Female-dominated female chefs are changing Chinese cuisine stereotypes

Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) – Arshan Chan recalls her first experience working in a Chinese restaurant, more than 14 years ago, where she was hired as a trainee chef when she was alone in the kitchen with another colleague while shake the eggs.

“She was extremely quick to beat the eggs,” Chan recalls. “I think to be a woman in traditional Chinese cuisine at the time, she had to be the best at something.”

Today, Chan runs Ho Lee Fook Kitchen, one of Hong Kong’s most popular restaurants.

Archan Chan is one of the few chefs who rose to the position of managing the highest Cantonese restaurant., Plain_textCredit: Maggie HIufu Wong / CNN

After spending more than a decade working in gourmet restaurants in Australia and Singapore, Chan is one of the few chefs set up to work in a high-profile Cantonese restaurant.

This is an impressive achievement, given the great difficulty women have had to rise to the top of Chinese cuisines.

Why do so few women want to wear a chef’s apron?

The physically demanding kitchen appliances, the strong stove fire, and a male-centered culture are just some of the obstacles women have acknowledged lacking the strength to cope with such a heavy industry.

But people like Chan prove the opposite with skeptics.

Why are women so rare in Chinese cuisines?

Dominated by men..how female chefs struggle to change stereotypes in Chinese cuisine
A classic steamed dish, served with chicken oil and Shaoxing wine. , Plain textCredit: Maggie HIufu Wong / CNN

Chefs have always been in the minority in professional kitchens around the world. But the situation seems to be much gloomier in Chinese cuisines.

In traditional Chinese cuisine, where all types of regional cuisine are served, chefs are generally divided into two groups: those responsible for the gas stove, those who make fried dishes, and those who prepare pastries, such as dim sum and noodles.

No one denies that this is hard physical work, as an empty pan weighs about 2.2 kilograms, but other factors play a role.

In the past, many Chinese cuisines focused on the mentor-contractor relationship, which meant that chefs would pass their skills on to students.

Few chefs would dare to develop a student’s expertise in this harsh environment.

Given all these obstacles, not many women in this male-dominated industry would find an attractive career path.

“So about a decade ago, the role of women I met in Chinese cuisines was limited to helping, cleaning and some basic preparation,” said Chun Hong Cha, a 46-year-old chef and teacher at the Chinese Culinary Institute in Hong Kong. for 28 years.

The rise of Chinese chefs

In an ideal world, a story like this, or annual awards highlighting the “best chefs,” would not be necessary. Women should simply develop their expertise alongside others in the kitchen and be treated with the same level of respect.

Fortunately, we are beginning to see signs of a change in this mentality, as the number of Chinese chefs has increased over the years. The latter, Zeng Huaijun, chief executive of Song Restaurant, a Michelin-starred Szechuan restaurant in Guangzhou.

Next up is Li Ai Yin at Family Li Imperial Cuisine in Beijing, Mai Chow in Little Bao and Happy Paradise in Hong Kong – two famous chefs who own Chinese restaurants.

Chef and culinary teacher Chun Hong Chan attributes this increase to publicity and celebrity chefs on television and in improved work environments.

“Before the first decade of the 21st century, only about 3% of my students were female and that number has grown to about 18-20% in the last decade or so,” he says. “Hopefully in the next eight years or so, we will have the first culinary master graduate.”

Dominated by men..how female chefs struggle to change stereotypes in Chinese cuisine
Amy Ho is a recent graduate of the Chinese Culinary Institute and now works as a cook in Hong Kong, plain_textCredit: Courtesy of Chinese Culinary Institute

Ever since graduating a year ago from the Chinese Culinary Institute, Amy has found a full-time job as a dim sum chef at a Hong Kong Canton restaurant, Great China Club.

“It was a bit difficult for the girls to find a job in Chinese restaurants because they had doubts about our decisions and our physical strength at first,” says Hu.

She is the only chef in the kitchen and her current goal is to improve her English in order to communicate easily with her international colleagues and she is preparing herself to become a professional chef.

Arshan Chan, the new chef at Ho Lee Fook, likes to work on the gas stove and since taking office last December has made some changes to the menu.

Dominated by men..how female chefs struggle to change stereotypes in Chinese cuisine
A good “Stir Fry King” dish, a classic Cantonese dish, says Archan Chan, should offer rich flavors and textures., Plain_textCredit: Maggie HIufu Wong / CNN

The restaurant has recently undergone a renovation, shifting the focus to fused Chinese cuisine to an authentic Cantonese restaurant.

The dishes are distinguished by unique touches that do not leave much of their roots.

For example, fresh ginger sauce accompanies local crunchy chicken instead of being served with pastry. Steamed shells are accompanied by aged garlic.

Arshan Chan is one of two women on the restaurant’s eight-member chef team.

“We have a very open mind in our kitchen and there is a Chinese proverb that says a long journey reveals the strength of a horse,” she says.

“Even if the kitchen is dominated by men, everyone is interested in food,” she says. “They do not care if you are male or female. “Gender should not matter.”

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