Isadora Chai's team is listening to her intently. "All of you know what you're doing ah?" she asks, and heads nod in unison.
Chai is in the kitchen of her French fine dining eatery Bistro A Table in Petaling Jaya, named the third best in Malaysia in the 2013 Miele Guide. And as it happens, she is a rare creature, a woman who dominates in an industry dominated by men.
Chai says it hasn't been easy getting to where she is now, and many female chefs will falter along the way - opting to quit the industry altogether. "It really depends on how hungry or ambitious you are," she said.
Curiously, the words "women" and "kitchen" have had long historical ties. So it is a paradox that women continue to be associated with home kitchens, but conversely there are still few female chefs in the professional kitchen. While the numbers are growing in culinary schools nationwide, the reality shows that gender imbalance in the industry is still glaring.
According to Nidzam Kamarulzaman, the deputy director general of the Department of Skills Development at the Ministry of Human Resource, female participation in culinary arts training has shown a consistent enrolment pattern of 37 per cent each year, from 2012 to 2015, representing 3,926 of the total enrolment of 10,605.
However, in an actual professional kitchen, the ratio is bleaker. Chef Rene Ottlik, the executive chef at Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur (MOKL), estimates that in Malaysia, the gender breakdown for male and female chefs in professional kitchens is 80 per cent male to 20 per cent female. In MOKL, there are a total of 140 chefs, out of which only 20 are women.
Chef Antoine Rodriguez, the executive chef at Le Meridien Kuala Lumpur says many female chefs also often end up leaving when they have children. "I think in Thailand it's maybe 50 per cent; here it's more, maybe only 20 per cent or 25 per cent of female chefs would stay after getting married and having babies," he says.
Ottlik says in the professional kitchens, the gender breakdown of chefs is 80 male to 20 female. Photo: The Star
It's a man's world, so toughen up
The contributing factors are many. The first is that female chefs who want to survive and eventually thrive in the kitchen, have to toughen up and deal with the ribbing, sexist comments and sometimes even bullying that male colleagues tend to heap on them.
"My restaurant manager tells me that I should be a hostess. He always says, 'You don't look like you should be in a kitchen - you look better in a hostess' uniform.' I get this Every. Single. Day. The guys never, ever get that. It's always the girls. But you can't take it personally, you just have to brush it off," says Ashley So, a 20-year-old just starting out at MOKL.
Putri says it’s hard to keep a relationship going with the long hours in the kitchen. Photo: The Star
Her colleague Putri Amirza, 26, agrees and says female chefs have an extra set of challenges to contend with but can't afford to let it get to them. "When the guys joke, sometimes it's very harsh so some girls can't take it. You have to be mentally strong," she says.
Even female chefs who have been successful in their careers have to deal with preconceived notions. Chef Phoebe Hanson, the executive chef at Aloft KL says that even now, she gets raised eyebrows.
"I've interviewed quite a lot of people here, who sit down in the interview chair, look at me and say 'Oh my God, I didn't know you were going to be a woman!'"
Hanson says she always follows up by asking if it's going to be an issue for them. Apparently the standard response is "No", but she suspects that no one dares say it's an issue during an interview.
Chai says, "It's harder, yes, especially if you move up the ranks as a female chef because males don't like taking orders from females - it's reality lah!"
According to Chai, women have to be tougher to gain respect in the kitchen, and at the beginning, she was tough to the point of being menacing. Now she has toned it down and taken on a mothering role, because everyone in her kitchen plays ball and trusts her.
Her male colleagues told her that she should be a hostess or a model … never a chef. Photo: The Star
Off you go to the pastry kitchen
There is also some prejudice involved in the sense that female chefs often get shunted to the pastry kitchen, which is generally considered easier.
"They always see the fairer sex as the weaker sex and they will always forever push you into a really easy section like the pastry section. You don't have to take the heat or the stress. And that is always the stereotype that people put on a female chef," said Chai.
Loh Mee Foong, for example, was encouraged to become a pastry chef by her first boss - a man - although she now enjoys her job and finds it both challenging and rewarding.
"The chef I was working for said 'Why are you working in the Chinese kitchen? You are a lady, you should work in the pastry kitchen! The Chinese kitchen is not suitable for you - there is a big wok and you have to fry things.' Because I did not have any experience then, I had to listen to what the sifu said," says Foong, who is a now a pastry chef with Le Meridien.
All work and no play
Loh says she now enjoys being a pastry chef, but like so many women before her, she was pushed to be a pastry chef by her male boss. Photo: Le Meridien KL
For a lot of female chefs, shaking off the daily teasing, stereotyping and in some cases, lack of respect is something they have to overcome if they want to sustain their careers in the long run. But then there is the physical aspect of the job and the long hours that come with it. Most chefs work 12 to 14 hours a day, and have to lift and heave all sorts of heavy pots and pans. It's a tough job and women have to be extremely strong - both physically and mentally - to keep their careers going.
"You average like 12, 14, 16 hour days. For me, a 12-hour day is a short day. It's gruelling and it takes a toll, because at the end of the day, you're exhausted, your body is beat, your mind is fried and your emotions might be raw, depending on what kind of day you've had. I just wanna go home, have dinner and fall into bed," says Hanson.
For female chefs looking to start or maintain relationships, this can prove really difficult. Hanson is single and says this gives her the chance to work "all odd hours of the day" while Chai says her career has always been her focus. Although she is now in a relationship that has lasted over a year, before this, all her relationships were over in a mere three months.
"Yeah, crazy hours, crazy lifestyle- how are you supposed to maintain a relationship? You can't!" she ex-claims.
Putri says most of her female culinary arts friends have quit the industry altogether, largely because the stress of working long hours was taking a toll on their relationships. Putri herself had to give up on a relationship when her then-boyfriend became jealous and insecure because she was working with mainly male colleagues.
Hanson says her days are so gruelling that she considers a 12-hour day a short one. Photo: The Star
Making tough choices
Even if female chefs are able to maintain relationships, things come to a head once they get married and decide to have kids. That's what Bernice Tan faced five years ago. A successful chef de partie at the prestigious Fairmont Hotel in Bermuda, Tan had to make a tough decision when she had her son.
"I didn't have a choice - I was working from 4am till dinner time. I had a lot of bosses who thought I should pursue my career further, but if you choose to have a family, you have to give it up," she says.
Chai is more blunt about the situation, saying that most married female chefs who have kids have to make these choices eventually and most choose their family.
"Most people's careers only peak at 35 or 40. How many 35, 40 year old female chefs do you see? Not many because they need to already have children. So they need to sacrifice that, even before their careers peak," she said.
It's clear that it is more difficult for female chefs to sustain their careers in the long run. Chai and Hanson are the exceptions - women who have climbed the rungs and are now at the top of their game. But Chai readily admits that she is sacrificing the opportunity to have children for the sake of her career, while Hanson says she would love to have a family but it hasn't happened for her.
Can you have it all?
The women who manage to juggle motherhood and full-time careers as chefs are few and far between. But reassuringly, they exist - although they are rare.
Loh, for instance, has two kids, aged 12 and seven and works exhausting hours in the hotel industry. She says effective time management and having a great support system - i.e. husband - is crucial to keeping her life ticking. Loh also trained her children to be independent from a young age.
Still, she says it is a huge sacrifice to make, and she constantly worries about her kids, so much so that she even has CCTV cameras installed in her home, so she can monitor them when she's not around!
Ezati Ismail, 33, is another chef who has continued working, even after having two kids. Now based in MOKL, she and her husband (who also works in the hotel) have sent their kids to live with their grandmother in another town. They only see them once a month, and if things are really busy in the hotel, then they see them once in two months.
Asked if she ever thinks of quitting to spend more time with her kids, Ezati says "I have, but I just can't quit - this is my dream job."
For others though, a tough choice has to be made and often, family comes first for Tan (and about 80 per cent of her contemporaries), who value the precious time they are able to spend with their children.
Ezati works crazy long hours and only sees her kids once a month, but she’s not a quitter. Photo: The Star
The value of female chefs
It is sad that so many female chefs are unable to continue working, because women add value to a professional kitchen. All the chefs we spoke to - both male and female - said female chefs work harder than the guys because they want to prove their naysayers wrong. Putri says every time the guys tease her, it gives her fuel to work even harder.
"There are so many of them and one of me, so I take the opportunity to outshine them and get noticed," she says.
The general consensus is also that female chefs are more meticulous in their work, compared to guys who were described as being more "cincai".
"Women pay more attention to detail, the way they handle things is a bit more careful compared to men, who are a bit more rough. The plating also can be a little bit more accurate and nice, and they follow standards. Women are more meticulous," says Rodriguez.
In an article titled "Where are all the women chefs?" in Lucky Peach, chef Margot Henderson examined the consequence of having so few female chefs in the professional kitchen and said, "The loving, nurturing side of the trade, the instinctive side - and, I would say, the feminine side - is being forgotten."
Henderson was referring to the growing influx of men using modern techniques, who were disregarding women in the kitchen and as a consequence, forgetting what generations of women are capable of.
While it is hard to pick apart food made by male and female chefs, and Chai says creativity transcends gender, in an interview with New York magazine, chef Sara Jenkins, famed for her rustic Italian food said, "I think women cook different food, and I think women cook better food. It's more from the heart and more from the soul. I think we make better-tasting food."
But the reality is, despite the enormous potential of female chefs, there seems to be no foreseeable solution to keeping them in conventional professional kitchens. According to Ottlik, having flexible working hours or rearranging shifts for working mothers just wouldn't work in a professional kitchen.
"If the demand is there, they have to work those hours. You cannot shorten their shifts. It would create too much pressure internally and you would be forced to reduce the labour," he says.
The tough hours and sacrifices that have to be made have forced even young chefs to plan for their futures early on in their careers. Like So, for instance, who says "I'm thinking of starting my own cafe later on. I think if I had a child and worked like this, my child wouldn't even recognise me!
It is perhaps the case that most young female chefs need to make plans for their future - plans that allow them to be their own bosses while still dipping their feet in F&B.
In this sense, there is no limit to what they can do. Female chefs can open cafes, restaurants, food delivery businesses or even take on catering gigs. They could still practise their skills, but they would be their own bosses, set their own schedules and work from home if necessary. There's nothing to say these new ventures will be any easier than their lives in professional kitchens, but at least this way, they're running the show.
As Ezati says, "If I can, my dream is to open a restaurant when I'm older. I think it would be easier because it's my own business. I can see my kids and look after them myself. It's better than working for someone else."