Shanghai's female head chefs

Three of the female chefs heading up Shanghai's best kitchens

Sandy Yoon is head chef at Mercato
Female chefs might only head up one per cent of Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide, but recently some of Shanghai's top kitchens has seen a boom in women at the helm. Time Out speaks to three

Sandy Yoon

At 26, Yoon is the youngest of our featured head chefs, and the one with the most meteoric rise. She leapt from line cook at Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Spice Market in Manhattan to head chef of Mercato in just four years. Born in Korea, Yoon moved to Virginia at age four, studied international politics in college and then attended the French Culinary Institute where she met Vongerichten’s company at a job fair.

How did you get into cooking?
I grew up cooking with my mother. She worked full time but our family had breakfast together every morning because my dad always worked late. I grew up eating really healthy Korean food; we rarely had processed food and we rarely ate out. Meals of childhood create this feeling of comfort for me and have always been a passion in my life.

How did you become a chef?
I originally thought I wanted to go to law school. But during college I started to cook as a way to relieve stress. My senior year I was interviewing for jobs so I could make some money before going to law school and it was really stressful going to interviews so I was cooking a lot. At that time, I took a random trip to New York and happened to walk by the French Culinary Institute. I went in and it was love at first sight.

What was it like cooking at Spice Market?
We had some of the most intense dinner services, like 1,000 covers. If you’re on any hot station, you’re literally soaked in sweat, five burns a night. When I moved to the grill, I was the first female cook they had ever put on it, it was rough. I worked with this huge Dominican guy and a huge Mexican guy and then there was me. I admit the first two weeks I was probably terrible, but working alongside them and being as stubborn as I am, I eventually worked the station very well and once I became a sous chef, I started putting girls on that line, too. Some of the best line cooks I’ve met have been female.

How did you get to Mercato?
At Spice Market I was a line cook for a year and I was a sous chef for almost two years. At that time my sister had moved to Hong Kong so I told my head chef I wanted to move to Asia but then I got an offer to go to Spice Market in London, so I ended up going there last year, and after three months I got a call with an offer to come to Shanghai.

It was such a short career, I never expected to become a sous chef when I did and never thought I would become a head chef when I did. It was just wonderful to meet Jean Georges; it was unexpected and it was a great challenge, but when you come to work nervous every day it’s good because you’re on your toes.

What’s the biggest challenge?
The hardest part is to maintain a reputation for the restaurant consistently, whether it’s the food or the service. Even if it’s something not in my area, as the head chef you have to be responsible for everything and manage a whole team. Being the person at the top is not easy.

Why aren’t there more female chefs in top positions?
It’s a pretty masculine culture. When I’m working in the kitchen my personality changes, I get much more rigid, much more strict. I can bark from time to time. I would never speak to people the way I do during dinner service.
You start this career pretty young and then women have kids, get married and I think in a lot of industries, not just restaurants, this is a big reason why women won’t go higher because they have this time in their lives when they take a break of go part time.

The stereotypical head chef is someone who has a lot of toughness and leadership and people are biased. They may not see that in a female. The first time I really got upset in the kitchen, my staff were not expecting it at all. Had I been a male chef it would have fit some sort of stereotype; a big boss barking at their line chefs is just normal.

Ling Huang

Taiwanese chef Huang, 34, studied at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York and then worked at elite restaurants in Manhattan, London and the Seychelles before coming to Shanghai. Here, she worked at T8 and Qimin Hotpot before joining El Willy on Donghu Lu and then launching Mediterranean restaurant ElEfante as head chef. She now runs her own restaurant at late night tapas bar and kitchen Pirata on Xinle Lu.

How did you first learn to cook?
I was interested in cooking as a teenager but at that time in Taiwan there weren’t many culinary schools. My mother didn’t want me to just start working so she kind of jokingly said if you can find a school I will let you study cooking. I went to LA just for language school and once when I was at the supermarket I bought a food magazine and saw an ad in the back for the CIA.

Where was your first job?
I worked at Picholine. The chef is American but trained in France. I wanted to stay working in New York but I was forced to return home because I couldn’t get a working visa after 9/11. I went back to Taiwan and worked at the Shangri-La Hotel for two years. At that time my mother retired and moved to Shanghai and she encouraged me to come here.

What is it like to work with chef Willy Trullas Moreno?
Willy has a happy style but in the kitchen he’s very, very strict. He’s very passionate and he works a lot, so he expects you to work a lot.

Now that you’re head chef, do you treat your chefs similarly to how you were treated?
It’s very different from how I was trained. The places I have worked are more like army style and most of my colleagues are also graduates from culinary schools, so we obey the head chef like he’s a god: whatever he says we have to take it. But here in China you have to deal with a lot of young people, maybe they work here just as a job, not their dream or their career. You think you are trying to show them something but they only take it as a job. But now after a few years I just feel if you can work with, say, 50 young people and find one who is very energetic and loves to cook, maybe he can become like us.

How did you develop your own management style?
In the beginning Willy said you need to shout, you need to be very strict. And I really struggled. I said my personality is not like that. Actually, I found out I don’t need to do that. I can find people who like my style so there’s no shouting, it’s more like family. Willy says I’m more like mama style. I just keep repeating and repeating until they get very annoyed. Just like their mother, they don’t want to listen to their mother so they won’t do it again.

Do you feel you’ve had to make sacrifices that men don’t have to make to do this job?
Having a family and children is the hardest part. But I still believe that it shouldn’t be a problem. One of my dreams is to have a baby while still working in the kitchen. Now I’m almost at the age where I have to decide if I will have a baby. I joke with the guys in the kitchen about it. We made a bet; I said I can work until I’m seven months pregnant.

How can we encourage more women to work in the kitchen?
Very selfishly, I hardly hire any female chefs. Most places I have worked, there are no more than two women in the kitchen. It’s very hard for two women working in the same place because the types of people who can survive the kitchen environment are very tough so they try to compete. Being a chef is not a pretty job, it’s very hard. It’s not that I refuse to accept women, but very few show they have the ability to work this job.

What are your future plans?
I’ve always wanted to own my own place, but maybe when I’m old. I want to have a very small restaurant and do late night dinners. I want it to be a place for chefs because it’s very hard for chefs to find a place for really nice, hearty, homey food after work.

Jacqueline Qiu

Shanghainese chef Qiu, 42, has worked at top hotels and restaurants for two decades and even owned four of her own restaurants. She was sous chef at Jean Georges for five years before joining the Andaz Hotel as executive chef.

How did you first become a chef?
I used to be a volleyball player but when I was 18, I saw that five-star hotels were very hot and I wanted to get a job in one, but it was quite competitive at that time. I decided to go to culinary school. Then I helped launch a restaurant in the building that is now Park 97. And after that I worked at the Westin for 13 years [now the Sheraton Hongqiao].

How did you join Jean Georges?
I took two years off after the Westin and had my son. When my baby was six months old, a headhunting company called me. At that time I didn’t know who Jean Georges was. After my interview, an Italian friend said to me that Shanghai had a three-Michelin-star chef opening a restaurant. I thought, Hey that sounds like the place I just went for an interview. I stayed at Jean Georges for five years. I learned a lot there, because a free standing restaurant is totally different from a hotel. It’s a very positive and creative place to work. You change menus according to the seasons with different fruits and vegetables. I was really happy there.

What’s the hardest part about your current job?
There are so many restaurants now it’s hard to attract customers, so the market is difficult, and our restaurant is both Chinese and French bistro style so I have to make classic, original French cuisine. I like to use a lot of local ingredients, go to the market and see what’s fresh, and also when a new season starts to use things like white asparagus.

What’s your leadership style?
I am very direct. If a chef is really trying his best I will help him, but if he is capable of doing something well and still doesn’t, I am very persistent, I will follow him. I yell at them. I think they are scared of my temper. But I also praise them, it’s also important to be positive. I also tell them it’s very simple, if business is slow or you have free time, you can stand there doing nothing but it must be because the fridge is clean, the station is clean, there is really no work to do.

Do you have a different management style to other executive chefs?
There’s a big difference between Western and Chinese kitchens. In the Western kitchen, chefs want someone to be able to do every station. But in the Chinese kitchen, typically each person only knows their one task. When I came here, I wanted to break this concept. You can’t change people’s stations if each person only has a single talent. A lot of Western head chefs [in hotels] don’t understand Chinese food, so they won’t ask the Chinese kitchen to do things differently. And if it was a Westerner asking, the Chinese chefs can just say you don’t understand. But to me they can’t say no. Now they have all been trained all around the kitchen so that we can assign people to change positions at any time.

Why aren’t there more female chefs in top positions?
When you first enter the industry, your chef may ask you what station you want. Most women will say pastry or cold kitchen. At that time, I said I want to make hot dishes. I thought, I played volleyball, I was very physical, I could do it. I think it has to do with the individual desire, I have done this for so many years, to this day I have always been the only woman. The men also have not treated me differently.