Cover These Hong Kong female chefs are changing the local restaurant scene in a big way (Photo: (from left) Vicky Lau, May Chow, Karys Logue)

In celebration of International Women’s Day 2022, we asked some of Hong Kong’s most successful female chefs to share their words of wisdom, the challenges they overcome in their culinary careers, and more importantly, their hopes for the future of the local F&B industry

For a very long time, it was rare to find a restaurant kitchen run or owned by a woman. Often seen as a tough environment where a big part of earning your stripes in the kitchen is proving that you can withstand the physically demanding work, unsociable hours, and possibly even a macho culture filled with many gender stereotypes, the restaurant industry has long been considered as a male-dominated field that hasn’t had many women in leadership roles.

But today’s culinary world is newer and braver. Over the years, we’ve seen a shift in attitudes demanding more diversity and equity in the restaurant industry, with more and more female talents being acknowledged for their hard work and culinary creativity.

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we spoke to some of Hong Kong's most influential female chefs who have been making waves and are set to make bigger impacts on the culinary scene. Read on to know more about their own experiences as women in the kitchen, their advice to the next generation of female chefs, as well as inspiring thoughts they shared about the future of the local F&B industry.  

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1. Vicky Lau, Tate Dining Room

Known for her attention to detail and creative vision as exemplified in the haute cuisine offered at her Michelin-starred restaurant, Tate Dining Room, Vicky Lau has a knack for turning innovative French-Chinese delicacies into edible works of art. She was awarded as Veuve Clicquot Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2015 and was named Taler Asia’s Most Influential – The Tastemaker’s list honouree in 2021. 

It’s true that there are not many female chefs in Hong Kong. This could be due to the fact that chefs aren't valued for their craft, or because women are discouraged to pursue this career because of the physical conditions of working in a professional kitchen.

Over the last few years, though, I have seen some noticeable changes in the local restaurant scene. There are more awards celebrate the excellence of the F&B sector and recognise chefs’ hard work, and there’s also been an increase in the number of female chefs working in Chinese kitchens that are traditionally thought to be more labour-intensive.

From accepting criticism to collaborating with the team and adapting to the changes amidst the pandemic, the F&B industry is no doubt a challenging industry to be in. For me, remaining true to my original intent is important. And of course, I need to take good care of the team, give trust, be brave enough to change and always be aware of the world around us.

Her motto and career tips...

It is certainly not harder to break through as a woman in the F&B industry. It is just a matter of turning ideas into action, challenging what we traditionally think of the role of a woman. Influences truly come from anywhere if you seek with an open mind, pay attention to what is going on around you so that you can catch that moment and think about them.

Her hopes...

Sustainability should now be the priority in the design and operation of restaurants. A sustainable restaurant business goes from sourcing ingredients and extends to everything we see and touch inside the restaurant.

Speaking of the role of female chefs in the F&B industry, I think woman is the full circle with the power to create, nurture and transform.  The industry should have a good mix of male and female talents; it’s like yin and yang and it’s only when we can learn to support each other as one to work towards a better future.

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2. May Chow, Little Bao and Happy Paradise

The mastermind behind Little Bao and Happy Paradise, May Chow is best known for her modern, creative approach to Chinese cuisine. As one of Hong Kong’s food industry leaders, Chow was honoured as Tatler Dining's inaugural Local Champion awardee in 2017, followed by Asia’s Best Female Chef the same year. In addition to serving as a board member of Eat Forum and Save Hong Kong F&B, she is also a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights and female empowerment.

As a woman working in the F&B industry—which has always been competitive and male-dominated—I have been through quite a lot of challenges throughout my career. From the get-go, I’ve had to assert my identity and my passion for cooking, so I’ve set extremely high standards for myself in order to stand out. Competition is fierce in the industry, that's why I've become a perfectionist in the kitchen, and I am constantly learning new skills to keep up and continue to thrive. All the challenges I overcame have made me stronger both as a chef, and as an individual.

Her motto and career tips...

I don’t have mottos that I live by, but I think what’s fundamentally helped me grow is the enthusiasm for learning. I realised learning from the right people is very important; for me, role models are those who are doing great both professionally and personally.

Stay educated and informed. Being a chef is a very labour intensive job and the process of cooking is always going to be a time-consuming task. To find inspiration and creativity for creating your dishes, it’s important to maintain a work-life balance. Follow your heart and passion, and never stop learning and diversifying your skill set.

Her hopes...

I hope F&B smaller players can have a bigger voice in shaping the direction of the industry in the near future, that they will be given more opportunities to involve in the decision-making process of government policies. On the other hand, big players can take more active roles in tackling issues such as food waste and sustainable food sources. 

3. Chan Kai Ying, Chilli Fagara

Born in Chong Qing and coming from a family of restaurant owners and F&B professionals, Chan Kai Ying brings over 50 years of culinary experience to Sichuan restaurant, Chilli Fagara

When I first started my career in the F&B industry, there were only a few female chefs around. Even though plenty of women was cooking in the kitchens, hardly any of them received formal training to become a professional chef.

Moreover, one of the biggest challenges of being a woman in the F&B industry is that I—quite literally—have a lot on my plate as a chef as well as a mother. Helming a restaurant in the heart of Hong Kong—one of the most expensive places with an endless variety of restaurants—for more than 17 years is a daily challenge, but also a privilege, for me and my team.

Being a working mother in a male-dominated industry was tough. As a chef, you are required to work at times when others reunite with their families, so finding a work-life balance was a challenge. At Chilli Fagara, I have the continuous support and love of my daughter, Tracy. Throughout her childhood she watched me run kitchens, and now she works by my side managing Chilli Fagara. As a mother-daughter duo, we have learned that communication is key and that we always have to work in sync. Every day is a new challenge, but also a great opportunity.

Her motto and career tips...

“Always walk the extra mile—it’s never crowded”—this is the motto I live by, as my philosophy of cooking is the same as our attitude towards life. I must take time and patience to ensure things are perfect. I believe we should always put in extra effort and never give up going above and beyond our guests’ expectations. 

Her hopes...

I believe that in the past few years, the number of female chefs has risen. However, to further encourage women to work in restaurants as chefs, I also consider consistent gender equity in the kitchen on all levels as key to ensuring women are given the best chances to succeed. This is what I would truly love to see in the future F&B industry. 

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4. Gisela Alesbrook, Hotal Colombo

Gisela Alesbrook is the head chef of Hotal Colombo, Black Sheep Restaurants' first Sri Lankan establishment. With an unwavering passion for cooking, she pays homage to her homeland and introduces Hong Kong diners to rare and flavourful Sri Lankan dishes.

I didn't come from a culinary background; I was really just someone who loved cooking. I did it at home, but my passion for it ultimately drove me into the industry, and I had to learn everything from scratch since I wasn't technically trained. It was a challenge at the beginning, trying to learn every aspect of the kitchen, but I had very patient chefs who took the time to teach me. And since I started as a home cook, I bought a fresh view to the kitchen and, of course, some good old-fashioned kitchen hacks.

I would say 90% of the team when I started was male, and the F&B sector is still a predominantly male industry. Working with only men can be a bit intimidating, but I learned through making loads of mistakes, asking a lot of questions, practising at home, and watching many YouTube videos. I worked at every station to learn as much as possible; no task was too small. I knew that doing this was what needed to be done, and it is what made me who I am today, someone who is still learning and still asking questions and a better chef.

Her motto and career tips...

I have so many, honestly, but whatever you do, never give up. Keep taking on each task you come across as a challenge, always ask questions and keep a notebook where you can write everything down. The general expectation of female chefs can be quite low; a lot of people still only see the family obligation and view it as a burden in the workplace. We have to learn how to manage both these things; this is what makes us great chefs as females—we are naturals at this!

Her hopes...

Personally, I don't think we do enough to encourage women down this career path. It's hard, and sometimes people see it as a less attractive job compared to others, especially for women. Even my parents did not encourage me to follow this road at first, but I think it is important that we encourage more females to follow this path from a young age. We need to work hard to instil in them the idea that this industry can be rewarding and that they can progress in their career and their passion.

I would love to see more opportunities for upcoming female chefs, whether in the form of promotions or programmes for female empowerment within the industry. 

5. Devon Hou, Cobo House

With over 16 years of experience under her belt, Devon Hou has worked in some of the city’s most prestigious restaurants including Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong’s Amber, Test Kitchen, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, and Café Gray Deluxe at The Upper House. Hou was also part of the opening team at Tate Dining Room. She’s now better known as the genius behind Cobo House—a fine-dining establishment serving up contemporary fusion cuisine.

We should all be proud of who we are. Everyone should be able to do what they enjoy and pursue their dreams, regardless of gender, background or beliefs. After years of experience in the kitchen as a chef, I deem that kitchens run by women are fantastic—neat and delicate, and ladies always have a lot of good advice to give. Some may challenge that a woman is not as physically strong as men in the kitchen, yet it shouldn’t be the reason deterring you from going after your dreams. For me, heavy lifting is just fine—it’s never an issue and I’ll just keep learning and growing my culinary skills.

The industry has been dominated by men for a very long time, but as we step into the modern era, more and more female chefs are entering this space with many of them getting the recognition they deserve. I believe that there’s always more room in the industry for talented women to develop their careers.

Her motto and career tips...

For young chefs or those who are keen to enter the culinary industry, my advice would be to seize every opportunity that comes in regardless of its size, as every experience brings in a new perspective and can you equip with better skills or exposure which might be essential for your future development. 

Her hopes...

I hope to see more passionate new blood with innovative ideas in the future. In Hong Kong, the F&B industry is regarded as a demanding career to pursue—think: long working hours and a not-so-decent working environment. Some might even quit the industry due to high pressure.

I would say that it’s more about your mentality and passion as every industry has its own perks and downsides. The most important thing is to value what you are passionate about. I do really hope to see and collaborate with more young talents in the near future to come up with fresh ideas and deliver great dishes for people to enjoy. 

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6. Stephanie Wong, Roots

After completing her diploma at world-renowned chef Alain Ducasse’s school in 2016, Stephanie Wong gained experience and honed her culinary skills at Michelin-starred restaurants including Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint Emilion, France and Amber at Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong. She opened her French-Cantonese restaurant, Roots in 2018 and was named as Tatler Dining’s Rising Star 2020 honouree.

F&B is undoubtedly still dominated by men and many roles within the industry remain highly gendered. As the chef and owner of Roots, I am proud to defy many stereotypes and be an example of what women can achieve in Hong Kong and beyond. Before Roots, I was also fortunate to have worked with chefs who never saw gender as a prerequisite in determining ability in the kitchen.

These barriers are of course unfair to individuals, but also keep the entire industry from developing its full potential. I believe diversity is key to any creative industry in terms of culture, influences, and sensibilities. This awareness makes me embrace diversity fully to foster talent and creativity in all my collaborations. 

Her motto and career tips...

“If there’s a will, there’s a way”—these are words that I’ve strived to live by in my professional life. Before becoming a chef, I was a banker. After the change of my career path, I always felt that I had to push myself to learn and excel rapidly. It was both daunting and invigorating. Especially in today’s open exchange and sharing culture, there are so many ways you can make your mark and shine. Persistence and resilience are the keys to success.

Her hopes...

Female chefs are as talented as male chefs, obviously, but the industry remains to this day imbalanced in terms of gender. Amplifying the success stories of women in F&B can serve as inspiration—alongside support groups, forums and networks to help women thrive in the industry. 

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7. Karys Logue, Butter

Karys Logue is the mastermind behind the delicious desserts at Black Sheep Restaurants’ Butter. She u-turned from plans to study neuroscience to pursue her passion for baking at the Culinary Institute of America, before working in top international bakeries. Prior to heading up Butter, Logue was the executive pastry chef at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

Overall, I have had a fairly amicable and equitable experience as a woman in the industry. I have had strong female role models from my first pastry job onward. Working in baking and pastry is more balanced in terms of gender than the savoury section of most kitchens, and it can be tough at times to witness the treatment of other women, particularly those working their way up in very old school mentality hot kitchens.

The toughest time for me in facing this kind of adversity was when I first worked in a bakery in Japan, where older men were at the top. They were hypercritical of my work and doubted any guidance I gave them, despite my role being their superior. It took months of going above and beyond and showing technical competence to gain their respect and trust as a chef. Ultimately things worked out, and we found a strong bond as a team, but it certainly felt like an uphill battle right away.

Lessons and experiences like these have taught me to be confident in my skills, direct and clear when communicating, and always try to surround myself with future-focused and open-minded people.

Her motto and career tips...

Don’t sweat the small stuff—pastry chefs are known for their attention to detail, and it is easy to get caught up in small mistakes. I work actively to keep things in perspective and encourage my team to face mistakes or challenges head-on, using a growth mindset to keep moving forward.

I would challenge the next generation of female chefs to be as open-minded and adventurous as possible, not just in the kitchen. You will be happier, more creative, and have more to share with your team if you can keep yourself involved in outside pursuits in addition to your work in the kitchen. I have found that doing projects like sewing or painting, or even going for a hike or doing yoga, often helps me work through creative blocks and refreshes my perspective. Even better if you can push yourself to try something new: new hobbies, new flavours, new places!

Her hopes...

I would like to see a shift toward a more eco-friendly, global-impact-aware industry. We need to be more thoughtful about the fact that our sector has many poor practices that need to be improved for the better of our environment. For example, deforestation for beef farming, overfishing and fishing related water pollution, and wasteful packaging standards. Of course, it’s about taking steps where we can, when we can and pushing ourselves towards a better future one day at a time.

I think it is also important that we see an increased focus on wellness and a work-life balance in our industry. This industry is demanding and rewarding, but we all have to take care of ourselves, especially in times like now. 

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8. Theign Yie Phan, Le Garçon Saigon

Theign Yie Phan is the head chef of Le Garçon Saigon, a popular Vietnamese restaurant that celebrates the vibrant and fresh flavours of Saigonese cuisine.

Very early on in my career, there was an executive chef told me, “There are no men or women in my kitchen; you are all chefs.”  That phrase is firmly in my heart every day in my kitchen. There is no doubt that the industry is still male-dominated, but I have always tried to run my teams gender-blind. My team is 80% female, but I assign responsibilities and tasks based solely on ability.

Gender should not make a difference in what one can do. I grew up in Singapore, where there are a lot of women in the workforce, so never once did I think that being a woman would set me back in any way. My mindset has always been to do well in what I want to do.

Having said that, I am only 154 cm tall, and my slight physique has always been a challenge in a physically demanding environment, but I like to think that it is what makes me an agile chef! A chef once insisted I step on a milk crate to elevate myself while whisking hollandaise sauce, or I risk straining my arm, which leads me to another motto: there is always a better way to do things!

Her motto and career tips...

Do not compare yourself to your peers; focus your energy on learning new skills and achievements. Read a lot, buy cookbooks, and do not depend on social media to learn. Travel and try new foods as much as you can. These are all things I would tell a young chef and are all things I know are essential to becoming a well-rounded individual in the culinary world.

Her hopes...

We need to work better to protect talent in the industry from leaving prematurely due to burnout. There is a notion that working in hospitality is about unforgiving hours and low pay and that if you survive these conditions, you earn a badge of honour. But this industry can also be really caring and supportive; we just need everyone to work towards a better work-life balance and see a longer-term future in our industry.

I think that the conversation can shift away from always talking about “female chefs” in the industry; it feels that the notion of women in kitchens is an exception rather than a certainty. I would like to celebrate the profession and the achievements of hard-working people. 

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9. Graff Kwok, Date by Tate

After graduating from the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary institution in 2015 and working at high-end places such as The Langham and café Le Cordon Bleu in London, Graff Kwok moved to Hong Kong and joined Tate Dining Room as the head pastry chef, leading the production of exquisite French pastries with modern Chinese twist for its sub-brand Date by Tate.

While it is tough to be a woman in the F&B industry, I am fortunate to always have female bosses since I started as a pastry chef. They were all very charismatic and outspoken. They showed me how to become a successful female chef in a male-dominated world, you have to work extra hard to show your dedication and commitment.

I am lucky to have not experienced any gender-biased challenges in my career. What I found challenging when I first started as a chef was the physical demand. Working long hours is the industry norm. I overcame it by exercising regularly to increase my stamina and strength. You cannot perform well if you are feeling tired all the time!

Her motto and career tips...

Stay humble to learn from anybody and be confident of who you are. I believe you can learn something new from everyone you meet in your life. So go speak to people, learn their story and you can always get something out of it. Communication is key in any industry. 

Her hopes...

I would like to see more passionate people entering the F&B industry. Anyone can achieve great success when they are passionate about what they do. To entice youngsters to consider F&B as their future path, the industry could provide more insight and support in events such as career days in schools. 

10. Sandy Keung, Table by Sandy Keung and Good BBQ

Sandy Keung was a finance lead of a large publicly listed company before stepping towards becoming a chef and starting her own F&B business. After spending over ten years working in the private catering sector in Vietnam and Hong Kong, she opened her first restaurant, Table by Sandy Keung in 2014, and a traditional Hong Kong style barbeque restaurant chain, Good BBQ in 2015.

I still remember that chat when my former colleagues told me they didn’t believe I started my own restaurant business in less than one year. Despite my career background in the financial industry and the lack of professional kitchen experiences, I was able to pursue my dreams of being a chef and restauranteur with hard work and dedication. Fast forward nine years later, I am still here, cooking happily with my sous chef.

I didn’t care much about what others thought of me along the way and I didn’t let myself be negatively influenced by people who doubt my worth. I became a full-time chef because of my love for cooking. I put ‘love’ here is because being a chef is a job that makes me feel good and fulfilled every day.

My team has a 50/50 gender split of men and women, but I didn’t intend to do that. I don’t want to approach my professional life with a gendered lens, however, I think it’s important to cultivate a healthy work culture and be mindful of my team. Everyone should be given an equal opportunity to shine in the kitchen regardless of gender.

Her motto and career tips...

Chefs play a key role in delivering happiness through creating great food. As chefs, we are responsible for making sustainability commonplace and it’s important for us to cook in devotion and mindfulness. My advice is to always cook with respect and pursue a culinary career that feels rewarding so you won’t feel burned out easily.

Her hopes...

I hope to see more independent owner-chef restaurants in Hong Kong! 


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