Welcome to Vogue Singapore’s new series ‘Career Files’, where we gather career advice and stories of success from female leaders and professionals at the top of their game.
Chef Johanne Siy is a wizard in the kitchen—it’s a veritable treat to watch her put finishing touches on her masterful creations if you manage to land a counter seat at Lolla at Ann Siang Hill. When she’s not making magic with her food, she is serving dishes to guests, with a detailed explanation of each dish and a friendly chat if anyone is up for it.
The restaurant offers a tasting menu which takes you through a splendid journey of Asian-inspired modern European flavours—both progressive yet familiar. In particular, a humble avocado dish gets our attention during our tasting session one afternoon. A personal challenge for her to elevate the brunch staple, Siy carves out a perfect hole in the avocado and fills it with a jellified consommé made from the skin, bones and trimmings of the Spanish smoked eel it is served with.
Away from the kitchen though, Siy is genial, honest and impossibly pragmatic. Just two weeks after being crowned Asia’s Best Female Chef as part of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, she is astonishingly clear on the responsibility she has holding this award. She wants to see more gender balance in an industry which still lacks it, and to spark a change which has to occur culturally, sustainably and systemically.
“I’m very grateful for the award that gives me a platform to share my passion and values, as well as inspire the next generation—because we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I didn’t win,” she muses. “But to be frank, the goal is to make this award obsolete. I think that’s also the intent behind it? It is like a transition period of shifting towards a gender-balanced industry.”
Hailing from the Philippines, Siy reveals that her love for cooking stemmed from cooking for her two brothers. Her mother, whose cooking leaned towards the healthier end of things, wouldn’t prepare anything “sinful” for them, so it landed on Siy to whip up a delectable sandwich or pizza for the family. “I enjoyed it. Since my brothers were always hungry, I got a lot of immediate gratification and validation from them,” she says with a laugh. “I thought to myself, ‘I must cook well, because they finish everything.’”
Yet a career as a chef wasn’t on the cards for her at first, as Siy picked a more conventional path by moving to Singapore in 2003 to work for Procter and Gamble for the next six years. It was all smooth-sailing for her, until it finally dawned on her that she wanted to live her life to the fullest and do things she was passionate about.
With becoming a professional chef in mind, she hopped on a plane to New York and enrolled in the prestigious The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), whose alumni include the likes of Grant Achatz and the late Anthony Bourdain. She spent four years in the Big Apple, working at Le Bernardin and Café Boulud, before returning to Asia to Restaurant André for the next four years. When the restaurant closed in 2018, Siy decided to build on her culinary prowess by working on farms in Europe, and completing stints at Fäviken in Sweden and Noma—the latter a repeated winner of world’s best restaurants lists.
“It’s a great time for a lot of young female chefs coming up in the industry and I can only foresee a future where there is better representation for women”
The tenacious chef didn’t expect to take over the helm at Lolla in 2020, as she was intending to help out while the restaurant hunted for their new head chef. As they lost staff due to Covid-19, Siy felt it was a waste for a restaurant to close due to the lack of manpower. She stuck with Lolla as one thing snowballed into another—and she was never going to let it fail.
“I always put in 110 percent in whatever I do. Even if I was just here temporarily, I made sure everything was good. We relaunched the menu and started getting good reviews. People started spreading the word again about us. We were able to achieve what we’ve achieved so far—and I’m still here.”
Tell us about your unconventional path towards becoming a chef.
As you know, I changed careers—but of course, this comes with risks. I remember my first day in a professional kitchen. I had to mop the floor, and this was a reality check for me coming from a job where I flew business class and had a car and a driver on work trips. I was like, “Wow, did I make the right choice? I have passion but is it pragmatic?”
I sent myself to culinary school. Whatever I had saved from Procter and Gamble went to my school fees at CIA, as I didn’t come from a rich family. I remember a time in New York when I had one dollar to my name, and I was walking around, wondering what meal I could buy with one dollar. But that also motivated me, because I had already made that decision and put all my eggs in one basket. I had to make it work.
How has Lolla changed since you’ve taken over and what is the spirit of the restaurant at the moment?
I’ve put a little bit more of my mark on it. We’ve evolved it from being purely Mediterranean to European and incorporating a bit of my heritage and Asian inspiration into the food. To me, that’s what defines it and makes it more exciting. I feel like the team now has a lot more ownership of the restaurant, because it’s something that I strongly value. I always tell them, “Even if you’re just an employee here, treat it as if it’s your own.” They are now defining the culture. Teamwork is also important. We don’t operate individually, like I’m back of house, you’re front of house. We are all one team. If they’re short-staffed in the front, I would run to the tables or pull out chairs for the guests.
“Younger female chefs need to have role models that pave the way for them. They need to know it’s doable and that’s the first step”
What do you mean by wanting to make the Asia’s Best Female Chef award obsolete?
That’s the goal and I think that’s also the intent behind it? It is like a transition period of shifting towards a gender-balanced industry. The moment we are able to get rid of it is the moment it has achieved its objectives. I believe it’s crucial to the industry’s sustainability and survival. Everyone is complaining about staff shortage or manpower issues, but you’re not tapping into that other half of the population—women. So the moment we make it more appealing to them, and are able to retain female talents beyond a certain point, then the industry can be sustainable again.
Why is it that female chefs are rare?
It’s very interesting in the context of fine dining restaurants, because people who get into fine dining restaurants are the ones who are driven. They are the people who have so much passion and drive that they are willing to work many hours to get to a certain level of excellence. But still, they drop out at some point. It has a lot to do with society and expectations, and the fact that even if there has been some progress or development on this front, it has not really been systemic enough that it’s sustainable for everyone.
I think it’s a very big question and something that goes beyond the industry. What we are doing now—the award and talking about it, for example—brings a lot of visibility to women and that’s good. Younger female chefs need to have role models that pave the way for them. They need to know it’s doable and that’s the first step. The second step is for leaders like us to cultivate a culture that is not gender-biased. We need to embrace diversity and value people for the unique talents that they bring to the table—not so much because of their gender or heritage. The third step is the hardest. We need to make sure it is systemic. In the tech industry in Silicon Valley, for example, they talk about making it sustainable with flexible hours and childcare support. That is basically unheard of in this industry. Perhaps the hotel chains are starting to implement something to that effect, but small restaurants? There is a cost to doing that in the short term which makes it prohibitive for a lot of companies to embrace doing that for their employees. Maybe the government has to be involved too, with tax breaks for companies who do that. It needs to become a viable choice for smaller companies.
Have you faced discrimination as a female chef?
Yes, to a certain extent, but everyone’s experience is different. I was in a session with Nancy Silverton yesterday, and her experience was very positive and she has never felt discriminated against. But the industry is made up of people from all walks of life, and I think it is inevitable you will experience bigotry. Some suppliers, for example, will say, “Where’s the chef? I want to talk to the chef,” and I’m like, “I’m the chef.” But these are small things, and you cannot blame them completely because that’s the way they were raised and the reality they grew up in. The important thing is to go past that—put your head down and push on with what you want to achieve.
Do you think times have changed in terms of what it takes these days to become a great chef?
I think it’s easier now, because of technological advances. It’s not as physically demanding. For example, before if you needed to mash potato and you’re doing it for 250 covers, by the time you’re done, you don’t have energy for anything else. Now we have cool gadgets that make life easier. People are also more woke and talking about gender balance and embracing diversity. It’s a great time for a lot of young female chefs coming up in the industry and I can only foresee a future where there’s better representation for women.
“We need to embrace diversity and value people for the unique talents they bring to the table—not so much because of their gender or heritage”
What are three ingredients in your pantry that you can’t live without?
Sea salt, eggs and cheese. These ingredients make up my quick meal when I come home and I’m hungry—scrambled eggs with cheese is one of my go-tos. It’s simple and brings me back to my time in New York when I didn’t have money to buy anything fancy.
Another guilty pleasure is instant noodles, which is super unhealthy, but it’s just so gratifying. It’s something I crave every once in a while. I love the Korean or Japanese varieties, and I’ll throw in seaweed and sesame seeds—and some vegetables so I don’t feel as guilty. Sometimes, a slice of cheese on top as well. I also love a grilled cheese sandwich. All you need is two slices of sourdough bread, a bit of butter and cheese and you’re set for dinner.
What is success to you at the end of the day?
It’s positive impact, whether it be on the people you spend time with or someone else. If you think about how momentary things are—whatever we do, it doesn’t really matter unless we are able to influence or touch other people in this lifetime. I just want to think about making positive change in someone else’s life, whether it’s as simple as inspiring them or setting them up for success.