Thai chef Duangporn Songvisava, better known as ‘Bo,’ was recently named the best female chef in Asia for her restaurant Bo.lan in Bangkok.
In conjunction with the launch last week of the inaugural edition of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, which ranked the top dining destinations in the region, organizers handed out a separate award for women, just as they do for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
A scan of the winning eateries, meanwhile, shows that both lists are male-dominated.
Could the best female chef category, then, simply serve as a consolation prize for women?
In a phone inerview with Relaxnews, Chef Bo pauses for a moment to consider the question before delivering her verdict.
No, if anything, she says, including such a category serves to encourage fellow female chefs to soldier on and pursue their culinary dreams -- especially when those ambitions are often thwarted by plans to build a family or physical exhaustion.
“It proves that it is possible to be a successful female chef,” she said.
It’s true that the odds are stacked against women in the kitchen, especially when it comes to the heavy lifting -- literally.
First off, the physical workload can be daunting for a female chef. Tasks such as lifting a vat of oil to fill the deep fryer, for instance, or lifting industrial size pots of stock onto the stove don’t come easy for women.
Secondly, for many females in the kitchen, culinary dreams are often put on the back burner -- and subsequently on indefinite hold -- for the bigger dream of having children and starting a family, says Bo.
Not so for men, however.
“For a male chef, he can continue to work when he has a baby. But for women, it’s a lot more difficult and more complicated.”
'Having it all'
Bo’s award, meanwhile, comes seven months after she gave birth to a baby boy named Keith, her first child with husband and fellow chef Dylan Jones, who also works at the Bo.lan kitchen.
Bo is fortunate, however, to be the chef-owner of her own restaurant with her husband at her side. It’s a position that allowed her to work up to three days before delivering and gives her the luxury of being able to call the shots -- i.e. bringing the baby into the restaurant every day.
Being owner of the restaurant also means she’s not necessarily on her feet cooking eight hours a day, but means overseeing the kitchen and taking care of the administrative details in the office -- a luxury not all female chefs can afford.
But when it comes to cooking, gender differences end at the physical logistics of strength and childbirth, she says.
“Women can cook just as well as the guys. What we just lack is the physical strength. We have the same amount of creativity and skills and we’re capable of doing just as well as men. We just can’t lift as much.”
Meanwhile, being a female chef in Southeast Asia also comes with the benefit of being more fluid and less rigid than Western kitchens, which are ruled by strict hierarchies, she added.
In Thailand, for instance, chefs who cooked for the royal family were all women, which could explain why attitudes towards head female chefs are more open and accepted, she said.
Furthermore, the restaurant culture in Southeast Asia is much more casual than in the Western world, she points out. Kitchens are less likely to be ruled with the iron fist of a shouting, intimidating dictator, for instance, or strict pecking orders that must be adhered to.
“It’s much easier to be a female chef and work in Asia than it is to be a female chef in Europe.”
Songvisava opened Bo.lan in 2009. Menus are developed in line with the Slow Food philosophy of using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, and upholding the country’s culinary heritage. That means the kitchen doesn’t skimp out on authenticity -- or chilies -- for Western palates or shy away from ingredients and flavors that may be unfamiliar to foreigners. In addition to running one of the hottest dining destinations in Bangkok, Songvisava also hosts the Thai TV program "Eat, Am Are," which examines issues such as food security and sustainable food consumption.