“A woman’s place is in the kitchen,” say some male chauvinists still alive today. On the other hand, many in the restaurant industry believe “women have no place in the kitchen”. Apparently, females lack the wherewithal to thrive in what is unquestionably a physically demanding workplace.
Johanne Siy is out to prove both assertions wrong. The head chef of Lolla, an intimate restaurant that celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, is at the vanguard of the industry’s movement to change the time-dishonoured tropes.
The 42-year-old Filipina contends that fine dining is currently a male-dominated world and that’s not sustainable. “We’re not tapping into half of the world’s population,” she says.
One could infer that the restaurant world is nuts for not being gender inclusive, but it’s a long-standing practice. “We’ve been groomed to expect an authoritative male yelling in the kitchen,” Siy says, drawing on her experience as a dogsbody in New York City. The male chef would “direct everything in a very dictatorial way”. Intimidation in the cauldron of a restaurant kitchen was often rife.
She took the bold step almost a decade ago to switch careers from chauffeur-driven brand development executive to cook, exchanging corporate skills for skillets. After completing her studies in New York at The Culinary Institute of America, she interned at high-end eateries such as Le Bernardin and Café Boulud. In 2014, she returned to work as a sous chef in the now-defunct Restaurant André. Three years ago, she joined Lolla and helped rebuild its pandemic-hit kitchen team.
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The joy of food
With more women taking the lead in restaurants around the world — Dominique Crenn, Clare Smyth, and Pia León, to name a few — Siy believes they bring an intangible touch. “Women are wired to be more nurturing than men,” she says, “and that’s what this industry is all about — taking care of people.”
In February, she was named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2023 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants. Siy was garlanded for her meticulous presentation of seasonally driven dishes inspired by Mediterranean and Asian cuisine, and for executing them perfectly.
While she was “grateful and honoured’ to be the recipient of such a stellar accolade, she maintains that what matters most to her is the happiness that food brings. “I cook from the heart and it’s less about intellectual discourse and the history of food. It’s really more about bringing joy to people.”
Regular visitors to Lolla will understand. With only 14 seats at the counter overlooking the kitchen and quite a few more in the basement, it has become one of the hottest meal tickets in town.
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The way of the velvet glove
Siy’s current incarnation is very different from her corporate days, but there are many common skills, leadership being one of the most crucial. During her apprenticeship — she worked with restaurant royalty, honing her craft at the likes of Faviken and Noma — she found that leadership in the kitchen was more effective when served with a velvet glove instead of an iron fist.
That approach is applied at Lolla, where Siy and her team work like a well- oiled machine, always busy and on the ball — but with a sense of calm and a sharp focus.
Her cuisine features contemporary techniques that accentuate the quality of ingredients. In her signature dish, an avocado is halved and filled with a gel made from eel consomme and served with smoked eel and jalapeño granita.
Besides pushing the boundaries of her cuisine, Siy feels responsible to the people she leads to improve the industry. It’s the reason she’s advocating for gender equality in the kitchen and leading through kindness.
While it may all sound a tad ”woke”, there’s nary a hint of contrivance. Siy is genuine and forthright. When she accepted her recent gong, she promptly declared that her “goal is to make the award obsolete”.
Siy walks the talk for gender equality in the business of running a restaurant — not simply as an option, but as an imperative in sustaining an industry.