises by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong
“ZEN GARDEN” – mignardises by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong

And if women aren’t making it to head chef, they aren’t getting the media coverage either. Jason Black, chef and media consultant says: “We sadly live in a world where we only champion the people at the top (be they male or female). If I had to ask you the name of the sous chefs at 99% of the restaurants in HK, you wouldn’t be able to answer.”

Black’s cookbook calendar sold for charity and featuring notable Asia based chefs sparked a controversy earlier this month, one of the reasons being the lack of female chefs featured. But he says the reason is pragmatic. “This project was done at my own cost and I was very lucky to secure Ermenegildo Zegna as a fashion partner this year. They only make a men’s range. Given that it is not a “best of” [chefs] publication, having an all male line-up publication worked.”

That said, Black says about the female chef imbalance: “I really believe classifying by gender is wrong. Everyone should be given equal opportunity to succeed. I think Grassroots Pantry is one of the best restaurants around and Ta Pantry is one of the best Private kitchens too. They are such because of the skills of the chefs behind them. That they are run by female chefs for me is a complete non-issue.”

Margaret Xu agrees: “I think a best female chef award is condescending by nature. The best chef is the best chef full stop.” But Black adds: “If championing our chefs based on their gender or ethnicity is a way of encouraging people to get into the industry then I guess it is ok.”

When I asked David Thompson if he thought there were any female Thai chefs to watch out for he said: “There are many young, up-and-coming Thai cooks [male and female] which is just fantastic. But I have my eye on Chef Nan Bunyasaranand who runs Little Beast in Bangkok.”

“FOIE GRAS TERRINE” duck foie gras terrine / spices & curry tuile / pommery mustard ice cream / blueberry sauce by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong
“FOIE GRAS TERRINE”
duck foie gras terrine / spices & curry tuile / pommery mustard ice cream / blueberry sauce by Vicky Lau at Tate Dining Room, Hong Kong

And both Margaret Xu and Vicky Lau think the situation is changing. “I have been noticing some changes over the years with more female chefs making an impact in Hong Kong and the world’s best kitchens, especially in traditional Chinese kitchens with advances in technology and materials,” says Lau. “At my own kitchen at Tate, the kitchen staff has a female to male ratio of 3:1 – a happy coincidence but also perhaps a sign of the times.”

This piece was originally published in 2015

Ode to Odette – Asia’s Best Restaurant

 

Odette -  Interiors 7

Odette restaurant, Singapore

[UPDATE: Odette has retained its position as Asia’s Best Restaurant and Best Restaurant in Singapore 2020. UPDATE: Odette has been awarded number one on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list 2019.]

Julien Royer, formerly head chef of the acclaimed Jaan, now has his own restaurant in the form of Odette, a bread roll’s throw away from his alma mater, within Singapore’s stunning new National Gallery. Odette is named in homage to Royer’s grandmother. And the family theme continues as the dreamy design is down to artist Dawn Ng – wife of the restaurant’s co owner, Wee Teng Wen of the Lo and Behold group – in conjunction with Universal Design Studio.

With its romantic, cream interiors, Odette is the White Swan to Lo and Behold stablemate, Black Swan nearby in the CBD. But back to the food. Royer is continuing to mix classical French with modern techniques in his new home. Some of his greatest hits from Jaan are on the menu: Mushroom “tea”; 55 mins Onsen Egg; Heirloom Beetroot Variation; and Hay Smoked Pigeon.

In it’s new incarnation though the Pigeon is served two ways: the breast cooked sous vide then grilled and the leg cooked for six hours. And the Onsen Eggs are smoked on a bed of pines – foraged by the chef’s father and sent over from France (another family link).

Odette - Chef Julien Royer.jpg

Julien Royer of Odette, Asia’s Best Restaurant 2019

Royer has also added some new creations such as the standouts Hokkaido Uni with Apple, Mussel and Caviar and Trout with Miso Glazed Kurobuta Pork. The welcome champagne trolley includes Chartogne-Taillet rose, Henri Giraud for Odette and Krug – said to be Royer’s favourite.

Desserts, by pastry chef Nicolas Vergnole, are also impressive including Confit Victoria Pineapple (below): toasted coconut ice cream, banana cake, passionfruit coulis, tapioca and Kaffir lime.

Odette - Confit Victoria Pineapple.jpg

This piece was originally published in 2016

Catch Le Mout, Taiwan, While You Can

Lanshu Chen at Le Mout, Taiwan

Lanshu Chen at Le Mout, Taiwan

[UPDATE: Make a booking at Le Mout while you – Lanshu Chen has announced she is closing the restaurant this year.]

Taiwanese born, French trained chef, Lanshu Chen is describing her favourite meal to eat off duty: “Yaki soba. It’s a childhood memory – my favourite dish from my mother. It accompanied me many times when I stayed up late studying.”

The yaki soba-fuelled late nights and hard work have paid off. At 33 years old, not only is Chen owner and head chef of Le Mout, a fine dining, Relais & Chateaux restaurant in Taichung, Taiwan, she has been named Asia’s Best Female Chef.

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Back to Bombana

a50br_2017_la_chefumbertobombana

Chef Umberto Bombana is the recipient of Asia’s Best Restaurants’ Lifetime Achievement Award 2017

[UPDATE: Never let it be said that Chopstix isn’t prepared to admit changing our minds from time to time. On our recent return visit to 8 and a half Otto e Mezzo Bombana we were pleasantly surprised at the vast improvement in service. There seems to be a high ratio of staff to customers and the whole operation is now very slick. We’re still not sure about the 3 Michelin stars but nonetheless less, bravo Bombana. Read on for our original review.]

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Is there a need for Best Female Chef awards?

Lanshu Chen at the pass

Asia’s Best Female Chef 2014 Lanshu Chen at Le Mout, Taiwan

[UPDATE: The World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2017 have been announced amid the usual controversy. Not least because of the lack of female chefs at the helm of restaurants on the list. Highlighted by the fact that the restaurant run by The World’s Best Female Chef 2017, Ana Ros, doesn’t even make it onto the World’s 50 Best restaurants list. (Hisa Franko in Slovenia is number 69 on the “long list”).

Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards are no better. Lanshu Chen of Le Mout in Taiwan remains the only recipient of the Asia’s Best Female Chef accolade to be (sole) head chef of a restaurant that’s also recognised as one of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. While Bo.Lan in Bangkok which consistently makes the top 50 is helmed by another previous winner, Bo Songvisava, she does so with her husband Dylan Jones (the “Lan” in Bo.Lan).

This year’s Asia’s Best Female Chef May Chow’s eatery, Little Bao in Hong Kong, doesn’t feature in the top 50, neither did any of the restaurants overseen by last years’ winner Margarita Fores of the Philippines or the Tate Dining Room in Hong Kong run by Vicky Lau, Asia’s Best Female Chef 2015.

Which begs the question, is there any point in naming a Best Female Chef if their restaurants are not deemed good enough to be voted one of the Best 50 Restaurants? Or is it further proof that more spotlight on and awareness about female chefs is needed?]

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