The Women Who Inspired Singapore’s Most Prolific Female Chefs
It may be naïve of us to presume we’ve outgrown the need to celebrate the achievements of women in the culinary arts as a marvellous consideration. But I like to believe that it’s a noble career, albeit with exceptionally high demands, for anyone to pursue.
Just as much, it would be equally foolish to ignore their struggles in a largely male-centric industry, so there is good reason to celebrate these women as culinary professionals who have helped shape our penchant for dining well despite society’s short-sightedness. To quote one of my favourite authors of gastronomy (male or female), the eloquently scrupulous MFK Fisher, “Our texture of belief has great holes in it. Our patterns lack pieces.” Even more alarming is the fact that she had written about this in 1942.
So, with this year’s International Women's Day celebrations just around the corner, we take a moment to ask a few trailblazing female chefs behind this tiny island’s ever-vibrant dining scene to share a little about the women who have helped nurture their brilliance and sharpened their conviction.
1/5 Petrina Loh, chef-owner of Morsels
"I remember very clearly being at a supermarket with my mother when I was four or five years old. They were giving out balloons and I wanted one, so I cried and insisted she got it for me. But she said that if I wanted something, I had to get it myself. “In life, nothing will be placed on the plate for you,” she said. This stuck with me throughout my studies and career.
I’m an only child and my dad passed away suddenly from cerebral haemorrhage when I was 15. Still, my mum and I didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things; she wanted me to study business and finance, but I wanted to go to Lasalle to study arts. I did what she wanted anyway. I decided I had to do it well and graduate fast. I graduated with a double major and became a banker at 21 years of age. In four years, I became a private banker. It was an arduous journey, but this tenacity and drive was something she instilled in me that day at the supermarket.
My mother is a very strong woman. She raised me on her own, and I turned out pretty decent. I rarely talk about her in interviews, as she doesn’t cook. My late father was an excellent cook and the one who taught me cooking when I was a kid, so he gets quite a lot of mention. My mother wasn't as interested or adventurous when it came to food. In recent years, she has become allergic to a lot of things, especially gluten, which got me thinking about gluten-free diets, and fermentation as well.
She didn’t encourage me to pursue a career as a chef, especially when I told her that I was going to quit banking to be a chef; I was 29 and at the height of my banking career. In the end, though, she told me that it was ultimately my decision and that I had to see it through. She didn’t think that I would end up starting my own restaurant.
To this day, I see that she worries for me because my hours are super long, and she still throws me the question: “how long are you going to do this for?” But I know she is supportive in her own way and is proud of me."
Morsels | 25 dempsey road, #01-04, S(249670) | 6266 3822
2/5 Tamara Chavez, head chef at Tono Cevicheria
"I decided that cooking would be my life and career after only two years working in the restaurant industry. But I also realised that it is a place where men dominate. In Mexico, a female cook without (formal education) but with years of experience in the kitchens is called a mayora, while a man with the same background and experience would be deemed a chef.
Looking for a job, I came across restaurant Delirio in La Roma, Mexico City, by Mexican chef Monica Patiño. I found it fascinating to know that they respected her in the world of gastronomy and I began to read her story, which made me feel proud to be a female cook. I felt very keen to study in pursuit of a professional career, so I enrolled in the school of gastronomy, and worked at the same time in the restaurant where my grandmother was a mayora.
She was my biggest inspiration, as I acquired the passion for cooking by learning from her the essential skills, from selecting the ingredients to transforming them into dishes and serving them to the diners. I feel very fortunate to be a woman and a chef. And I celebrate this by inspiring other women to follow our dreams."
TONO Cevicheria | 01-49/50 Duo Galleria, 7 Fraser Street, S(189356) | 6702 7320
(Related: 5 Reasons To Check Out Tono)
3/5 Angela May, culinary director of Deliciae Catering Co / Ange Café
"Alice Waters—the American chef, restaurateur, activist and author—is a huge inspiration not only because she’s one of the first chefs to have a very mindful approach to cooking by using locally farmed produce and working with teams that have sustainable farming practices, but also as a female chef in this very masculine industry.
She’s a pioneer when it comes to working with farms to ensure her restaurant not only looks after the health and wellness of her guests but that their farming practices are also suitable for the planet. Her place (restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkley which she opened in 1971) is in such a beautiful spot for amazing produce and is supported by other like-minded people that care for sourcing the best produce. Slowly, I’m finding a community like this here in Singapore, too!"
Ange Café | 260 Orchard Road, Robinsons The Heeren #01-40/#02-02/03, S(238855) | 6235 4475
(Related: Running A World Class Restaurant Grew Too Demanding, Says Asia’s Top Female Chef)
4/5 ArChan Chan, head chef at Level 33
"There wasn’t a particular person who inspired me to be a chef when I was young. (Editor's note: In Hong Kong, when ArChan was growing up, being a chef was considered a job but not a career or profession.) I have, however, always known that I wanted to be in a career that lets me do something I love.
If I had to pinpoint one person who kindled my love for cooking, I would say my grandma. In my growing up years, family gatherings were always held at my grandmother’s home, and one of the reasons everyone always looks forward to these gatherings is because she would cook amazing meals for the whole family no matter how much work or trouble it was. And it was always very troublesome and time-consuming because my family is pretty big. It was an expression of her love and care for us. Those scenes of her toiling away in a traditional wet kitchen are etched in my mind.
Cooking is a very important part of my life and is one of the most significant expressions of affection and care that anyone can show. Naturally, when I had the opportunity to intern in a professional environment, I seized the day and it made me realise that I love cooking as a job. While in Australia, I worked with many amazing female chefs. I particularly recall Thi Le (the Vietnamese-Australian chef-owner of Anchovy in Melbourne), Eun Hee Ann (who co-owns Paper Bird in Sydney with chef Ben Sears), Jo Barrett (co-executive chef at Oakridge restaurant and winery in Victoria’s Yarra Valley), and Analiese Gregory (the Auckland-born head chef at Tasmania's lauded Franklin); they really motivated my passion to continue in this industry, and to push myself further and challenge myself more, learn more, do more!”
Level 33 | 8 Marina Boulevard #33-01 Marina Bay Financial Centre Tower 1, S(018981) | 6834 3133
(Related: A Feast Sans The Guilt At Origin Grill)
5/5 Heidi Flanagan, chef de cuisine of Origin Grill at Shangri-La Singapore
"My amazing mother, Tricia Flanagan, who is the most marvellous cook, and who has so much passion for the culinary arts, inspired me to become a chef. Her love of playing hosts to parties, cooking and creating memorable occasions have left a tangible footprint in my heart. This includes her attention to detail, from setting the dining table to the theme of the occasion—every single time. This has impacted my growing up years and pave the path for my culinary career."
Origin Grill | 22 Orange Grove Road, S(258350) | 6213 4595
Read more International Women's Day stories here.