Lolla’s ‘best female chef in Asia’ quit her job to pursue cooking

Lolla's 'best female chef in Asia' quit her job to pursue cooking

Johanne Siy walked into her first culinary job interview wearing four-inch heels.

She had just left her high-flying position in a company and, like any other candidate, she tried her best.

“The floor was so slippery. Everyone was looking at me and in their minds they were probably judging me,” the 41-year-old said with a laugh.

Although her introduction to the world of food was just plain fun, one thing was certain: Siy felt like she belonged.

Ten years later, Siy is now head chef at one of Singapore’s premier dining destinations, Lolla, where Asian-inspired modern European flavors dominate the menu.

Just last week, she was named “Asia’s Best Female Chef” at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023 – the first Singapore-based chef to win. Lolla was also ranked 63rd in the list.

I’ve always loved cooking but never really considered it a career growing up in Asia. In the past, no one encouraged you to accept manual labor.

“I was so excited to be in the kitchen. I thrived on that energy during good service,” she told CNBC Make It, recounting this interview.

“It’s a bit like sports. When the team comes together, it’s so rewarding when everyone does well.”

The Filipino chef told CNBC Make It what changed the course of her career.

Reject the conventional path

Siy knows only too well what the conventional path looks like: get a college degree, find a decent job, start a family and raise children.

After all, she was on that “formal” path herself: After earning a degree in science, business administration and accounting, Siy moved from the Philippines to Singapore to work at Procter & Gamble.

In six years, she rose through the ranks to become its regional brand manager, a “well-paying” and “well-regarded” job, she said.

But Siy was not satisfied.

“I would call it a quarter-life crisis… There was a time when I wondered if this was really what I wanted to do my whole life because I didn’t jump out of bed in the morning.”

Siy thought about what she was good at and passionate about and what she could devote her whole life to. She found her mind wandering in the kitchen.

“I’ve always loved cooking but never really considered it a career growing up in Asia. In the past, nobody encouraged you to take up manual labor,” she added.

When you get to the kitchen you start by mopping – it’s not very rock star.

After “a lot of thought”, at 28, Siy decided to take a leap of faith and start cooking. This meant she had to take a significant pay cut.

“Are you passionate enough to want to give up a certain lifestyle and live more simply?” she wondered.

“You have to be very honest with yourself, really think about it and assess yourself.”

mood expectations

For anyone considering a career change, Siy has this advice: “Change your expectations, start by understanding what it really is.”

This saw her working in a kitchen in Singapore, even before she enrolled in culinary school.

“Everything portrayed in the media is always romanticized, especially for our field. Like, oh, it’s so glamorous to be a chef, you’re like a rock star,” she said.

“But when you get to the kitchen, you start by cleaning the floor – it’s not very rock star.”

The physical challenges that came with the job were also hard to ignore. Siy said that every time she opened a new station or kitchen, she “easily lost about five to ten kilograms”.

An avocado, smoked eel, eel and yuzu soup from Lolla.


“Now you have all these cool kitchen gadgets, but when I started it wasn’t as advanced. There were a lot of things you had to do manually,” she explained.

“When I was younger there was a sense of pride like okay, if (men) can do it, I can do it too. So you try to lift that heavy pot on your own and don’t don’t ask the guys or anyone else to help.”

Siy said she was addicted and enrolled in the legendary Culinary Institute of America in 2010.

She then built an impressive CV with stints in New York, Sweden and Denmark before taking on the role of head chef at Lolla.

Lead by example

Siy acknowledged that gender bias and equality are evolving in professional kitchens, but there’s no denying that the culinary field is still a male-dominated field, she said.

In 2021, women made up about 20% of all chefs in the United States, according to career planning site Zippia.

“It’s not sustainable because every kitchen is understaffed. If we don’t make kitchens more female-friendly, I don’t think the industry can survive,” Siy said.

“It’s not really a question of promoting gender equality and/or parity anymore. It’s a question of survival.”

For Siy, it’s important for a chef or restaurant chef to cultivate an inclusive culture and “set the tone” for a kitchen — it’s not a role she takes lightly.

Inasmuch as For example, she says she’s “very strict” when hiring people, in order to build a team that embraces diversity.

“It’s something I do very deliberately. When I interview people, I ask a lot of questions about their working style and how best to work with people,” Siy said.

“Lolla’s culture is family-friendly. It’s not about, ‘Hey, this is your station, pull yourself together.’ We are a team and we help each other.”

Don’t miss: This award-winning chef has a philosophy that can be applied to any career

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