Hong Kong (DailyExpertNews) — Archan Chan recalls her first experience of working in a Chinese restaurant more than 14 years ago.
She worked as an apprentice chef and was one of only two women in the kitchen – the other’s only job was to beat eggs.
“She was incredibly fast at beating eggs. I think at the time, if a woman wanted to survive in a traditional Chinese kitchen, you had to be the best at something,” Chan says.
Having spent over a decade working in fine dining and gastro-bars in Australia and Singapore, Chan is one of the few female chefs to have risen to the top of a high-end Cantonese restaurant.
Archan Chan is one of the few female chefs to be at the top of a high-end Cantonese restaurant.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/DailyExpertNews
An impressive feat, considering how incredibly challenging it has been for women to float in high-profile Chinese kitchens.
Why are there so few women who want to put on the chef’s apron? The physically demanding kitchen tools and set-up, the fierce fire of the wok and a male-centric culture are just some of the deterrents women were once told they don’t have the strength to deal with such a grueling industry.
But more like Chan prove doubters wrong.
Why women are rare in Chinese cuisines
Female chefs have long been a minority in professional kitchens around the world. But the situation is even bleaker in Chinese kitchens.
In traditional Chinese kitchens, which serve a variety of regional cuisines, cooks are generally divided into two groups: there are those who man the stove and prepare wok and stir-fry dishes; and then there is the pastry shop, where the dim sum and noodles are made.
There’s no denying that the work is physically demanding – an empty wok weighs about 2.2 kilograms – but there are other factors that come into play.
Ho Lee Fook’s classic steamed wire fin served with chicken oil and Shaoxing wine.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/DailyExpertNews
In the past, many Chinese cuisines focused on mentor-protégé relationships, meaning masters recruited apprentices and passed on their skills to them. Few chefs would take the risk of recruiting a female intern in that harsh environment.
Given all these barriers, not many women would even consider this male-dominated industry an attractive career path.
“Until about a decade ago, the only women I met in Chinese kitchens were kitchen hands, cleaning and doing some basic prep, or dim sum cart pushers,” says Chun Hung Chan, who has recently been a chef. 46 years and 28 years an instructor at the Chinese Culinary Institute in Hong Kong.
The Rise of Female Chinese Chefs
In an ideal world, there would be no need for a story like this, or the annual awards that spotlight the ‘best female chefs’. Women would simply thrive in the kitchen with everyone else and be treated with the same respect.
Fortunately, there are signs of a shift in mentality: the number of female Chinese chefs de cuisine has increased in recent years.
Among them is Zeng Huai Jun, the head chef of Song, a one-Michelin-star Sichuanese restaurant, in Guangzhou.
And then there’s Li Ai Yin of Family Li Imperial Cuisine in Beijing, and May Chow of Little Bao and Happy Paradise in Hong Kong – both well-known chefs of Chinese restaurants.
Chef and culinary teacher Chun Hung Chan attributes this growth to publicity, celebrity TV chefs and improved work environments.
“Before the 2000s, only about 3% of my students were female. It’s risen to about 18-20% in the last decade,” he says. “We hope to have our first-ever female Master Chef graduate in eight years or less.”
The coveted Master Chef course only takes place every other years, and is offered to nominated chefs of Chinese cuisines with over 12 years of experience.
Amy Ho, a recent graduate of the Chinese Culinary Institute, is now a dim sum chef at the Great China Club in Hong Kong.
Courtesy of Chinese Culinary Institute
In a few years, newly graduated Amy Ho could very well be one of them. More interested in cooking than studying early in life, she enrolled in a two-year course at the Chinese Culinary Institute.
“I used to not take my work and studies seriously. After becoming a chef, I changed a lot. I opened up and always asked my instructors to teach me more,” says Ho.
“I remember the first time I learned to make a xiao long bao in a Shanghainese restaurant, I did better than other new chefs who were men. You can’t put too much or too little fillings in each of them and you have to close the xiao long bao wrapper by folding 36 pleats at the top. I was so happy with my first try that I took a picture,” she recalls.
Since graduating a year ago, Ho has found a full-time job as a dim sum chef at Great China Club, a Cantonese restaurant in Hong Kong.
“It was a bit difficult for girls to look for a job in Chinese restaurants because they may have doubted our determination and physical strength at the beginning. It was kind of strange for them. But I think if we got a chance , we could prove otherwise,” says Ho.
She is the only female chef in the kitchen. Her current goal is to improve her English so that she can easily communicate with her global counterparts as she climbs the culinary ladder.
“I’m actually better at understanding the concepts behind some of the dim sum and making them better than some of my fellow cooks,” Ho adds.
Archan Chan, Ho Lee Fook’s new chef, prefers to work at the wok station.
Since she took over Ho Lee Fook last December, she has made some changes to the menu. The eatery has recently undergone a reinvention, removing the focus from fusion Chinese cuisine to become an authentic Cantonese restaurant.
Dishes have unique twists that don’t stray too far from their roots. For example, the crispy local chicken is combined with a sand ginger sauce that is freshly chopped rather than served in a paste. The steamed razor clams are combined with old garlic.
“(The dish) ‘Stir Fry King’ was first invented by an eatery in Sham Shui Po (a district of Kowloon, Hong Kong) using relatively high-quality ingredients such as flowering garlic chives and cashew nuts,” says Archan Chan.
Archan Chan says that a good ‘Stir Fry King’, a classic Cantonese dish, should offer rich flavors and textures.
Maggie Hiufu Wong/DailyExpertNews
Archan Chan is one of two women on the restaurant’s team of eight chefs.
“We have a very open attitude in our kitchen. There’s a Chinese saying that says ‘a long journey reveals the strength of a horse’. Even if it’s a male-dominated kitchen, the one thing everyone cares about is food – – the cooking. They don’t care if you’re a man or a woman. Gender wouldn’t matter,” she says.
Welcome to Wendy’s Wok World
Philosophy graduate Sam Lui started running Wendy’s Wok World in 2019.
Courtesy of Wendy’s Wok World
Philosophy graduate Sam Lui started running Wendy’s Wok World in 2019. It has become one of the hottest food projects in Hong Kong in the past year.
The conceptual project documents Lui’s alter-ego, Wendy, on her path to learn and hone her wok skills. She has worked in several Chinese kitchens and served friends in a private kitchen on a soy farm.
“When I started Wendy’s Wok World, it was a personal project using food as a medium to explore and express the concepts of authority and rigidity,” says Lui.
“I’m fascinated by the wok. It’s so different from other ways of cooking… All principles should be internalized into the person’s being.”
And just because it’s a conceptual project doesn’t mean Lui doesn’t take her training seriously.
“When Wendy works in kitchens, she’s someone who stays behind after her shift ends at midnight and asks for more directions from the chefs,” Lui says of the way her alter ego thinks.
The latest dish Wendy has practiced is bat si (filamentous sugar). It is made by coating food with caramelized sugar that is thick enough to cling to the ingredients, but light enough to create sugar wisps when you pick up the food.
The recognition for her role in elevating the status of female chefs over the past year has taken Lui by surprise: she never intended to make a statement with her project.
A plate of salted egg yolk shrimp, a dish Wendy has been working on perfecting.
Courtesy of Wendy’s Wok World
“I think it’s also been interesting for me over the past year to see what Wendy has represented to other people as ‘female chef in a Chinese kitchen’… The fact that it’s seen as a statement is really a testament to the common perception that Chinese cuisines are not friendly to women, which from my experience is largely just a self-fulfilling myth,” adds Lui.
She says every chef she’s encountered so far has been excited to share their skills.
“Yes, there is a physical barrier, but I think the mental barrier is more of a barrier to the increase of women in Chinese cuisines,” said Archan Chan of Ho Lee Fook.
“Dangling a three-kilogram goose with one hand over a roasting oven while you pour oil on it is physically demanding, even for men. The difference is I’m quite short, so I have to stand on a stool when I do it.” “, she says, showing us some of the recent scars she’s sustained over the roasting oven — which looks more like an oversized pan.
“The 15 liters of oil weigh the same in every kitchen. It’s not just about how much you want it, but how much effort you want to put into it,” says Archan Chan.
“There are days when you feel like your arms are falling apart and you can’t move them anymore, but the next day you’ll be stronger and you may be able to work a heavier wok.”
She still has wok dishes on her wish list that she thinks will take another decade to perfect, but adds, “I definitely want to be in a place where I can promote Cantonese and Chinese cuisine in the future.” .”
Top image: Archan Chan of Ho Lee Fook. Credit: Maggie Hiufu Wong/DailyExpertNews