‘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 , 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 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 up in Asia. In the past, no one would encour­age you to 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 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 rear chil­dren. 

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

“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 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 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 hard to ignore too. Siy said each 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 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 made up about 20% of all head chefs in the U.S., accord­ing to career plan­ning site Zip­pia.

“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 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 a team that embraces diver­si­ty.

“It is 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 famil­ial. 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.” 

Don’t miss: This award-win­ning chef has a phi­los­o­phy that can be applied to any career

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