MANILA - Women have taken formidable strides in the world of culinary arts in recent years.
Gone was the time when professional kitchens were male-dominated spaces, with female chefs struggling to advance their careers.
At present, there are many talented women chefs who are leading the charge and pushing the boundaries of what people have been accustomed to when it comes to dining.
Among them is Johanne Siy, a trailblazing Filipina chef who has been making waves in the culinary industry with her unique approach to cooking.
The head chef of the acclaimed Lolla in Singapore was recently hailed Asia's best female chef in 2023, becoming only the second Filipina to bag the prestigious recognition after Cibo's Margarita Fores.
“Growing up, in our generation, you would never hear that it was aspirational to be a chef. In fact, we were discouraged from pursuing a career in this field because, at the core of it, it’s still a blue-collar job. Our parents also wanted us to be financially stable,” she said in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News for International Women's Month.
Siy said it was when she moved to Singapore and became financially independent that she was exposed to a different mindset.
“At some point, I thought I want to do something that I’m really passionate about and that gave me the courage to go against the grain. It was hard to leave steady pay check, but you have to take calculated risks to pursue the things you really care about. That’s what makes life meaningful,” she said.
Siy noted that there were not a lot of female role models in professional kitchens when she was a young cook. Personally, however, she was inspired more by home-cooking “because there’s so much love and generosity when people cook for their families and I want to make sure that I capture that even when I’m cooking in a professional capacity.”
Looking back on when she was just starting out, Siy said the culture in kitchens was a bit more hostile.
“We have evolved so much as an industry and we are finally talking about the issues that nobody dared to voice out back then. People are now more enlightened, the perception of the industry has changed, and sustainability of the industry itself and the broader ecosystem it relies on has become front and center,” she said.
For these reasons, there are definitely more women being attracted to the industry.
“We’ve all worked with an amazing female colleague and hopefully we all realize that regardless of gender, if you’re good, you’re good – that’s it.”
Although the changes have been advantageous for women through time, it’s still not a bed of roses.
“The biggest [challenge] would be the expectations about the role women play when it comes to family life. This is probably the number one reason why women drop out of kitchen/restaurant life. It’s even tougher than other industries because our job is so physical,” she said.
Nonetheless, Siy noted how these challenges don’t hinder female chefs like her from making a significant impact in their industry.
“Women bring in a different perspective and skillset. Nurturing people comes very intuitively and naturally to us – and this is at the core of the hospitality industry,” she said.
Addressing young women who look up to her, Siy said: “’Chef’ is a beautiful word because it’s genderless (as opposed to actor/actress for instance). Let’s not overcomplicate it. At the end of the day, it has nothing to do with your gender but about your personality and your drive.”
And in a true chef fashion, Siy shared a particular dish that reflects her personality, heritage, and values, saying these are what drive her approach to cooking.
“We have an avocado dish on the menu that took me a really long time, much effort and frustration before I was finally happy with. It was very challenging because avocados have such short shelf life and very tricky to work with. They also have such a bad rep because they are everywhere in all the brunch menus," she said.
“Also, a perfect avocado is a thing of beauty but very rare to come by. But that was the original intention for that dish – I wanted to challenge myself and take something ubiquitous and challenging, look at it in a new light and make it special. I almost gave up making this dish. For the longest time, I couldn’t nail it. But I’ve always been very tenacious. I don’t give up that easily.”
Moving forward, Siy hopes to build something from the ground up and “imbue everything with my ethos and personality.”
“I want to express and share a lot more of my point of view and my own heritage in my food.”
This article is part of the Amazing Women series of ABS-CBN News this month of March, featuring stories of select women who are making a mark in their respective fields and advocacies. March is National Women's Month in the Philippines.