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 18 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.
In Bangkok, 75-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, Tate's Vicky Lau gave up successful jobs 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.
“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.
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.
One-MICHELIN-star, MICHELIN Guide Shanghai 2023
At Obscura, DeAille Tam and her partner chef Simon Wong draw from their extensive research trips throughout China to build a unique perspective on Chinese cuisine that celebrates culinary heritage through a modern, innovative lens.
Hong Kong-born and Canada-raised, chef Tam turned to the culinary world after earning her engineering degree, and has devoted herself to it ever since. To her, there is no distinction between life and work — even the local food and flavours she encounters on holiday are sources of inspiration. Her advice for other ambitious young women in the industry: "The road is tough and cruel, and most of the time, very lonely. Be patient, perseverant, passionate, tenacious, and devoted. If you don't want to sacrifice anything or don't want to devote yourself, you will never be able to go deep into the field. "
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, she 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.
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.
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.
Chef Owner, Fleur De Sel
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Taipei & Taichung, Tainan & Kaohsiung 2022
This French Contemporary restaurant is the latest one-star addition to the MICHELIN Guide Taipei & Taichung 2020. FFleur de Sel’s Chef-owner Justine Li has three decades of experiences in western cuisines, 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.
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)
Chef-founder Kim Bo-mi (Photo: Yuchan Jung) shares her philosophy of how they deliver a genuine expression of Japanese cuisine in Korea that attracts even a Japanese clientele with her partner Kwon Young-woon. Both chefs run Mitou, a newly starred restaurant in Michelin Guide Seoul 2021 edition with accolades rolling in for its seasonal dishes and hospitality; since opening in January 2018, Mitou has rapidly earned its place as one of the most loved Japanese restaurants in Seoul.
Studied in Japan, chef Kim Bo-mi says that now her aim is to present a unique Japanese cuisine, especially based in Korea. Although Korea is geographically close to Japan, there are many differences in environment, society, and culture. Even if it's the same ingredient, the ripening season is different. While considering these differences, she is focusing on bringing the taste of the local ingredients in Korea and sharing the processing method with farmers and producers. Also, she keeps studying how to improve the taste by scientifically approaching the recipe – such as analyzing the mineral content of water, including trying various brands of bottled water and even tap water.
Her endless power is to be faithful to the present and continue with the current mindset. Chef Kim says that she’s always determined to improve what she does, and to move towards a point that is not yet arrived.
Hee Eun Kim, chef-owner of the contemporary fine dining restaurant Soul located in Seoul, established several distinct sections, creating impeccable dining spaces for disparate cuisines with her husband Yun Dae-hyun. Kim, a chef specializing in Korean cuisine, and Yun, who studied Western cuisine, have come together to create and present Soul Dining. They aim to bridge the gap between Korean and Western cuisine and introduce today's Korean cuisine to the world. She has confidence in showcasing the many charms of Korean cuisine to a wider audience.
Beh Gaik Lean
Chef, Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery
One-MICHELIN-star, MICHELIN Guide Kuala Lumpur and Penang 2023
At 69, Beh is a testament that it is never too late to chase one's dreams. Prior to opening her restaurant, Beh used to work a factory job in order to provide food for her mother and son. Despite life's setbacks, Beh does not let her age define her as she continues to be in the restaurant everyday, creating Peranakan delights for her restaurant regulars and guests.
Till this day, she insists on grinding her cooking pastes (rempah) and chopping the herbs for her nasi ulam. A proud Nyonya woman, Beh waxes poetic about her heritage’s food, determined to do her best to deliver dishes that are rooted in Peranakan cuisine.Beh Gaik Lean is the first female chef in Malaysia with a MICHELIN-Starred restaurant — Auntie Gaik Lean's Old School Eatery. A household name to the Penang food community, the restaurant is deemed as an institution for its Peranakan cuisine crafted from secret recipes using quality produce. Many items here are made from scratch, including the heavenly pie tee and gulai tumis that uses over eight ingredients in the curry paste.
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.
Chef Bee 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 many consecutive years from 2018 to 2023.
Bangkok’s first street food recipient of a MICHELIN star, the 75-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.
RECOMMENDED: The Must-Try Dishes at Jay Fai
Before the 31-year-old Bangkokian won the hearts of fans as a winner of a cooking competition on television in Thailand, Chef Tam had worked as sous chef at the three-MICHELIN-Starred Blue Hill at Stone Barns in United States that introduced her to the farm-to-table philosophy. At Baan Tepa, she brings the farm-to-table idea to her beautifully presented contemporary Thai tasting menu, made with seasonal ingredients sourced from sustainably minded producers and her own backyard. She also transformed her grandma’s classic two-storey house into a cool urban food space that elegantly complements the fine cuisine that she crafts.
At 15, Banyen Ruangsantheia left the 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.
Thailand's first MICHELIN Opening of the Year Award goes to 33-year-old Chef Pam - chef, restaurateur, and mother, for her successful opening of Potong, in spite of trying times during the COVID-19 period. Having found her passion in cooking, her mother encouraged her to leave academic life at a leading university to pursue her culinary dream to become a chef -- the same dream her mother once had. She later learned her culinary skills at the Culinary Institute of America, then trained at the two-MICHELIN-Starred Jean-Georges in New York before returning home and becoming a well-known television personality. At Potong, she renovated her family’s ancestral building in the heart of Chinatown that once housed a pharmacy. Her restaurant became the first restaurant of its kind to serve innovative/progressive Thai-Chinese cuisine in Thailand, which has had an impact on the local gastronomic scene ever since.
Head chef, Saneh Jaan
One MICHELIN Star, MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2023
It is undeniable that as Thai head chef of Saneh Jaan, Chef Pilaipon "Toy" Kamnag has joined the old guard, protecting and promoting traditional Thai recipes. Flipping through the Saneh Jaan menu in Bangkok, you might uncover some hard-to-find dishes unfamiliar to even the most “Thai” of Thai people. Doing more than following recipes accurately, the soft-spoken Chef Kamnag also utilises her background in French cuisine to give each dish a meticulously elegant finish.
Ever since the revelation of MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2019, Chef Garima Arora became the first Indian woman to head a MICHELIN Star restaurant. Born in Mumbai, the Indian chef began her career as a journalist before studying at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. She has worked with René Redzepi, Gordon Ramsay as well as Gaggan Anand before starting her own establishment. Gaa is known for its modern menu inspired by Indian techniques, and more recently, the elevation of meatless dishes. She also launched Food Forward India, a not-for-profit initiative to understand the history of Indian food and all its future potential to re-examine, re-evaluate and eventually reintroduce Indian cuisine to the world. At the MICHELIN Star Revelation Award Ceremony in 2021, she also became the second winner of Thailand's MICHELIN Guide Young Chef Award Presented by Blancpain.
Written by Aileen Yue in Shanghai, Leah Su in Shanghai, Pruepat “Maprang” Songtieng in Bangkok, Julia Lee and Nayoung Kim in Seoul, Rachel Tan and Mikka Wee in Singapore, Mandy Li and Miyako Kai in Hong Kong, Hsieh Ming-ling in Taiwan; introduction and edits by Debbie Yong.
Updated March 2023.