Cover Chef Isadora Chai of Bistro à Table (Photo: Isadora Chai)

Five leading ladies in the Malaysian food business talk working in a male-dominated industry

It's no secret that the food and beverage industry worldwide is filled with men leading kitchens and developing new restaurant ventures. However, in recent years, we've seen a surge of women taking charge and rising through the ranks, setting standards we haven't seen before.

We spoke to five women in our local food industry to hear their takes on and stories about their careers and working their way through the business.

Related: International Women's Day 2022: 6 Women Who are Raising the Bar

Chef Isadora Chai, Head Chef and Owner of Bistro à Table

What brought you into the industry and what made you stay?

I've always had a natural affiliation to cooking in the professional kitchen. Even as a university student studying Biotechnology & Biochemistry, I was working part-time in restaurants. After graduating and working in pharmaceuticals, I was truly unhappy albeit successful and well-paid in an industry that I didn't feel was good for my soul and sanity. I decided to leave my corporate profession and gave myself two years working as a chef. I've not looked back ever since. It's funny that I'm still in touch with a lot of my ex-colleagues and they're still flabbergasted that I left all those years ago.

How has your job empowered you as a woman?

I think that the assumption that 'women belong in the kitchen' is totally outdated so being publicly featured changes that narrative. I'm proud to be a part of that history. Chefs are a scary lot so when people see women in head chef roles, they probably see 'really scary women'. I personally find that both hilarious and offensive.

What are you looking forward to for women in the industry?

I don’t know whether there's anything to look forward to, but I just hope that more employers will be open to recruiting and giving women a chance in the commercial kitchen–and not just the pastry section.

See also: Chef Isadora Chai On Motherhood: A Story in 5 Dishes

Jenifer Kuah, Owner of Studio Restaurant

What brought you into the industry and what made you stay?

It started out with a love for food and drinks, and the people of the industry made me stay. I can say that the best people are in hospitality and the easiest people to befriend.

How has your job empowered you as a woman?

Owning one's own business is definitely empowering! I'm responsible for profitability, staff welfare, and business development–everything! Through this, I've come away with a 'Yes, I can!' attitude.

See also: 6 Women-Owned F&B Businesses We Love in Malaysia

Lyn Siew of the Oriental Group of Restaurants

What brought you into the industry and what made you stay?

I love to eat and drink! I grew up in Chinese restaurants as a child–my grandparents and parents founded Tai Thong and my father built the Oriental Group. As for my own ventures, I established Ruyi & Lyn back in 2016. Subsequently, I was incorporated into its parent company Oriental Group as general manager handling external affairs for all our 14 restaurants. My fiancé is an established international chef, hence there's no running away from this industry! Food is in our blood. 

How has your job empowered you as a woman?

When I first entered the industry, I recalled hosting meetings with suppliers, contractors. and distributors, often being the only female in the group. That never bothered me as I always stood my ground on negotiations and all business matters. As for day-to-day operations, the Chinese kitchen is a fiercely male-dominated environment, but I had no qualms walking into one in my (high) heels.  

How has being in this industry and working with food enabled you to embrace your womanhood?

I believe that this industry is not a job, but a lifestyle. You have to live and love it. I recently became a mum and decided to go on a six-month sabbatical to raise my newborn hands-on. My fiancé and I would take our then three-month-old on the plane to his work meetings in Europe and dine in Michelin-starred restaurants and bars. Motherhood is a different league, it involves so much learning and by doing that, any challenges I've ever faced in my career pales in comparison. I'm truly amazed by women who can juggle both!  

See also: 19 Inspiring Women In Malaysia's Food And Drink Scene To Follow On Instagram

Lim Shiew Li, Founder of Inside Scoop, The Ice Cream Bar, and Sweet Escape

What brought you into the industry?

I was trained as an actuary but turned my love and passion for ice cream into a little business, hoping to spread some happiness in this crazy world!

What does being a woman in the industry mean to you?

For me, I’ve never had to handle being a woman in the industry. I just handle being in the industry–working hard, working smart, networking, standing out, and finding ways to continuously improve.

What do you hope for in terms of the future for women in the industry?

I hope more women will dare to take on the challenge to pursue their dream in the industry.

See also: 10 Unique Ice Cream Flavours In The Klang Valley

Kar Lyn Teo formerly of Sitka Restaurant

How has your job empowered you as a woman?

I was entrusted to lead and handle projects of importance on my own, given the opportunity to hand-pick my team, and I successfully completed these projects.

How has being in this industry and working with food and drinks enabled you to embrace your womanhood?

In a male-dominated industry, I complement the industry with my meticulous eye for detail, which, I feel, helps me embrace my womanhood.


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