Let’s Hear It For Women of the Food World!

To quote this year’s International Women’s Day #EACHFOREQUAL campaign: an equal world is an enabled world.

It’s also a damn delicious one.

The representation of women in restaurants is on the rise in Singapore, and with these new perspectives, the city’s food scene is flourishing with more creativity, innovation and passion than ever before.

Diversity is the magic ingredient – but statistics indicate that we still need to up the dosage:

👉90% of women in food service have experienced some form of sexual harassment from their colleagues or patrons.👉Five women-run restaurants made The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and only six were among the 70 runner-ups.👉 Less than five percent of Michelin stars are held by women globally.👉And documentaries like A Fine Line highlight the on-going gender issues within the industry.

Until these problems get solved and until the day that ‘women chefs’ and ‘women restaurant owners’ are simply known as chefs and restaurant owners, these conversations need to be industry headliners.

This past week we’ve had the pleasure of talking to a selection of bold women to hear how they’ve been paving their own way in Singapore’s food scene. These are women challenging stereotypes and smashing down boundaries, swapping aprons for chef whites and dinner tables for the pass, to ensure their voices are heard.

Oh, and make sure you check out our International Women’s Day stories in Italy, UK, Australia and Germany too!

Please, make a lot of noise for…

Tamara Chavez Lopez

Head Chef, TONO Cevicheria

Tamara Chavez Lopez striking this year’s International Women’s Day pose \[…\]

How did you get into the food industry?

I was introduced to the food and beverage industry at a young age, as my family ran a restaurant. I grew up surrounded by music and food – half of my family members are musicians and I started waitressing at 12 after school in my family’s restaurant. At the same time, my grandmother, who is a great cook, was the one who taught me the secrets of the restaurant and imparted me invaluable lessons on cooking.

At 16, I started working in a fast food chain and on the first day of work, I felt an unexplainable adrenaline rush as I worked with the rest of the staff to serve up burgers. As we moved our hands in rhythmic fashion, I felt that this was the world I was meant to be in, and that I would cook for the rest of my life. Thereafter I decided to change my focus to sell tacos. This was one of the best experiences I had as we toured Mexico City in a car full of ingredients, just to make and sell tacos at every stop we made.

I returned to work at my family restaurant and went back to the basics of the kitchen – taking orders, serving the customers, learning about the products and having a hand at transforming ingredients. I consider my first mentor in the kitchen to be my grandmother, who taught me and nurtured my love for the culinary arts. It is in the kitchen that I feel most comfortable and at ease, and I like knowing that the food I serve out has the immense power to effect positive changes on one’s emotions and feelings.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the restaurant scene?

As a woman, physically we are not as strong to carry out some tasks in the kitchen. Starting out, I remember crying often due to the burns I was getting as a result. But as time goes by, you will get stronger.

Also, because it was and still primarily is a male-dominated industry, there is a better sense of camaraderie between male chefs. It is easier for them to break down walls between one another and become fast friends, compared to if you put a female and male chef together. That said, I always try my best to build the rapport required, to ensure that my voice is still heard.

What do you want to tell other women with food dreams?

I would say, welcome to the best race in the world! The industry used to be a race for the men, but I think it has changed greatly, and women are doing very well now. That’s not to say it is easy. You have to be strong both physically and emotionally, because you often work under constant pressure. But the dream has different aspects; though challenging, you will also find joy when you succeed. There are many times where my heart and soul did a dance within to say “yes, I did it!”. To me, that is the best feeling in the world.

What achievements are you most proud of?

What I’m most proud of is being the Head Chef of TONO Cevicheria. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility. I’ve had to make adjustments to my life as the restaurant is now the primary place I spend my time and effort in; where I’ve had tears but also much laughter. Now that I’ve spent hours and hours building TONO, my greatest job at current is to maintain it.

Eat at TONO Cevicheria

Sofi Sui

Owner and Head Chef, Pasta Brava & SOFI Cafe Pizza

How did you get into the food industry?

I’m a foodie who loves to experiment and create my own dishes. When I taste a dish, I love to find ways to make it better with more love and healthier ingredients. I have attended many cooking culinary courses conducted by Michelin-starred chefs, gained experience as a hotelier in luxury hotels such as Raffles Hotel, Four Seasons Hotel & Wynn Resort and met many famous chefs who have been a source of inspiration for me.

Over the years I have developed a deep love for Indonesian, Singaporean, Japanese and Italian cuisines. You’ll often find me eating pasta, exploring plant-based meals and vegan options as well as creating feel-good desserts.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the restaurant scene?

Women not only face discrimination in the restaurant scene, but also in the corporate world. We are usually more detail-oriented and are often criticised as being perfectionists. We lose out on opportunities due to a lack of muscles. My advice is don’t worry about what others think and try your best in whatever you believe in. Mind over fear is key.

When I took Pasta Brava over from its previous owner, people in the industry felt that I would not succeed and gave me 6 months to fail. I proved them wrong by doubling profits and opening another outlet within 1 year.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Being an orphan with no one to mentor me, I worked my way up independently to get to where I am today. SOFI Cafe Pizza was opened as a home to love, nurture and feed guests as well as motivate our talented staff.

SOFI’s purpose is about giving direction and hope to people who need it most. We hire young adults or elderly folks with little or no educational qualifications, providing intensive training and job opportunities for them. I also volunteer my time to counsel those who are often unhappy in their life or housewives who have lost their purpose once the marriage is over or when kids have left the family.

Eat at Pasta BravaEat at SOFI Cafe Pizza

Robin Thang

Partner, In Bad Co.

How did you get into the food industry?

Honestly, when I first did a part-time job in F&B while I was still in polytechnic, I promised myself never to be in the front line of the industry because the experience was so negative.

However, I stumbled into the F&B industry while seeking a job as a marketing executive a few years ago. I was privileged that my first experience was working with a team that had clearly dedicated themselves to delivering the highest standards (eventually winning the Michelin Star!) whether in the kitchen or front of house. Watching them at work revived my love and respect for the industry and I continue to draw from the experience I had with them in my current business.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the restaurant scene?

People are often surprised to find out that I am one of the owners of In Bad Co, a craft beer bar and restaurant, because women are typically associated with marketing or PR roles. Credit is also often given to a single figure for successes in the business without recognising that team work really makes or breaks a company. I find this really impedes the career growth of an individual. If this happens to you too, don’t be afraid to own your narrative and share this with the necessary people. There is no shame in taking credit for all that hard work that you put in!

Why does the restaurant industry need more women?

As a business that is built on a ‘people for the people’ philosophy, we need to be aware of ways that we can nurture our teams as a whole. While I think that this should be a trait that all business owners should have, I find that women tend to bring this trait to the table more often. Seeing more female role models in this industry will help to provide a compass for many who are looking to work in and build their career in Singapore’s hospitality scene.

Women showing support for each other in the industry is crucial because we face more similar issues at work, and should be the case for other minority groups within any industry. Leaders that see this as a necessity seem to foster a more inclusive workplace for everyone as they are in a position to create platforms for better relations, both internally and externally.

Who are the women within the hospitality industry that have inspired you over the years?

I’ve always looked up to Denise Tan (hi Denise!). I don’t think that she knows it but back when I was working my first job in marketing for a fine dining restaurant, I was desperately looking for a role model to learn from. Seeing the work that she did for Unlisted Collection back then really inspired me to do more and I’ve followed her career since then. It’s really wonderful to have seen her move from company to company and still smashing it!

What do you want to tell other women with food dreams?

With passion and a good team to support you, the possibilities are endless! Also, remember the importance of building genuine connections, both with your team and your customers.

What positive changes have you seen for women in the industry?

There is definitely a rise in women playing key roles in the food industry but this just the beginning! I’m looking forward to seeing more women-owned establishments open up that will have the support both from the industry and the media.

Lauren Chew

Director, Grill Ninety Nine

How did you get into the food industry?

It was by chance that I got into this industry when the ex-owner of my current shop was selling his business. I have personally always been keen on food and setting up a restaurant was one of my many dreams.

The food industry is one that offers a lot of room for creativity and changes. As someone who doesn’t like doing the same thing year after year, it’s the perfect business for me.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in the restaurant scene?

I have never seen myself as any lesser than men. Therefore, I don’t perceive it as a personal obstacle, especially in Singapore where there are many successful women in various industries to be inspired by. But I do notice when applicants send in their applications, 10 out of 10 will assume I am a man and address me as ‘Sir’. They are inadvertently surprised to encounter a boss who just happens to be a woman.

I am also managing a kitchen of male chefs who are more experienced and some older than me but nonetheless they have been respectful and supportive.

My advice will be firstly, forget that you are a woman, because this mentality will hinder yourself psychologically. Just focus on the business and do the necessary tasks to help your shop thrive.

Why does the restaurant industry need more women?

In general, women are more sensitive and detail-oriented. They bring in a different perspective and usually offer a much more personal and sympathetic touch than male owners. I make sure I communicate personally with my staff and potential customers and create an environment where they can trust me at any time with their problems.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Coming from a non F&B background, I have promoted the restaurant with various marketing and digitalisation tools and managed to grow the restaurant to reach almost 2000 instagram followers in less than a year, as well as helped the shop attain Halal certificate which was a stringent process.

Apart from being a restaurant, Grill Ninety Nine has been reshaped as an event space too. We have held several successful corporate and consumer events last year including companies such as MJ Group and SGBC. My shop was also chosen by MediaCorp and Suria as a filming location for Code of Law Season 5 and Tekan Minyak Season2 respectively. I have also had the honour of Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, a well-known Singapore politician, visiting my shop before, when he visited Kampong Glam to promote digitalisation.

Eat at Grill Ninety Nine