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Tastemakers Hong Kong's Female Chefs Share Their Wisdom

Hong Kong's Female Chefs Share Their Wisdom

Hong Kong's Female Chefs Share Their Wisdom
By Kate Farr and Rachel Read
March 07, 2019
Highlighting the progress of women across all areas of society, International Women’s Day takes place on 8 March—offering the ideal opportunity to celebrate female achievement. We chat to seven of Hong Kong’s leading female chefs about the challenges they’ve encountered in their culinary careers, along with their advice for the next generation of female cooking talent.

1/7 Peggy Chan, Grassroots Pantry

(Photo: Courtesy of Grassroots Pantry)
(Photo: Courtesy of Grassroots Pantry)

A pioneer of plant-based eating in Hong Kong, Peggy Chan is the award-winning founder, managing director and executive chef of Grassroots Pantry.

As a young girl, I was inspired to cook and host gatherings by my mother; the happiness and joy she gained from cooking for others was endearing. I realised I was capable of cooking professionally, despite the culinary world being a male-dominated one, when I was nudged by my high school guidance counsellor to try it out. The more I cooked, the more I realised my passion; this inspired me to become a better cook.

There are many women making real progress in the industry; Alice Waters, the pioneer of farm-to-table cooking has made huge changes to the way we see, source and consume food.

Whether in significant or subtle ways, sexism exists—not only in the hospitality world, but also across many male-dominated industries. Most people don't call it out because we've enabled that sort of culture, masking it as an industry norm.

The industry used to be very good at “putting women in their place”, but times have changed. My approach to dealing with sexism is by calling it out – whether in restaurants I’ve worked at, or even within my own kitchen. I empower women to speak up for themselves.

The industry used to be very good at “putting women in their place”, but times have changed

Grassroots Pantry

Restaurant, $$$$, Vegetarian, Central

2/7 Vicky Lau, Tate Dining Room & Bar

(Photo: Courtesy of Tate Dining Room & Bar)
(Photo: Courtesy of Tate Dining Room & Bar)

Named Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2015, Vicky Lau helms the kitchen at her one Michelin-starred restaurant, Tate Dining Room & Bar. The venue has featured on the 2014, 2018 and 2019 editions of the T.Dining Hong Kong Top 20 Best Restaurants list.

There are only a few female chefs heading kitchens in Hong Kong. This could be due to the fact that chefs weren’t previously valued for their craft, or it could be because women are discouraged to pursue this career because of the taxing physical working conditions of a professional kitchen.  

Regardless of gender, the dining industry is tough for anyone. Aside from the pressure, you’re always striving for precision and consistency, and this leads to long hours and sacrificing your personal life.

Regardless of gender, the dining industry is tough for anyone

I can’t think of any factor that would make this career harder for women, other than that [a woman] being in charge tends to scare some boys away! People may think that it’s more physically challenging for females, but you learn to adapt—so instead of carrying a huge pot of stock, you divide it into smaller portions to lighten the load.

Chefs are now more recognised and appreciated for their work and I’ve seen an increasing number of female chefs in traditional Chinese kitchens. At Tate, we have a female to male ratio of 3:1, so I can say female chefs are increasingly better regarded in Hong Kong.

Tate

Restaurant, $$, Contemporary, Sheung Wan

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3/7 Gisela Alesbrook, Hotal Colombo

(Photo: Courtesy of Black Sheep Restaurants)
(Photo: Courtesy of Black Sheep Restaurants)

Black Sheep Restaurants’ stalwart Gisela Alesbrook was recently appointed head chef at Hotal Colombo, the group’s first Sri Lankan restaurant.

A lot of my happiest memories are around family meals back home in Sri Lanka so cooking has always been my thing, although I didn’t work in a professional kitchen until I started at Black Sheep Restaurants.

We have an almost exactly 50:50 gender split across the team but of course, professional restaurant kitchens are often still male-dominated. My advice is to stand your ground and work hard. Play to your strengths and you will be noticed.

Cristeta Comerford is an amazing Filipino-American chef who became the White House’s first female executive chef—an example of how anything is possible if you dream big and work hard. We recently hosted chef Anita Lo for a pop-up at Ho Lee Fook; she has broken barriers for female chefs throughout her career, so having her here was a true honour.

My advice is to stand your ground and work hard. Play to your strengths and you will be noticed

No doubt, restaurants are a challenging industry to be in. The hours are often long and you tend to be working while your non-chef friends are playing, but I think if more women knew how rewarding the work can be, they would want to give it a try.

My tip for aspiring female chefs would be to never stop learning, and never be afraid to ask for help—no woman is an island!

Hotal Colombo

Restaurant, $$$$, Central

4/7 Stephanie Wong, Roots

(Photo: Jensen Hoi / T.Dining Hong Kong)
(Photo: Jensen Hoi / T.Dining Hong Kong)

Having honed her culinary skills at two Michelin-starred restaurant Amber, chef Stephanie Wong opened Cantonese-French bistro Roots earlier this year.

My grandmother and mother inspired me to love food and cooking at a young age. It was always about family gatherings and taking care of each other but as I learned more about the craft, I saw how much work it took—which made me respect my family in a whole different light.

Being in an industry dominated by men, it can be challenging to establish your voice and let your presence be felt within the team. I think women often feel their voices are muted in that kind of environment—it taught me how to speak up and be tough as nails to push through any hardship.

May Chow, Peggy Chan and Vicky Lau represent the new generation of chefs—entrepreneurs who lead by action and are unafraid to pave their own path. The industry is recognising them for their work too, showing younger generations that anything is possible and success can be achieved as long as you work for it.  

I’d love to see more mentorship programmes, casual industry get-togethers and guest chef shadowing to encourage women to get into F&B. My advice for aspiring female chefs? Ask questions and don’t be afraid to take risks!

I’d love to see more mentorship programmes, casual industry get-togethers and guest chef shadowing to encourage women to get into F&B

Roots

Restaurant, $$$$, Wan Chai

5/7 Joanna Yuen, Nobu

(Photo: Courtesy of InterContinental Hong Kong)
(Photo: Courtesy of InterContinental Hong Kong)

Renowned for her exquisitely detailed desserts, Joanna Yuen is the pastry chef at Nobu InterContinental Hong Kong and founder of bespoke cake company The Secret Within.

I’ve been told in the past that I should get married and raise kids as opposed to pursuing my career. I simply replied that my life choice is my own and kept working hard. 

As female chefs, what we can do is show everyone that we can be as good as male chefs by adding value to what's sometimes been missing in the kitchen—enhancing communications among team members, creating an open environment for exchanging food knowledge, and giving colleagues space and time to learn and discover their aspirations.

Chefs Angela Hartnett and Anne-Sophie Pic inspired me by demonstrating that women can bring something different to the table than their male counterparts and still be just as talented. Both women studied something completely different in university, yet made a life changing choice to step out of their comfort zones and into the culinary world.  

I think more women are getting into the restaurant industry because traditional gender stereotypes are now less relevant; a television programme with a female version of a chef like Heston Blumenthal would help speed up this process. Aspiring female chefs need to see success stories to know that they too can be successful in this field

Aspiring female chefs need to see success stories to know that they too can be successful in this field

My advice for women chefs would be to learn how to communicate effectively with the male brain; female and male brains are naturally wired very differently! Also, never complain about the amount of repetitive work in pastry, like piping macarons or hand-making tart shells—practice makes perfect.

Nobu

Restaurant, $$, Japanese, Tsim Sha Tsui

6/7 Esther Sham, Maison Es

(Photo: Courtesy of Maison Es)
(Photo: Courtesy of Maison Es)

Model-turned-chef Esther Sham opened her acclaimed private kitchen Ta Pantry back in 2008, followed by French restaurant Maison Es in 2015.

I love cooking so much—there is no other job in the world I would want to do.

But I’m not sure if I’ve ever encountered sexism, because I don’t pay attention to this at all. I know men and women have different strengths and weaknesses, but that’s also the case amongst men and women themselves—differences exist regardless of gender. I just focus on myself, what I can do well and what I can improve on, and then work my best in everything. 

I believe that being a woman in the restaurant industry isn’t a problem—it’s having the mentality that being female is what is holding us back that is the problem. 

Female chefs must find peace within themselves first. You have to understand that it’s a really physically demanding job and accept that there’s a natural difference in physical strength between men and women. There are some things we can train ourselves to do, but some things we just can’t. It also involves sacrificing lots of personal and family time—this is an industry that doesn’t have holidays!

I believe that being a woman in the restaurant industry isn’t a problem—it’s having the mentality that being female is what is holding us back that is the problem

Maison ES

Restaurant, $$$, French, Wan Chai

7/7 Hilda Chan

(Photo: Moses Ng / T.Dining Hong Kong)
(Photo: Moses Ng / T.Dining Hong Kong)

A graduate of the Institut Culinaire Disciples Escoffier, Chan was appointed an ambassador for Disciples Escoffier International Asia last year. She has cooked for major events such as the WildAid gala in Los Angeles and Longines Masters of Hong Kong.

I decided to become a chef because to make people happy has always been one of my life goals—and the key to that is to create happy memories with good food in your own style. 

Unfortunately I have experienced sexism in the restaurant industry very recently. The kitchen team I worked with was great, but a few of the management personnel of the venue I worked with said things that I felt were unfair to me as a female chef. I ignored them and told myself that only results speak for themselves.

Perhaps a female chef association could be set up in which newcomers can get more insights before they get into the industry. And they should know that female chefs should not be seen as being less than any male chefs and they can contribute a lot too, while they can handle more delicate works and bring in the feminine side of culinary arts, making this industry more complete.

[Women] should know that female chefs should not be seen as being less than male chefs

I am going to borrow this quote from chef Anne Burrell: "I believe that there is always something new to learn, in fact, that is one of the three reasons that I chose to become a chef—that my education is never over." So my advice is: never cease to learn and hone your skills, and keep the passion alive in your cooking. You will be surprised how far you go in a short period of time!

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Tastemakers International Women's Day chefs

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