After more than a year as head chef at Test Kitchen – an experimental pop-up that brings innovative chefs to Hong Kong – Devon Hou is crafting a dinner menu that is completely her own. ‘She’s assisted over a dozen pop-ups,’ says Test Kitchen founder Vincent Mui. ‘I’m super excited for her to finally do her own dishes.’
It’s a well-deserved milestone for Hou and all the more notable considering that the world of professional cooking is still dominated by men, as has been the Test Kitchen line-up (featuring the likes of Finland’s Toni Kostian and Bali’s Benjamin Cross and Stephen Moore).
‘I think social values are the number one issue: how women are seen; what they should be doing,’ says Vicky Lau, alluding to the perceived physical labour required for the professional kitchen. She has surmounted any such stigmas to become the chef-owner of one-Michelin-starred Tate Dining Room, and 2015 recipient of Asia’s Best Female Chef award.
May Chow, recipient of the same award in 2017 and chef-owner of Little Bao and Happy Paradise, recalls: ‘When I was younger, I always wanted to go into the hot kitchen but out of sincerity and “niceness” that it might be too hot for me or too hard, [chefs] would offer me pastry kitchen jobs or salad sections.’
Hotal Colombo’s chef Gisela (Gizzy) Alesbrook, who was employee number two at restaurant group Black Sheep, acknowledges these misconceptions about female chefs and that she has been lucky in her Hong Kong cooking career. ‘Being female has never felt like an important issue,’ she says. ‘Hard work and never giving up are what matter most in the kitchen and those traits aren’t gender specific.’
Stephanie Wong, a banker-turned-chef who recently opened her French-Cantonese bistro Roots Eatery in Wan Chai also speaks positively about her time in local kitchens. ‘I think Hong Kong is more open-minded about gender equality than other places, just speaking from my own experience,’ she says. ‘When I was working in France, there were two females (including me) in a team of 15 to 20, whereas when I was working at Amber, it was six to seven females in a similar sized team.’
With growing awareness, some question whether there’s still a need to single out women through gender-specific accolades and events. Peggy Chan of Grassroots Pantry, for instance, feels that chefs should be awarded for the work they execute regardless of gender.
On the other hand, Wong says, ‘I think it’s still worthwhile highlighting gender simply because there is still significant underrepresentation of female chefs in the spotlight. It is important to show younger generations of women who want to pursue a career in food and beverage that it is possible to succeed.’
Chow agrees: ‘Putting a large collective of women in power is essential. It’s important to look at the bigger picture and see how we can create change for more women at a faster rate.’
Here’s more on these six female chefs effecting change in Hong Kong.
The perpetual queues outside Chow’s original Little Bao in Central are testament to her genius of creating riffs on burgers that showcase Asian flavours. But baos (steamed buns with fillings) were never going to be enough to contain her energy and talent. Happy Paradise is where she can truly spread her wings. She swaps industrial leavening for sourdough to make local street snack staple egg waffles, and makes noodles out of squid to serve with celtuce and lily bulbs. And it’s not just the food – Chow’s creativity extends to the ’80s-inspired neon-lit dining room and retro playlist, too.
The homegrown chef and former graphic designer has long been known for her ethereal, aesthetically pleasing plating. Since relaunching Tate Dining Room and Bar in Sheung Wan more than a year ago, her cuisine has taken on a new level of sophistication. The ‘Edible Stories’ tasting menu at her one-Michelin-starred restaurant tells the story of the city through heritage ingredients, such as aged kumquat and preserved tofu.
To call Chan an environmental activist is only half the story; she brings an incredible technique to the plant-based, nutrient-dense cooking at Grassroots Pantry. Even for meat-loving Hongkongers, a meal here makes a persuasive case that the vegetable kingdom is better in every way, from its diversity of flavours and textures to its minimal ecological impact. Upgrading to a more prominent space has signalled a progression in her food and how she manages her restaurant (for instance, moving towards zero waste). If Chan seems like an outcast in the world of restaurateurs, it’s only because she’s leading the way.
Alesbrook grew up cooking for herself and her sister from her mother’s scribbled recipes while her parents were at work, and what was once a necessity has become a serious professional pursuit. She was one of the first employees at Hong Kong restaurant group Black Sheep Restaurants and worked her way up the ranks. Her adaptations of her mother’s recipes shone through in staff meals, and she seized the recent opportunity to head up her own restaurant – Hotal Colombo – where she continues to explore her native Sri Lankan cuisine.
A high-flying banker for a decade, Wong traded spreadsheets for spatulas when she joined the Ecole de Cuisine Alain Ducasse in Paris. After working at fine-dining restaurants in France and Hong Kong (including two-Michelin-starred Amber), she tested the waters by doing pop-ups and a lunch delivery service, focusing on quality ingredients and classical French techniques. She builds on those experiences with the addition of local flavours at Roots Eatery, a 20-seat bistro that has become one of the most happening spots in Wan Chai.
An up-and-coming homegrown talent, Hou was part of the opening team at Tate Dining Room and also spent time at Amber before working in some of Britain’s most celebrated restaurants. Now she holds down the fort as head chef at Test Kitchen, where she collaborates with other rising culinary stars – and headlines her first dedicated pop-up in April 2019. ‘People shouldn’t be afraid and feel inadequate because of their gender when it comes to doing what they enjoy and chasing dreams,’ she says. ‘Let the work do the talking.’