Running a MICHELIN-starred kitchen is an arduous task by any measure - arguably even more so if you are a woman in Asia.
For many female chefs, particularly those from traditionally patriarchal Asian cultures, there are barriers aplenty: from the objection of family members who frown upon the role of a cook as a low-status job, to the long hours and physical demands of the professional kitchen that clash with the conventional duties of a woman as a wife and mother.
But a growing crop of ambitious, determined female chefs in Asia are proving these stereotypes as a thing of yesterday — and getting global recognition for their efforts.
At least 22 restaurants recognised with a MICHELIN star across Asia have a female chef at their helm, along with manifold more among the Bib Gourmand and Plate categories of the Guide. These women are making their presence felt across the culinary spectrum, often with a distinct feminine touch.
In Osaka, Akemi Nakamura opened her own kaiseki restaurant — considered the echelon of Japanese cuisine — Nishitemma Nakamura in 2016 after 22 years of apprenticeships, so that her playful and original creations can fully take the stage.
By contrast, cosy one-starred Kyoto hotspot Hokkoriya, run by the affable Michiyo Matsumoto, offers nourishing obanzai or “soul food” for wearied working women — and men alike — with decades of knowledge she had gleaned from the generations of okaasans who used to man the stalls in the city’s Nishiki Market.
In Bangkok, 74-year-old Supinya Junsuta (pictured in banner photo) still personally tends to every detail of every dish she serves from her fiery hot stove at her MICHELIN-starred street food stall, Jay Fai.
Elsewhere in Asia, Mi-Wol Yoon of one-MICHELIN-starred Yunke and Family Li Imperial Cuisine’s Li Ai Yin are helping to preserve their storied family legacies for the next generation. Meanwhile, Poom's Roh Young-hee and Tate's Vicky Lau gave up successful jobs in journalism and advertising to turn their hobbies into a rewarding career.
Several rose through the ranks of famously demanding French kitchens through persistent hard work, while others overcame family poverty and breast cancer along their journey, using these setbacks as fuel to push themselves further.
For all their achievements, however, many of these chefs are quick to play down the role of gender as a factor for success.
“Everybody is equal in the kitchen in the sense that we all play our parts and perform our best to satisfy our guests,” says Florence Dalia of L’atelier de Joel Robuchon Taipei.
“Toughness doesn’t come from appearances, it’s all in the mind. The more important thing is to be comfortable with what you’re doing and things will gradually fall into place,” Tate’s Vicky Lau adds. “If you think you can do it, there is always a way.”
This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the women who bring their A-game to their kitchens every single day. Read more about their stories below.
Zeng Huai Jun
Executive chef, Song
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Guangzhou 2019
When Zeng Huai Jun enrolled in culinary school in her native Sichuan 35 years ago, she thought that she would end up running a small restaurant or whipping up home-cooked meals for her family. One of only 12 female students in the entire school, she could hardly imagine that she would one day be running a fine-dining restaurant in the heart of Guangzhou’s buzzing Tianhe business district — or leading the team to its first MICHELIN star after just one year of operations.
With a sharp, short crop and a steadfast demeanour, Zeng hopes to continue her trademark of melding new flavours and influences from global cultures and cuisines into her cuisine, while retaining its firm foundation on traditional Sichuan culinary principles.
What our inspectors say: Christened after the dynasty and the owner’s last name, this award-winning space boasts pillars covered with dramatically lit, stainless steel bricks. Gigantic glass-feathered wings are hung from the mirrored ceiling to lend an eerie sense of space. Most items on the menu are Sichuanese, with occasional offerings from other provinces. Signatures include spicy boiled tiger grouper, jujube wood-roasted 42-day Peking duck and spicy crab.
Li Ai Yin
Chef-owner, Family Li Imperial Cuisine (Xicheng)
One MICHELIN star, MICHELIN Guide Beijing 2020
Chef-owner, Reikasai Ginza
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Tokyo 2020
A qualified doctor, Li Ai Yin traded her medical scrubs for chef whites in 1985, after her family started Family Li Imperial Cuisine to showcase the original recipes of her great-grandfather who supervised the meals of the royal family during the late Qing dynasty. Today, the fourth-generation chef manages the family’s restaurants in Beijing and Tokyo, which hold one MICHELIN star each. Groomed by her father and Family Li founder Li Shanlin from a young age, the younger Li’s careful choice of ingredients and seasonings used in every dish is reflective of her family’s respect for upholding their storied legacy. Her restaurants' signature dishes are steeped with rich retellings of their origins in the imperial dining rooms of yesteryear.
What our inspectors say about Family Li Imperial Cuisine (Xicheng): Since 1985, this restaurant has been serving food truly fit for a king, as the Li family’s ancestors once helmed the Qing dynasty’s kitchen. Now run by the fourth generation, it still prides itself on replicating those imperial recipes faithfully. Only set menus are available and pricier ones need to be pre-ordered. Beijingese smoked pork, and scallops and young soybeans on tofu are undoubtedly the highlights.
What our inspectors say about Reikasai Ginza: This is the Ginza location of a Beijing-based restaurant that got its start when the grandfather, who created menus for the Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi during the Qing era, recreated the recipes from that time and opened a restaurant. Today, the fourth-generation chef is successor to the closely guarded cooking techniques. The unique cuisine maximizes the inherent flavour and nutritional goodness of the ingredients; one example is the jade tofu.
One MICHELIN star, MICHELIN Guide Tokyo
As a 36th-generation descendent of the Yuns, a distinguished family of Korean palace cuisine specialists dating back to the Joseon dynasty, Mi-Wol Yoon learnt to cook under the watchful eye of her mother and continued to hone her skills through vigorous self-study. After moving to Japan at age of 20, she ran a Korean barbeque restaurant in Tokyo as chef-owner for 30 years. To counter the oversimplified perception from Japanese diners of Korean cuisine as “just spicy food”, she opened Korean fine dining restaurant Yunke in 2013 to deliver nutritious and meticulously prepared palace cuisine using the highest quality ingredients, such as prized free-range chicken from Iwate and rare Korean medical herbs delivered directly from South Korea to Tokyo.
What our inspectors say: The female chef is a descendant of the Yun family, who were in charge of meal management for the king of Korea during the Joseon period. Using quality ingredients from Japan and South Korea, she serves palace cuisine with no additives to preserve the yakuzen properties. The specialities are hairy crab ganjang gejang and black awabi yakuzen soup. They also pride themselves in their full-flavoured, matured kimchi. This stylish restaurant has private rooms only.
One MICHELIN star, MICHELIN Guide Tokyo 2020
Rika Maezawa’s goal is to create dishes so full of seasonality, that “if you placed them in a meadow, they would merge with its surrounding wild flowers and grasses”. Born into a restaurant family and enamoured with cooking from a young age, the 51 year old made her official switch into the culinary world in her mid-20s, after quitting an apparel company.
Her cuisine centres around the use of seasonal Japanese vegetables and dried foods that reflect Japan’s culinary history and knowledge, which she enhances by emphasising their umami flavours and kaori (fragrance) through the use of herbs such as shiso and kinome.
What our inspectors say: The female owner-chef focuses on ingredients that more often play a supporting role, like vegetables, beans and dried foods. The set menu starts with a seasonal vegetable surinagashi. One speciality here is pork rib and soybean simmered with miso, where soybeans are the star of the dish, and is inspired by cassoulet, a dish from southwestern France. The simple tasting dishes and homelike hospitality are heartwarming.
One MICHELIN star, MICHELIN Guide Kyoto-Osaka 2020
Over the past twenty-seven years, Michiyo Matsumoto’s cosy 10-seater counter has welcomed diners from around the world, but being a big cheerleader for working ladies in Japan has always been on her mind. Named after a Kyoto dialect term for “relaxation after a hard slog”, Hokkoriya offers rustic Obanzai cooking — a style of home-cooked food native to Kyoto — to give diners enough energy boost to face the next day. Matsumoto’s nurturing personality and her nutritious, seasonal cuisine have earned her the praise of MICHELIN inspectors, along with a coveted MICHELIN star, since 2011.
What our inspectors say: Tourists and regulars alike fill the restaurant and that’s due to the warm personality of the proprietress and the gentle flavour of the obanzai. The dishes are prepared using quality seasonal ingredients, with consideration given to their natural state. Examples are the bamboo shoots stir-fried in olive oil, wax gourd dressed in kudzu sauce, mushroom takiawase and lily bulb egg-drop.
It took her more than two decades to strike out on her own — but Akemi Nakamura hasn’t looked back since. After twenty-two years of apprenticeship in renowned kaiseki and kappo restaurants in Osaka, Nakamura opened Nishitemma Nakamura in 2016 and has earned a MICHELIN star every year since 2018. Her cooking showcases her delicate expression of her strong foundation of Japanese cuisine, with some flashes of boldness in between. In one of her signature dishes, Boiled Turnip, she fills up a hollowed out whole turnip with a special yuzu miso that is slowly stirred by hand for one hour to coax it into a molten form. Every scoop of the warm, gently cooked turnip flesh together with the yuzu miso guarantees joy with each mouthful.
What our inspectors say: Building on the basics of Japanese cuisine, the female owner-chef infuses it with originality. One of the highlights is the hassun with shuko – the seasonal presentation makes it a treat for the eyes as well. Then there are playful dishes like the foie gras with sake lees. The dashi is prepared just before serving and features a rich katsuo flavour and the savouriness of kombu. Enjoy elaborate dishes in a modern Japanese atmosphere.
A former creative director in the advertising industry, Lau kicked off her culinary career with an apprenticeship at now-closed MICHELIN-starred Cépage before opening Tate in 2012. The restaurant received its first MICHELIN star after just nine months of operation for its innovative French-Chinese cuisine, which it has kept in the nine consecutive years since. Soft-spoken but determined in the kitchen, Lau’s unapologetically feminine touch is distinctly felt throughout the restaurant, from the calming pastel-coloured dining room fittings to the delicate dim sum-inspired French pastries offered in her adjoining patisserie, Poem.
What our inspectors say: Owner-chef Vicky Lau is now very much at home here in Sheung Wan, where she tells edible stories with her multi-course menu that exudes feminine delicacy and sophistication. Each dish is an ode to an ingredient, mostly locally sourced, with occasional exceptions such as Breton lobsters. Wine flights are predominantly French as is the list, but a sake is not beyond the pale either. Refined and detailed service echoes the sentiments that the food imparts.
Wu Hsiao-fang enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America with dreams of becoming a professional chef after an early foray as a part-time hotel waitress — and many voluntary stints in the hotel’s kitchens — piqued her interest in food. Upon graduation, she spent more than 10 years working with renowned Taiwanese restaurateur Danny Deng, over which time she rose through the ranks to lead his high-end Danny's Steakhouse as executive chef. Wu makes a lasting first impression with her firm personality, and has been praised by Deng for her calm confidence and her ability to ignite the ambitions of young chefs.
What our inspectors say: Known as Taiwan's 'godfather of steaks', the eponymous owner certainly knows what makes the best steaks. Prime cuts of U.S. dry-aged and Australian wagyu beef are grilled perfectly to your desired doneness over lychee wood in a broiler from the U.S. and then rested properly before being served. Even the homemade sourdough, french fries and desserts are hard to find fault with. Given the quality of the food and service, prices are more than reasonable.
Born in Burgundy, 42-year-old Florence Dalia started her culinary journey when she entered cooking school at the age of 16 and trained in top kitchens across England, France and Switzerland before joining the Joël Robuchon restaurant group in 2005. She fell in love with the dynamism of Asia after a stint in Shanghai 14 years ago and has worked in acclaimed restaurants in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Taipei, including Hong Kong’s two-MICHELIN-starred Amber at Landmark Mandarin Oriental. The intrepid traveller took over the reins of Taipei’s one-starred L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Taipei in October 2019, where she upholds the late legendary French chef’s eternal pursuit of classic techniques and pure flavours instead of the latest trends.
What our inspectors say: The glamorous and moody interior uses the iconic black and red colour scheme familiar to those who know Joël Robuchon's international group. Sit at the counter to appreciate the atmosphere to the fullest. French classics are re-invented with skill, care and a great deal of aplomb; the service is engaging, confident and thoughtful. Prix-fixe menus offer the best value, but ordering à la carte or even in small tasting portions is possible too.
Head chef, Fleur De Sel
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Taiwan 2020
This French Contemporary restaurant is the latest one-star addition to the MICHELIN Guide Taiwan 2020. Fleur de Sel’s head chef Justine Li worked in France and Italy for three decades before launching her own venue in Taichung, where the whimsical yet precisely executed tasting menus feature local ingredients and change daily. Her life is a story of perseverance and a "never give up" attitude that is an inspiration to many. She began her career in hospitality at a tender age of 17 in a big hotel, working her way to become its general manager. Later on, she left for Italy to pursue her interest in the culinary arts and returned to Taichung and opened an Italian restaurant. Eight years into running the business, she decided to put it all down and begin a new chapter in France studying its cuisine, language and culture. "I will always pursue my passion for cooking. At times I may slow down to reflect on my goals and my progress, and that's when I may decide to learn everything from scratch. I am not afraid to begin anew, I will always tackle it with renewed passion," she says.
What our inspectors say: The chef worked in France and Italy for 30 years before opening her restaurant in 2003, which she moved to this contemporary building in 2017. She uses mostly local ingredients to create 7- to 9-course prix fixe menus that change daily and never fail to surprise with their precise execution, whimsical ideas and vivid colours. Chargrilled squab, and fish from Penghu stand out. The wine list is short but offers choices from different regions.
Cho Eun-hee is the latest entrant amongst the four female chefs leading Michelin-starred restaurants in Seoul, after her Korean restaurant Onjium debuted in the guidebook’s 2020 edition. Cho spent 16 years teaching at the Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine and Baewha Women’s University, and is a go-to culinary expert consultant for publications, cultural events and even Korean period dramas. The menu at Onjium changes monthly to reflect the seasons: unusual native produce and foraged ingredients are transformed into delicate banchan (small side dishes) that give diners a taste of history. (Photo: La Main Edition)
What our inspectors say: The elegant stonewalled-path of Gyeongbokgung Palace and a modern residential neighbourhood stand directly across from each other. A road is all that lies between Seoul's past and present, coexisting side by side. The same contrast is, again, evident in the modern façade of "Onjieum Matgongbang" and elements of tradition one discovers inside. Helmed by Cho Eun-hee, certified trainee of Korean royal court cuisine, and researcher Park Seong-bae, the space is both a research institute and restaurant. The food it offers clearly reflects the four distinct seasons and the refined beauty of Korean cuisine.
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Seoul 2020
Roh Young-hee began her culinary career as the managing editor of a Korean food magazine and a professional food stylist before venturing behind the stove herself. Inspired by Korean royal cuisine, the food at Poom is highly seasonal: an autumnal menu might include seared beef that is marinated for eight hours and served with a soybean paste sauce and scallions; crispy shiitake mushrooms stuffed with shrimp and served in warm chicken broth and, for dessert, balls of chestnuts mashed and mixed with honey and cinnamon. Orders must be placed during reservation at least a day in advance to give the kitchen time to prepare these labour-intensive dishes.
What our inspectors say: Poom by Chef Roh Young-hee is a sophisticated Korean restaurant located along Sowol road on Namsan Mountain. The dining room is known for serving noble class cuisine from the Joseon Dynasty with a modern twist. Chef Roh changes the menu every month, inspired by the seasonal ingredients she finds daily at the marketplace. Her plating and style are simple elegance at their finest. The restaurant also boasts spectacular views of the city.
Cho Hee-suk is widely referred to as the ‘Godmother of Korean cuisine’ for her work studying and proliferating Korean cuisine identity and traditions worldwide. In 2017, she opened Hansikgongganand earned a MICHELIN star in the MICHELIN Guide Seoul 2019 edition. With her gentle tone and maternal demeanour, Cho has been credited with mentoring a generation of successful young chefs, including Kang Min-goo of two Michelin-starred Mingles and Shin Chang-ho of one-starred Joo Ok.
What our inspectors say: For a taste of the Korean past mingled with the present, head over to Hansikgonggan, a restaurant helmed by Chef Cho Hee-suk. Hailed as the godmother of Korean cuisine, Cho is committed to passing on her knowledge - based on years of experience and research - to the younger generation of chefs, while interpreting the traditional flavors with contemporary sensibilities for the modern diner. Look forward to both the expected and the unexpected, with a good dose of love and finesse.
Co-head chef, STAY
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Seoul 2020
Diners may head to STAY for the contemporary French cuisine of Parisian chef Yannick Alléno, but they linger on for its exacting execution by its co-head chef, Choi Hae-young, whose petite stature belies her prowess in the kitchen. Having worked with Alléno for five years at his three-starred Pavilion Ledoyen, Choi lends her expertise to the preparation of locally sourced Korean ingredients while still respecting French culinary techniques. The result is creative contemporary French dishes with unique Korean inflections, such as a terrine made of foie gras poached in seaweed dashi and topped with an apple liquor made with a traditional Korean spirit instead of traditional French cognac. (Photo: La Main Edition)
What our inspectors say: Perched on the 81st floor of Signiel Seoul Hotel, STAY takes 'dining with a view' to a whole new level with its sweeping vistas of the metropolis. STAY is celebrated Chef Yannick Alléno's modern casual French restaurant, a youthful and vibrant space accented with yellow and gold. The live Pastry Library is its signature feature that offers a tantalizing assortment of sweets and confections that guests can help themselves to.
After finishing a culinary degree in Australia, Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava moved back to her native Bangkok and then to London, where she worked at Nahm under David Thompson. It was there where she met her husband Dylan Jones. Later they opened Bo.lan, a Thai restaurant where they have been serving royal Thai dishes to much fanfare for nearly a decade. An advocate for Thai food and sustainability, Chef Bo and Bo.lan makes it their mission to safeguard the culinary heritage of Thai food while ensuring that the biodiversity of ingredients used by the restaurant. Bo.lan was awarded a MICHELIN Star in 2018 and has kept it the editions since.
What our inspectors say: There may be hints of modernity in the presentation but chefs Duangporn Songvisava (Bo) and Dylan Jones (lan) ensure that their dishes remain true to royal Thai recipes. The ‘feast menu’ delivers a maelstrom of flavours, textures and complexity. The chefs also boast impressive eco-credentials, with an emphasis put on sustainability and on using organic ingredients from artisan producers. The charming villa is run with considerable warmth.
READ MORE: Interview with a MICHELIN Guide Inspector
Bee Satongun embarked on a career as a chef at 28, when she helped her husband’s Thai restaurant in Australia garner awards. Ambition then led the couple back on Thai soil to open Paste in 2013. Their innovative, modern Thai restaurant serves creative twists on heirloom recipes with the aim of expanding diners’ perception of Thai cuisine as just satay and spring rolls. Her cuisine is multilayered, complex and refined, and her trademark is an exceptional ability to maximise the potential of a given set of ingredients while letting the personality of each element shine through harmoniously. Paste has been awarded a MICHELIN Star for three consecutive years from 2018 to 2020.
What our inspectors say: The striking interior is dominated by a spiral sculpture made from hundreds of silk cocoons, floor-to-ceiling windows, and unusual curved booths that offer privacy. The designed-to-share menu draws inspiration from royal Thai cuisine and uses century-old cooking techniques with ingredients often sourced directly from local growers. Signature dishes include roast duck with nutmeg and coriander; fragrant hot and sour soup with crispy pork leg; and yellow curry from the Gulf of Thailand. Service is attentive but not overbearing.
Former Silicon Valley cognitive scientist-turned-acclaimed food blogger-turned-chef Pim Techamuanvivit found as much success online as well as in the kitchen. Her blog Chez Pim was named one of the most influential food blogs in the world by The Guardian newspaper, while her restaurant Kin Khao in San Francisco has retained its MICHELIN star since 2015, the same year she was battling breast cancer (she turned up to the awards party in a wheelchair). Back on her feet, the Bangkok native chef now splits her time between San Francisco and Bangkok, where she upholds MICHELIN-starred Nahm’s original roots in traditional Thai cuisine while injecting her personal style and flavours to the menu.
What our inspectors say: After establishing her reputation in San Francisco, chef Pim is now at Nahm to pursue her passion for Thai cuisine in her homeland. Maintaining the restaurant's legacy of quality cuisine, Pim has added her own influences and flavours, which have taken the menu to another level. Every dish also displays extra creativity and attention to detail. Must-tries include the intense and aromatic red curry duck with snake fruit and sour yellow eggplant.
Bangkok’s first street food recipient of a MICHELIN star, the 74-year-old Jay Fai — whose real name is Supinya Junsuta — is just hitting her stride at the helm of one of the world’s few MICHELIN-starred street food eateries, with no plans to slow down anytime in the near future. Jay Fai started her roadside eatery in the 1980s and made a name for herself by procuring very high-quality seafood and transforming the ingredients into soulful dishes kissed with the smoky breath of her woks. The wok master cooks every dish herself to her exacting standards with no compromise to anyone — not even her staff. She has even worked on menus for the First and Business class passengers of national carrier Thai Airways.
What our inspectors say: Jay Fai is a place that both taxi drivers and foodies wax lyrical about and it’s easy to see why. Wearing her signature goggles, the local legend that is Jay Fai continues what her father started 70 years ago and makes crab omelettes, crab curries and dry congee.
RECOMMENDED: The Must-Try Dishes at Jay Fai
The 33-year-old chef de cuisine and owner of Saawaan started her career in the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s famed Lord Jim restaurant and continued her fine dining experience at MICHELIN-starred Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok as well as Issaya Siamese Club. She later opened Baan Phadthai, a humble Thai eatery offering refined takes on the street food favourite, which was awarded Bib Gourmand in the inaugural MICHELIN Guide Bangkok 2018. Her latest establishment, Saawaan, takes indigenous flavours off the street and into a fine-dining setting as part of her personal homage to Thai cuisine.
What our inspectors say: ‘Saawaan’ means ‘Heaven’ in Thai, which is exactly where Chef Aom wants to take you through her authentic Thai cuisine. Available only in a set 10-course menu, dishes are full of creativity and well executed, providing a truly special journey through Thai flavours, culture and art. The seasonal ingredients are locally sourced, such as organic rice paddy crab from Sing Buri, or squid from a small fishermen’s village in Krabi.
At 15, Banyen Ruangsantheia left hardship of working in her family’s farm in impoverished Nakhon Ratchasima for Bangkok in the early 1970’s to work as a housemaid for the Kittikachorn family. When the family relocated to Nonthaburi, a northern suburb of Bangkok, due to political conflict in 1973, they expanded their fabric flower business into an idyllic riverside restaurant they named Suan Thip. It was there where Banyen “learnt by tasting” the intricacies of traditional Thai cooking from the restaurant’s first head chef. Three decades later, the smiley, soft-spoken head chef turns out complex creations that are the result of time-consuming techniques tempered with years of experience — as proof that with dedication and hardwork, anything can happen.
What our inspectors say: Beyond the bustle of Bangkok’s busy streets, stepping into Suan Thip feels like entering another world. Its lush garden of trees and small ponds is peaceful and pretty, while a Thai-style pavilion is the perfect setting for weddings and celebrations. Inside, the relaxed vibe continues with views to the riverside, while the refined cuisine is inspired by royal recipes. Many of the staff have been here for decades; even the chef is second generation.
Written by Aileen Yue in Shanghai, Pruepat “Maprang” Songtieng in Bangkok, Julia Lee in Seoul, Rachel Tan in Singapore, Mandy Li and Miyako Kai in Hong Kong; introduction and edits by Debbie Yong.
Updated December 2020.