Ahead of its Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony happening this March, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants just announced that it has chosen Filipina Johanne Siy, the acclaimed head chef of Lolla in Singapore, as the winner of Asia’s 50 Best Female Chef 2023 award.
Voted by more than 300 members that comprise the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy, the award provides a platform to celebrate women who are pushing the boundaries of excellence in gastronomy.
While Siy is the second Filipina to win the Asia’s Best Female Chef recognition—Margarita Forés was given the title in 2016–she is the first Singapore-based chef to win the prestigious award. Siy will be honored at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 in-person awards ceremony – the first full-scale gathering of Asia’s gastronomic community since 2019.
In collaboration with its host destination partner Singapore Tourism Board, the awards returns to the little red dot, where the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants debuted in 2013, to celebrate the 10th year of the event.
William Drew, Director of Content for Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, has this to say about the new Asia’s Best Female Chef: “Johanne Siy’s deep understanding of the provenance of ingredients and her flair for presenting cuisine that is produce-driven, alongside mindful inclusions of the culinary traditions she grew up with, make her a worthy recipient of the Asia’s Best Female Chef Award. Her work at Lolla is a true reflection of the many years spent and intentional experiences sought in order to hone her craft.”
ANCX reached out to Siy recently to talk about her beginnings, the importance of family in a tough job like hers, and her favorite dining place to recommend in Singapore.
What inspired you to become a chef?
It was a very deliberate decision. While I’ve always loved cooking, and the genuine connection you are able to forge through food, I never considered it as a career growing up. That time, it was not something that kids aspired towards or a profession parents encouraged their children to pursue. At most, it was a hobby.
When I moved to Singapore for a corporate job after graduating from college, I had the opportunity to travel around and outside the region and get exposure to a different way of life. It changed my worldview. It was also around this time that I became financially independent and was looking for meaning.
At work, while the job was rewarding, it was also frustrating because it took roughly two years for the projects I was working on to make an impact in people’s lives (assuming it doesn’t get scrapped along the way). It was a confluence of these factors and instances that made me decide to take a calculated risk and jump head-on into the culinary realm.
After graduating from CIA (Culinary Institute of America) you had stints at Le Bernardin and Cafe Boulud, how did you end-up working in Singapore?
Prior to moving to New York, I had already been working in Singapore for a long time so I was very familiar with the scene here. While for a young cook back then, being in New York was like the ultimate dream, I moved back to Singapore to be closer to family. This job is tough mentally, physically, emotionally – being close to people who support you helps you navigate this path better.
Who are the chef/chefs that you admire the most and why?
I am very grateful to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants – chefs who have helped mold me to the chef I am today and precious mentors who continue to inspire me to this day. They are role models whose opinions and wisdom I value. They expand my bubble and allow me to see the possibilities.
The thing about what we do is that you learn so much from all the people around you. Even the places and people you hated taught you something. Lessons about how not to do things are as important, if not sometimes more important, than lessons on how to do things. Also, no amount of mentoring makes up for the lack of drive or initiative.
What is your cooking philosophy? Or how do you describe your cooking style?
My food has been described as soulful, mindful, and produce-driven. The first two, I never personally articulated, but something I’ve heard from diners. I’m grateful because I always try to cook from the heart. I pour a lot of myself into each of the dishes I create. But I can only hope that that comes across every time. I also try to put a lot of thought into the dishes I create – there has to be a reason why I’m serving certain things or playing with certaincombinations.
I always try to put the produce above my ego. I always think first about what I can do to do justice to the ingredient versus showcasing cool techniques. I just want the inherent qualities of the product to shine through. Sometimes, the simplest treatment is what’s needed. Over-manipulation also leads to more waste because you’re trying to bend the ingredients into an unnatural form.
What advice can you give to other female chefs or any young aspiring chef who are just starting?
Don’t be in a rush. Enjoy the journey. Work hard. Work smart. Stay hungry. Never stop learning and leave your ego at the door.
You were recently in Manila for a 6 hands dinner. Tell us about the dishes you served and the inspiration behind them.
We served three dishes and a snack – all inspired by memories of home – be it Philippines or Singapore.We served a snack called ‘To Singapore with Love’ which takes the form of a savoury ‘love letter’, which is a crispy crepe sold all around the country during the lunar new year celebrations. There’s abalone slowly braised for ten hours served with a mushroom consommé made from eight different types of mushrooms. Abalone resembles gold ingots and are considered very auspicious. It is one of the treats everyone tries to serve during CNY.
The last two courses are inspired by flavours from my childhood. There’s a crab ‘relleno’ dish served on a crab shell that’s tied together by an umami-rich sauce featuring ‘aligue’. Finally, there’s lengua which brings me back to when I was eight to the first time I ever had ‘lengua estofado’ – that flavour and texture left an indelible mark in my memory.
What’s your favorite fine dining and/or hawker stall in Singapore?
Not quite a hawker stall but not a fancy setting either – I always recommend Da Shi Jia Big Prawn Mee on Killiney Road. Get the signature dry prawn beehoon.
[The reveal of the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 ranking will be livestreamed March 28 via Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants on Facebook and the 50 Best Restaurants TV YouTube channel.]