Women in a ma o world

While more wome are brav­ing the heat in a pro­fes­sional itchen, the knives are still out in a tou tough orld wrought with stereo­types.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By ABI­RAMI DU­RAI star2@thes­tar.com.my Pho­tos by YAP CHEE HONG

ISADORA Chai’s team is lis­ten­ing to her in­tently. “All of you know what you’re do­ing ah?” she asks, and heads nod in uni­son.

Chai is in the kitchen of her French fine din­ing eatery Bistro A Ta­ble in Pe­tal­ing Jaya, named the third best in Malaysia in the 2013 Miele Guide. And as it hap­pens, she is a rare crea­ture, a woman who dom­i­nates in an in­dus­try dom­i­nated by men.

Chai says it hasn’t been easy get­ting to where she is now, and many fe­male chefs will fal­ter along the way – opt­ing to quit the in­dus­try al­to­gether. “It re­ally de­pends on how hun­gry or am­bi­tious you are,” she said.

Cu­ri­ously, the words “women” and “kitchen” have had long his­tor­i­cal ties. So it is a para­dox that women con­tinue to be as­so­ci­ated with home kitchens, but con­versely there are still few fe­male chefs in the pro­fes­sional kitchen. While the num­bers are grow­ing in culi­nary schools na­tion­wide, the re­al­ity shows that gen­der im­bal­ance in the in­dus­try is still glar­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to Nidzam Ka­marulza­man, the Deputy Di­rec­tor Gen­eral of the Depart­ment of Skills De­vel­op­ment un­der the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­source, fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion in culi­nary arts train­ing has shown a con­sis­tent en­rol­ment pat­tern of 37% each year, from 2012 to 2015, rep­re­sent­ing 3,926 of the to­tal en­rol­ment of 10,605.

How­ever, in an ac­tual pro­fes­sional kitchen, the ra­tio is bleaker. Chef Rene Ot­t­lik, the ex­ec­u­tive chef at Man­darin Ori­en­tal Kuala Lumpur ( MOKL), es­ti­mates that in Malaysia, the gen­der break­down for male and fe­male chefs in pro­fes­sional kitchens is 80% male to 20% fe­male. In MOKL, there are a to­tal of 140 chefs, out of which only 20 are women.

Chef An­toine Ro­driguez, the ex­ec­u­tive chef at Le Meri­dien Kuala Lumpur says many fe­male chefs also of­ten end up leav­ing when they have chil­dren. “I think in Thai­land it’s maybe 50%; here it’s more, maybe only 20% or 25% of fe­male chefs would stay af­ter get­ting mar­ried and hav­ing ba­bies,” he says.

It’s a man’s world, so toughen up

The con­tribut­ing fac­tors are many. The first is that fe­male chefs who want to sur­vive and even­tu­ally thrive in the kitchen, have to toughen up and deal with the rib­bing, sex­ist com­ments and some­times even bul­ly­ing that male col­leagues tend to heap on them.

“My restau­rant man­ager tells me that I should be a host­ess. He al­ways says, ‘ You don’t look like you should

be in a kitchen – you look bet­ter in a host­ess’ uni­form.’ I get this ev­ery. sin­gle. day. The guys never, ever get that. It’s al­ways the girls. But you can’t take it per­son­ally, you just have to brush it off,” says Ash­ley So, a 20- year- old just start­ing out at MOKL.

Her col­league Putri Amirza, 26, agrees and says fe­male chefs have an ex­tra set of chal­lenges to con­tend with but can’t af­ford to let it get to them. “When the guys joke, some­times it’s very harsh so some girls can’t take it. You have to be men­tally strong,” she says.

Even fe­male chefs who have been suc­cess­ful in their ca­reers have to deal with pre­con­ceived no­tions. Chef Phoebe Han­son, the ex­ec­u­tive chef at Aloft KL says that even now, she gets raised eye­brows.

“I’ve in­ter­viewed quite a lot of peo­ple here, who sit down in the in­ter­view chair, look at me and say ‘ Oh my God, I didn’t know you were go­ing to be a woman!’”

Han­son says she al­ways fol­lows up by ask­ing if it’s go­ing to be an is­sue for them. Ap­par­ently the stan­dard re­sponse is “No”, but she sus­pects that no one dares say it’s an is­sue dur­ing an in­ter­view.

Chai says, “It’s harder, yes, es­pe­cially if you move up the ranks as a fe­male chef be­cause males don’t like tak­ing or­ders from fe­males – it’s re­al­ity lah!”

Ac­cord­ing to Chai, women have to be tougher to gain re­spect in the kitchen, and at the be­gin­ning, she was tough to the point of be­ing men­ac­ing. Now she has toned it down and taken on a mothering role, be­cause ev­ery­one in her kitchen plays ball and trusts her.

O you go to the pas­try kitchen

There is also some prej­u­dice in­volved in the sense that fe­male chefs of­ten get shunted to the pas­try kitchen, which is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered eas­ier.

“They al­ways see the fairer sex as the weaker sex and they will al­ways for­ever push you into a re­ally easy sec­tion like the pas­try sec­tion. You don’t have to take the heat or the stress. And that is al­ways the stereo­type that peo­ple put on a fe­male chef,” said Chai.

Loh Mee Foong, for ex­am­ple, was en­cour­aged to be­come a pas­try chef by her first boss – a man – al­though she now en­joys her job and finds it both chal­leng­ing and re­ward­ing.

“The chef I was work­ing for said ‘ Why are you work­ing in the Chi­nese kitchen? You are a lady, you should work in the pas­try kitchen! The Chi­nese kitchen is not suit­able for you – there is a big wok and you have to fry things.’ Be­cause I did not have any ex­pe­ri­ence then, I had to lis­ten to what the sifu said,” says Foong, who is a now a pas­try chef with Le Meri­dien.

All work and no play

For a lot of fe­male chefs, shak­ing off the daily teas­ing, stereo­typ­ing and in some cases, lack of re­spect is some­thing they have to over­come if they want to sus­tain their ca­reers in the long run. But then there is the phys­i­cal as­pect of the job and the long hours that come with it. Most chefs work 12 to 14 hours a day, and have to lift and heave all sorts of heavy pots and pans. It’s a tough job and women have to be ex­tremely strong – both phys­i­cally and men­tally – to keep their ca­reers go­ing.

“You av­er­age like 12, 14, 16 hour days. For me, a 12- hour day is a short day. It’s gru­elling and it takes a toll, be­cause at the end of the day, you’re ex­hausted, your body is beat, your mind is fried and your emo­tions might be raw, de­pend­ing on what kind of day you’ve had. I just wanna go home, have din­ner and fall into bed,” says Han­son.

For fe­male chefs look­ing to start or main­tain re­la­tion­ships, this can prove re­ally dif­fi­cult. Han­son is sin­gle and says this gives her the chance to work “all odd hours of the day” while Chai says her ca­reer has al­ways been her fo­cus. Al­though she is now in a re­la­tion­ship that has lasted over a year, be­fore this, all her re­la­tion­ships were over in a mere three months.

“Yeah, crazy hours, crazy life­style – how are you sup­posed to main­tain a re­la­tion­ship? You can’t!” she ex­claims.

Putri says most of her fe­male culi­nary arts friends have quit the in­dus­try al­to­gether, largely be­cause the stress of work­ing long hours was tak­ing a toll on their re­la­tion­ships. Putri her­self had to give up on a re­la­tion­ship when her then- boyfriend be­came jeal­ous and in­se­cure be­cause she was work­ing with mainly male col­leagues.

Mak­ing tough choices

Even if fe­male chefs are able to main­tain re­la­tion­ships, things come to a head once they get mar­ried and de­cide to have kids. That’s what Ber­nice Tan faced five years ago. A suc­cess­ful chef de par­tie at the pres­ti­gious Fair­mont Ho­tel in Ber­muda, Tan had to make a tough de­ci­sion when she had her son.

“I didn’t have a choice – I was work­ing from 4am till din­ner time. I had a lot of bosses who thought I should pur­sue my ca­reer fur­ther, but if you choose to have a fam­ily, you have to give it up,” she says.

Chai is more blunt about the sit­u­a­tion, say­ing that most mar­ried fe­male chefs who have kids have to make th­ese choices even­tu­ally and most choose their fam­ily.

“Most peo­ple’s ca­reers only peak at 35 or 40. How many 35, 40 year

old fe­male chefs do you see? Not many be­cause they need to al­ready have chil­dren. So they need to sac­ri­fice that, even be­fore their ca­reers peak,” she said.

It’s clear that it is more dif­fi­cult for fe­male chefs to sus­tain their ca­reers in the long run. Chai and Han­son are the ex­cep­tions – women who have climbed the rungs and are now at the top of their game. But Chai read­ily ad­mits that she is sac­ri­fic­ing the op­por­tu­nity to have chil­dren for the sake of her ca­reer, while Han­son says she would love to have a fam­ily but it hasn’t hap­pened for her.

Can you have it all?

The women who man­age to jug­gle moth­er­hood and full- time ca­reers as chefs are few and far be­tween. But re­as­sur­ingly, they ex­ist – al­though they are rare.

Loh, for in­stance, has two kids, aged 12 and seven and works ex­haust­ing hours in the ho­tel in­dus­try. She says ef­fec­tive time man­age­ment and hav­ing a great sup­port sys­tem – i. e. hus­band – is cru­cial to keep­ing her life tick­ing. Loh also trained her chil­dren to be in­de­pen­dent from a young age.

Still, she says it is a huge sac­ri­fice to make, and she con­stantly wor­ries about her kids, so much so that she even has CCTV cam­eras in­stalled in her home, so she can mon­i­tor them when she’s not around!

Ezati Is­mail, 33, is an­other chef who has con­tin­ued work­ing, even af­ter hav­ing two kids. Now based in MOKL, she and her hus­band ( who also works in the ho­tel) have sent their kids to live with their grand­mother in an­other town. They only see them once a month, and if things are re­ally busy in the ho­tel, then they see them once in two months.

Asked if she ever thinks of quit­ting to spend more time with her kids, Ezati says “I have, but I just can’t quit – this is my dream job.”

For oth­ers though, a tough choice has to be made and of­ten, fam­ily comes first for Tan ( and about 80% of her con­tem­po­raries), who value the pre­cious time they are able to spend with their chil­dren.

the value of fe­male chefs

It is sad that so many fe­male chefs are un­able to con­tinue work­ing, be­cause women add value to a pro­fes­sional kitchen. All the chefs we spoke to – both male and fe­male – said fe­male chefs work harder than the guys be­cause they want to prove their naysay­ers wrong. Putri says ev­ery time the guys tease her, it gives her fuel to work even harder.

“There are so many of them and one of me, so I take the op­por­tu­nity to out­shine them and get no­ticed,” she says.

The gen­eral con­sen­sus is also that fe­male chefs are more metic­u­lous in their work, com­pared to guys who were de­scribed as be­ing more “cin­cai”.

“Women pay more at­ten­tion to de­tail, the way they han­dle things is a bit more care­ful com­pared to men, who are a bit more rough. The plat­ing also can be a lit­tle bit more ac­cu­rate and nice, and they fol­low stan­dards. Women are more metic­u­lous,” says Ro­driguez.

In an ar­ti­cle ti­tled ‘ Where are all the women chefs?’ on Lucky Peach, chef Mar­got Hen­der­son ex­am­ined the con­se­quence of hav­ing so few fe­male chefs in the pro­fes­sional kitchen and said, “The lov­ing, nur­tur­ing side of the trade, the in­stinc­tive side – and, I would say, the fem­i­nine side – is be­ing for­got­ten.”

Hen­der­son was re­fer­ring to the grow­ing in­flux of men us­ing mod­ern tech­niques, who were dis­re­gard­ing women in the kitchen and as a con­se­quence, for­get­ting what gen­er­a­tions of women are ca­pa­ble of.

While it is hard to pick apart food made by male and fe­male chefs, and Chai says cre­ativ­ity tran­scends gen­der, in an in­ter­view with New York mag­a­zine, chef Sara Jenk­ins, famed for her rus­tic Ital­ian food said, “I think women cook dif­fer­ent food, and I think women cook bet­ter food. It’s more from the heart and more from the soul. I think we make bet­ter- tast­ing food.”

Mov­ing for­ward

But the re­al­ity is, de­spite the enor­mous po­ten­tial of fe­male chefs, there seems to be no fore­see­able so­lu­tion to keep­ing them in con­ven­tional pro­fes­sional kitchens. Ac­cord­ing to Ot­t­lik, hav­ing flex­i­ble work­ing hours or re­ar­rang­ing shifts for work­ing moth­ers just wouldn’t work in a pro­fes­sional kitchen.

“If the de­mand is there, they have to work those hours. You can­not shorten their shifts. It would cre­ate too much pres­sure in­ter­nally and you would be forced to re­duce the labour,” he says.

The tough hours and sac­ri­fices that have to be made have forced even young chefs to plan for their fu­tures early on in their ca­reers. Like So, for in­stance, who says “I’m think­ing of start­ing my own café later on. I think if I had a child and worked like this, my child wouldn’t even recog­nise me!”

It is per­haps the case that most young fe­male chefs need to make plans for their fu­ture – plans that al­low them to be their own bosses while still dip­ping their feet in F& B.

In this sense, there is no limit to what they can do. Fe­male chefs can open cafes, restau­rants, food de­liv­ery busi­nesses or even take on cater­ing gigs. They could still prac­tise their skills, but they would be their own bosses, set their own sched­ules and work from home if nec­es­sary. There’s noth­ing to say th­ese new ven­tures will be any eas­ier than their lives in pro­fes­sional kitchens, but at least this way, they’re run­ning the show.

As Ezati says, “If I can, my dream is to open a restau­rant when I’m older. I think it would be eas­ier be­cause it’s my own busi­ness. I can see my kids and look af­ter them my­self. It’s bet­ter than work­ing for some­one else.”

Pho­tos: 123rf.com

So says her male col­leagues tell her that she should be a host­ess or a model ... never a chef.

Ot­t­lik says in the pro­fes­sional kitchens, the gen­der break­down of chefs is 80% male to 20% fe­male.

Putri says it’s hard to keep a re­la­tion­ship go­ing with the long hours in the kitchen.


Tan gave up a promis­ing ca­reer to look af­ter her son, but says she has no re­grets.

The re­al­ity of a pro­fes­sional kitchen is such that fe­male chefs have to be re­ally tough to take the teas­ing and bul­ly­ing from their male col­leagues.


chai is proof that a woman can thrive in the pro­fes­sional kitchen.


Loh says she now en­joys be­ing a pas­try chef, but like so many women be­fore her, she was pushed to be a pas­try chef by her male boss.

Ezati works crazy long hours and only sees her kids once a month, but she’s not a quit­ter.

— RAY­MOND OOI/ The Star

Han­son says her days are so gru­elling that she con­sid­ers a 12- hour day a short day!

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