Women chefs in Asia are breaking into a profession still dominated by men


The queen of street food, Michelin-starred chef Jay Fai enjoys himself at his restaurant in downtown Bangkok on July 15, 2020. Image: AFP/Mladen Antonov via ETX Daily Up

The World’s Best Restaurants ranking awarded Japanese chef Natsuko Shoji the title of “Asia’s Best Female Chef 2022”. A distinction that not only draws attention to the need to highlight female chefs, but also female chefs of Asian origin in this professional environment, who rarely have the same visibility as their male colleagues.

In 2015, chef Vicky Lau, chef of the Hong Kong restaurant Tate Dining Room, was awarded the title of best female chef in Asia by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking. To announce this news, the French blog Food & Sens, of Pourcel, two cook brothers, wrote in the introduction of its article: “It’s a bit of an unknown entity among chefs, but if it received this title, we imagine that it’s because she deserves it… let’s try to find out a bit more about her… in any case, we can say that she already deserves an award for her physique…”

It’s a statement that not only puts a foot in your mouth, but speaks volumes about how women continue to be viewed in the industry; women chefs find themselves in a position to demonstrate that their success is not due to their appearance, but to their talent and professionalism.

The proof in the pudding: Vicky Lau, who has become a true benchmark for fusion cuisine combining Chinese flavors and French techniques, was awarded two Michelin stars in 2021. In an interview with South China Morning Postthis former student of the internationally renowned institute Le Cordon Bleu indicated that there is a long way to go to achieve parity in the culinary world dominated by men.

Another top Hong Kong chef, Peggy Chan, one of the first to bring vegetarian haute cuisine to Hong Kong, revealed to Chopstix & the City: “Unfortunately, there is only a very rare breed of women able to hold on for hours. , the screaming, the physical heat and pain, the sexist comments, the foul language and very often the feeling of being belittled.

The place of Asian women in the kitchen is complex. In China, “they are still considered pillars of the family,” DeAille Tam said last year when she won Asia’s Top 50 Female Chefs. “There are certain expectations for the time they have to spend with family and sacrifices have to be made,” said the chef who runs fine-dining restaurant Obscura in Shanghai.

The fight for the recognition of female chefs in Japan

In Japan too, the task is difficult for women who want to succeed in professional kitchens, especially behind the counter of a sushi restaurant. Here, where the preparation of these seafood bites is a true culinary art, the idea “that women’s hands are too hot to keep raw fish fresh, or that their periods alter their sense of taste”, even persists. among sushi chefs, and prevents many women from being seriously considered for the position, discovered Agence France-Presse correspondent Natsuko Fukue. The share of women who have succeeded in becoming sushi chefs in Japan is less than 10%, although there is no official data.

The queen of street food, Michelin-starred chef Jay Fai enjoys himself at his restaurant in downtown Bangkok on July 15, 2020. Image: AFP/Mladen Antonov via ETX Daily Up

This disparity in terms of female chefs in the best restaurants in Japan is even found in the list of 22 starred female chefs in Asia, compiled by the Michelin guide in March 2021. Only three Japanese female chefs are listed. Only one of them runs a restaurant dedicated to kaiseki cuisine, the traditional Japanese gastronomy that runs around small portions including broth, sushi, sashimi, steamed vegetables. This is Akemi Nakamura, who runs Nishitemma Nakamura, located in Osaka.

The attribution of the title of best female chef this year by Asia’s 50 Best to Natsuko Shoji is therefore not insignificant. The chef, who has hosted stars such as David Beckham and famous artist Takashi Murakami in the past, has already been awarded the title of best pastry chef. She runs a fine dining establishment in Tokyo called Eté (French Summer), where she maintains a close connection between cooking and the world of fashion with creations that look like jewelry.

Leaders who paved the way

Compiled by Debbie Yong, editorial director of Michelin’s digital strategy in Asia, the “list” of 22 influential female chefs reveals a trend: more female chefs from Thailand and South Korea are in the spotlight. Some of them have paved the way by imposing a certain culinary style or even a whole new vision of food.

In Thailand, Supinya Junsuta, often referred to by her nickname, Jay Fai, the name of her food stall, is world famous as she managed to earn a Michelin star in the Thailand guide with a street food culinary repertoire. But it’s neither his recognizable unique look with aviator glasses nor his 76-year-old age that is the main reason for his popularity. Visitors and locals alike are willing to wait hours for his crab omelet. Just watch the episode featuring her in the documentary series “Street Food Asia”, broadcast on Netflix, to understand the influence of this cook in the Thai culinary sphere.

In South Korea, it was Cho-Hee-sook who fought for greater recognition of her native cuisine. First a chef at the Korean Embassy in Washington, the one who is often called the “godmother of Korean cuisine” has played a decisive role in promoting the national gastronomic culture of her country throughout the world, opening up the way to a generation of young chefs.

“At the beginning of my career, it was very difficult to try new things – breaking with tradition was discouraged. But over time, Korean cuisine began to merge with Western cuisine, and modern Korean cuisine began to spread rapidly, driven by the globalization of Korean cuisine,” she told Asia’s 50 Best, on the occasion of her nomination as Asia’s best female chef in 2020. The chef made her mark in focusing on seasonal products, techniques and bold new ingredients. J.B.

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