Women are increasingly making their mark in the culinary world, and in Asia, this is true nowhere more so than in Singapore. Meet Janice Wong, Karla Mendoza, Sabrina Stillhart, Shen Tan, and Violet Oon, five of the most talented female chefs working in the Lion City today.
In his tell-all memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, Anthony Bourdain details at length the machismo, unabashed bluster, and foul-mouthed tomfoolery he experienced—and happily wallowed in—while rising through the ranks of New York City kitchens. The worlds he describes are decidedly masculine; the few women who thrived in these rough-and-tumble boys’ clubs, Bourdain notes, did so only by following the unspoken boys’-club rules. “What the system seeks, what it requires, is someone, anyone, who can hold up his station, play the game without getting bent out of shape and taking things personally,” he writes.
That may still be true, but times have changed since Bourdain cut his culinary teeth in the 1970s and ’80s. Unseemly shenanigans in restaurants across the world remain part and parcel of the trade, but as in most professions women have long since stormed the kitchen in greater numbers, altering the food world’s economy and dynamics. Gender is increasingly irrelevant—in most cases.
For all the strides women have made across the industry, some divides linger, particularly in Asia’s upper tiers. Take, for example, the influential Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which ranks venues in more than 25 countries across the continent. In 2016, only one restaurant helmed by a female chef—Lanshu Chen’s Le Moût in Taichung, Taiwan—made the cut, at number 30. As in its global and other regional iterations, the awards also include a separate group for “Asia’s Best Female Chef,” which suggests a certain imbalance in terms of who is running the show at the region’s top dining establishments.
This overall lack of female representation indicates neither a sexist conspiracy nor a gender-based talent gap, but rather that, particularly in Asia, women leading prestigious restaurants and other food enterprises is still an emerging trend. If the exponential progress of recent years in places like Singapore is any indication, however, it is a trend that’s gaining steam.