‘Asia’s best female chef’ from Lolla quit her job to pursue cooking

Johanne Siy walked into her first culinary job interview in four-inch heels.

She had just come from her high-flying corporate job and like any other candidate, she put her best foot forward.

“The floor was so slippery. Everyone was just watching me and in their minds they were probably judging me,” the 41-year-old said with a laugh.

While her introduction to the gastronomic world was nothing short of funny, one thing was for sure — Siy felt like she belonged.

Ten years on, Siy is now head chef at one of Singapore’s premier dining destinations, Lolla — where Asian-inspired modern European flavors dominate the menu.

Just last week, she was named “Asia’s Best Female Chef” at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 — the first Singapore-based chef to win. Lolla was also ranked 63rd in the list.

I’ve always loved cooking but never really considered it as a career growing up in Asia. In the past, no one would encourage you to take up a manual job.

“I was just so excited to be in the kitchen. I thrived on that energy during a good service,” she told CNBC Make It, recounting that interview.

“It’s pretty much like sports. When the team gets together, it’s just so rewarding when everyone pulls it off.”

The Filipino chef told CNBC Make It what made her change the course of her career.

Rejecting the conventional path

Siy knows all too well what the conventional path looks like: graduate from university, get a decent job, start a family and raise children.

She was after all on that “formulaic” path herself: after graduating with a degree in science, business administration and accountancy, Siy moved from the Philippines to Singapore to work at Procter & Gamble.

In six years, she climbed the ranks to become its regional brand manager — a job that “paid well” and was “well regarded,” she said.

But Siy was not satisfied.

“I would call it a quarter-life crisis … There was a time I was reflecting on whether this is what I really want to do my whole life because I am not jumping out of bed in the morning.”

Siy thought about what she was good at and passionate about that she could devote her whole life to. She found her mind wandering to cook.

“I’ve always loved cooking but never really considered it as a career growing up in Asia. In the past, no one would encourage you to take up a manual job,” she added.

When you get to the kitchen, you start off by mopping the floor — that’s not very rock star-like.

After “a lot of reflection,” at the age of 28, Siy decided to take a leap of faith and pursue cooking. It meant she had to take a significant pay cut.

“Are you passionate enough that you are willing to let go of a certain lifestyle and live more simply?” she asked herself.

“You have to be very honest with yourself, really reflect on that and evaluate yourself.”

Temper expectations

For anyone thinking of embarking on a career switch, Siy has this advice: “Temper your expectations, get a good grip of what it really is first.”

That saw her working in a kitchen in Singapore, even before she enrolled into a culinary school.

“Everything that’s portrayed in the media is always romanticized, especially for our field. Like, oh it’s so glamorous to be a chef, you’re like a rock star,” she said.

“But when you get to the kitchen, you start off by mopping the floor — that’s not very rock star-like.”

The physical challenges that came with the job were too hard to ignore. Siy said every time she started a new station or kitchen, she would “easily lose about five to ten kilograms.”

An avocado, smoked eel, eel consomme and yuzu dish from Lolla.

Lolla

“Now you have all these cool kitchen gadgets but when I started, it was not as advanced. There were a lot of things that you had to do manually,” she explained.

“When I was younger, there was a sense of pride like okay, if [men] can do it, I can do it too. So you’re trying to lift this heavy pot by yourself and not asking the guys or anyone else for help.”

Siy said she was hooked, and enrolled herself into the legendary Culinary Institute of America in 2010.

She then built up an impressive resume with stints in New York, Sweden and Denmark before stepping into the role of head chef at Lolla.

Leading by example

Siy acknowledged that gender bias and equality are evolving in professional kitchens, but there’s no denying the culinary field is still a male-dominated field, she said.

In 2021, women make up about 20% of all head chefs in the US, according to Zippia’s career planning site.

“It’s not sustainable because every kitchen is understaffed. If we don’t make kitchens more hospitable to women, I don’t think the industry can survive,” said Siy.

“It’s not really a question of driving gender equality and or parity anymore. It’s a question of survival.”

For Siy, it is important for the head chef or leader of a restaurant to cultivate an inclusive culture and “set the tone” for a kitchen — that’s not a role she takes lightly.

As an example, she said she’s “very strict” when hiring individuals, in order to build a team that embraces diversity.

“It’s something I do very deliberately. When I interview people, I ask a lot of questions about their working style, and how best they work with people,” Siy said.

“The culture at Lolla feels familiar. It’s not about: ‘Hey, this is your station, you get your sh*t together.’ We’re a team and we help each other out.”

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