After a decade in the world of gastronomy, and only less than a year as head chef at Singapore’s acclaimed Lolla restaurant, Filipina chef Johanne Siy was recently hailed Chef of the Year by the prestigious World Gourmet Awards (WGA).
Over the past two decades, WGA has been recognizing the efforts of key players in the food and beverage industry, particularly those who have been demonstrating exceptional service and dedication to their craft. The Chef of the Year award is given to a head chef who has helped set high standards of excellence in the culinary arts.
A strong proponent of produce-driven cuisine, Chef Jo’s work in Lolla involves not only elevating its culinary standards but also educating the diners when it comes to the provenance of ingredients. It’s a relevant advocacy, especially in cosmopolitan Singapore where farmlands are scarce.
“I think a lot of people [here in Singapore] really grow up not being connected to the land and to the produce, as much as if you grow up in other countries where it’s really part of life,” she tells ANCX. What she hoped to do at Lolla is to bring these discussions back into the dining experience.
Her background and training is mainly on modern European cuisine, which is what she puts on the table at Lolla. Every dish starts with a “hero” ingredient, an element she intends to highlight. “For example, it’s a dish about scallops. It will be a story about the provenance of that scallop, where we got it from, what are the conditions surrounding that area, and how you bring a little bit of the essence of that scallop into the plate,” she explains. “So you can now tell the story to the diners via the ingredients that you serve it with or the way you treat it and present it.”
Her remarkable efforts did not go unnoticed. Some of the most respected people in the Lion City’s culinary industry thought Chef Jo very much deserving of the coveted Chef of the Year award.
Never too late
It’s amazing how much the Dagupan-born chef has accomplished in so short a time. And to think that she actually thought she started late in the game. She was initially thinking of carving a career in the corporate world, after finishing a double major in Business Administration and Accountancy. “I am a CPA back home, but I never practiced,” she shares, smiling.
Immediately after college in 2003, she moved to Singapore and worked for seven years with Procter and Gamble as brand manager for fabric and home care.
Being a chef was farthest from her mind. She thought it’s not really the kind of job one would aspire for—this was before the advent of food shows projecting the glamor and excitement that comes with the profession. But working in Singapore allowed her to travel to countries that are ahead of the curve in the culinary arts, and that’s when she started to develop a deep passion for cooking.
It was in 2010 when she first set foot in a professional kitchen. It was for an interview with a French chef whose cooking she adored, Francois Mermilliod. Jo remembers coming straight from work that day so she toured the kitchen of Absinthe in her corporate clothes and four-inch heels. “Everyone was looking at me [as if saying] what is this person doing here?” she recalls. “I told the chef, ‘I don’t have any experience, but I really want to do this.’”
Well, the ‘not having any experience’ part wasn’t totally true. Growing up in the Philippines, she used to cook a lot for his two brothers. Her summers were spent shaping rice balls for kakanin every afternoon. The kitchen was very accessible for the young ones in the family.
Jo got accepted as a trainee in the French restaurant. After six months, she went to New York and enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America. “Unlike others who start their culinary careers as early as 15 or 17, I was late into the game. So I needed to make sure I go to the best school and get the best experience that I possibly can,” she confesses.
This eventually led to working in well-known restaurants in NYC—Café Boulud and Le Bernardin with Chef Eric Ripert. She worked there for a total of four years before deciding to come back to Singapore to work at Restaurant André. There, she worked her way up to becoming a sous chef. When the restaurant closed, Jo took it as a sign to travel so she could build her experience and exposure to other cuisines.
It was Scandinavia that was leading the innovation when it comes to gastronomy at that time so she spent a few months there. She went to Copenhagen to work briefly at Restaurant Relæ and Noma, and moved to Sweden to work for Faviken.
The trips made an indelible mark in her culinary life, and she immensely enjoyed the experience. “In the morning, we would go out and pick our own vegetables from the farm. We would wash it and prep it for dinner service,” she says. “By 2PM, we are back in the restaurant preparing the produce that we picked ourselves, and then we serve it to our guests at night. There is a certain fulfillment that comes from knowing where it’s from and being part of that whole cycle.”
Which is why she felt a little disillusioned coming back to Singapore where that experience was nowhere to be found. “Of course it’s a hub, you can get anything you want from the rest of the world, but you don’t have that connection [with the land]. So I stopped cooking for a while,” she tells ANCX. She started to work in a bakery and that was how she discovered another passion—making sourdough. It was in August of 2020 when she finally went back to cooking, having received an offer to become head chef at Lolla.
A Filipino at heart
She may have been exposed to an expansive variety of food but there are times when she still craves for Filipino dishes. She enumerates her favorites: “Bistek Tagalog—it’s the easiest to make and for me the most craveable. I also like kare-kare, adobo, and lengua.”
Prior to the pandemic, she would spend her holidays in the Philippines: Chinese New Year, Christmas, New Year’s Eve. “I try to make it a point to cook for the family because that’s the only time I get to see everyone.”
Her early years in the restaurant industry weren’t easy. Johanne, of Filipino and Chinese descent, not the tallest in the kitchen at 5’2”, had to learn how to work smart in various situations. Managing high counters and heavy pans were a struggle. “It would be doubly hard for someone like me to lift a sack of potatoes as compared to someone [bigger and taller than me]. But at that point of course, you’re young, you feel like asking for help is a sign of weakness. So you’re doing everything, abusing your body,” she says, smiling at the recollection.
“There were instances when I was working for two places, or juggling school and work, to the point where I’d be so exhausted at the end of the day because I had multiple jobs. I would fall asleep in the subways or the trains,” she says. “When I told my family about it, they were so worried because that was New York. It was challenging but I just kept forging on.”
Being a female chef and an Asian working in the US, she had also been on the receiving end of various discriminatory remarks. “But you just push through and ignore them. You try not to fall into the trap, you try to do better and try to prove people wrong,” she says simply.
No matter where her career brings her, Chef Jo taps into her Filipino DNA, which helped a great deal in performing her work. “We are resourceful and resilient. Pinoys are known to be very creative, because of the situation in our country,” she says. What being a Filipino taught her, too, is to recognize that everyone has a different palate. “Back home in the Philippines, when we serve food, we have all these sawsawan, which people can use to customize to their own taste and palate. Everyone enjoys the food differently,” she notes. “It’s that level of adaptation and customization that I think more and more people are now adding value to. I feel like that’s the new luxury, having something customized for you.” At Lolla, it’s something Chef Jo is happy to offer their diners.
Photos courtesy of Chef Johanne Siy