Chef Johanne Siy: From Laundry Brand Manager to winning the World Gourmet Awards Female Chef of the Year 2021
Watch: ūüĒī Chef Johanne Siy: From Laundry Brand Manager to World Gourmet Awards Female Chef of the Year

It’s so inspiring to talk to Chef Jo about her journey from leaving her P&G Brand Manager job in 2010 to becoming Female Chef of the Year at the World Gourmet Awards Singapore 2021. Watch the video or read the full transcript below to get inspired with Johanne Siy’s story.

Key Takeaways:

‚úÖ There is no shortcut to success. Continue to learn and work hard to develop take yourself to the next level. Age does not matter as long as you love and ūüíĮ dedicated on your craft.

‚úÖ Enjoy every step of your journey in pursuing your passion. Namnamin ang pawis at dugo na bihubuhos mo para sa iyong minimithing tagumpay.

‚úÖ Take the time during this pandemic to redefine who you are by reflecting on your personal strengths and what makes you happy waking up in the morning.

About Chef Jo

Johanne Siy is currently the head chef of Lolla in Ann Siang Hill. Her cuisine is mindful, produce-driven and reflects her culinary upbringing in modern European fine-dining. Previously a corporate brand-builder, she did a full 180 to follow her passion. She went for formal education to the Culinary Institute of America in New York and spent several years learning from culinary giants Chef Eric Ripert and Chef Daniel Boulud at Le Bernardin and Café Boulud in New York City.

Her biggest culinary influence is Chef Andre Chiang, who she considers a mentor – having worked alongside him at Restaurant Andre in Singapore for four years. She spent a lot of time in kitchens, farms and forests in Scandinavia, where she staged at world-renowned restaurants like Noma and Relae in Copenhagen, as well as Faviken in Sweden. During her time there, she developed a profound appreciation for the provenance of ingredients and a deep respect for producers in their unwavering commitment to quality in the midst of an extreme environment. She is a strong proponent of produce-driven cuisine. She champions positivity in the kitchen and the drive to contribute to elevating the hospitality industry as a whole.

Q&A Video Transcript

Anton Diaz: Can you¬† make an introduction about your chef’s career and¬† how it all started?

Chef Jo: Hi everyone.¬† I’m Jo, Joanne Siy , most of you don’t know me cause I’ve never worked back home.

But I’m Pinoy based in Singapore. I’m currently the head chef of LOLLA in Singapore. It’s a Mediterranean inspired restaurant in Ann Siang Hill.¬† It’s¬† very quaint, I would say like a stalwart when it comes to¬† the industry. Cause it’s been there for like nine years.

¬†Initially when we first started, We serve Spanish cuisine, like more of a tortilla, the basics like patatas bravas. But over the years, we’ve actually evolved the cuisine to be a bit more like encompassing we’re of Mediterranean style. And even now, after I joined, we’ve actually also been evolving it into something that’s more modern European, which is more in line with my style of cooking.¬† ,

Let me tell you a little bit about myself.  I started out actually as a brand builder in P&G, and then I started cooking in 2010.

So the first time I ever stepped foot in a kitchen was actually in 2010. No, that was still in Singapore. And then after that, I moved to New York to pursue further studies, formal education, actually in culinary with the Culinary Institute of America. So I stayed in Europe for about four years, so I studied and then worked for a couple of years and a few restaurants there.

Namely Le Bernardin by Eric Ripert¬† and Cafe Boulud in New York City.¬† So that was like four years. And then I came back to Singapore after that… Joined restaurant Andre, which at that time was one of the top restaurants in Singapore that was prior to a Michelin,¬† the World Gourmet Summit.

So I joined that. I worked for four years as well in the restaurant.  Then we closed the restaurant as some of you might know in 2018.  I started traveling during that time.  I took the time to enrich myself and expose myself to other types of cuisine.  At that point it was Scandinavia , which is what you would call the equivalent of Spain, when it comes to like being  the front runner, when it comes to innovation, In terms of cuisine and gastronomy.

So I went there, I worked for a couple of restaurants, stag around work for free restaurants, like Noma, Relæ, and Fäviken in Sweden.  And then after that came back to Singapore, started learning about sour dough, worked for a few months in sour dough bakery. Then I joined Lola as head chef.

Anton Diaz: Can you give us a perspective, how big is this  World Gourmet Awards?

Chef Jo: It’s been in Singapore for a long time, for as long as I can remember. Ever since I joined the industry. No, it’s been there. In fact, when I first joined, it was the premier, I think like award giving body and organization that further the¬† elevation and improvement¬† when it comes to standards in hospitality and cuisine. So of course now there are a lot more,¬† like Michelin has come to Singapore, there is the 50 Best, but it’s still there. And I think it’s still going strong and they still do it annually wherein of course acknowledge the people who are pushing the boundaries or trying to elevate the industry.

Anton Diaz: What does it take to win this award?  A lot of people are proud of this achievement a Filipino winning against these other ladies.

Chef Jo: As far as I know, so in terms of the nomination,¬† someone who is an industry expert or who is very attuned to like the developments in the industry here, they’re the ones who would nominate and then they would look into the cuisine and then the chef. And there is like a period where it’s open to the public for voting. And then, and the other stage where in the industry experts decide based on what they know of the restaurant and the chef.

I think some of them also  visit the restaurant and have some interactions with the chef  anonymous or something like that. And then they base it on that. There is also a lot of weight given to, I think the peers in the industry, other people who are not necessarily with WGS per se, But who are influencers and, , like movers when it comes to the F&B industry here.

Anton Diaz: And what does it mean for you winning this award?

Chef Jo: It’s definitely,¬† an honor, to win it. And of course I want to take this opportunity to thank everyone, friends, family, and people back home, who I’ve never even met, who supported me. So thank you very much for that for,¬† the trust and the belief, but for me, definitely it’s an honor. And at the same time, a great motivator to do even better.

Anton Diaz: I met you in a P&G,  what does it take to jump from a corporate brand builder to getting into chef? Can you take us back to that decision when you decided you want to get into the food industry?

Chef Jo: It was never really part of my plan because growing up I’ve always loved cooking, like everything, all the memories that are still like so vivid in my mind, everything involves cooking or eating, but never actually have I thought about pursuing it as a career. And I don’t think a lot of Kids from my generation had like dreams to become a chef in the olden days prior to the advent¬† of Food TV and so on.

It was really not a very aspirational thing to do, but I enjoyed it and then when I started working here,¬† I got a lot of opportunity to travel and it was during that time, I’m going to Western countries that were a little bit ahead of the curve when it comes to¬† areas like this, where I realized some people really make a career out of it. And it’s actually, , like a viable career that you can¬† pursue your passion on this front make a living and be happy at the same time.¬†

Anton Diaz: I know it’s hard coming from P&G and then leaving that, studying again and starting from¬† the start of the restaurant chain. How hard was it and what kept you going during those early days?

Chef Jo: Yeah, it was definitely hard because,¬† P& G is a really good company. And it’s always good to be able to¬† work with all these remarkable people, , you’re all pushing for something and you have a great deal of respect for the people you work with and then suddenly you’re going into something completely unknown to you.

¬†That terrifies everybody. So yeah, but I really thought about it at that point. I think I did a lot of research. And the industry prior to actually jumping into it. I remember I even Googled, , like top culinary schools in the world because when I started it was I was a bit older. I started in after like seven, eight years of being in P & G. So I was almost like I’m 30 when I went back to school.

So I said, okay, I don’t have the advantage of youth. So I have to work doubly hard and make sure that, , I really make the right investment of my time. And , of course culinary school is also not cheap and choose properly. I asked around, I asked for materials from all these schools overseas in Singapore. These¬† schools would always like send you materials about them.¬† I really did my research on that. And then I finally decided at that point, because the CIA was like highly regard ed as one of the top culinary schools in the world. So that’s why I decided to go there.

Yeah. Yeah. But a lot, a lot of research, a lot of vacillating also is this the right move? I know I’m really passionate about it, but am I giving up a lot to pursue this path?

Anton Diaz: Throughout your career where did you really learn?  Can you share with us what you learned from your great mentors?

Chef Jo: I would say of all because I work in a lot of places, not just, , like whether it was work, work or stag. There are the places that always spend perhaps like a day or two also, because, , I trying to maximize the time.

I think the ones that I’ve learned the most are¬† Chef Andre, definitely because I worked for him the longest.¬† I’ve always con si dered him my mentor. He was the one I suppose, who helped me find my voice in terms of my style of cooking and then my focus. What I love about his cuisine is how it’s always very personal. His cuisine is always despite¬† the trappings of fine dining of all these garnishes and flourishes and the presentation is¬† , at the core of it, it’s food, that’s from the heart. It has a very personal connection to him, whatever he puts on the plate. So I learned a lot from that and that’s an approach that is¬† very important to me as well.¬†

Another person is¬† Chef Eric Ripert from the Le Bernadine in New York, primarily because , when I was working there, I couldn’t believe that we did fine dining for about 350 covers a day.

That’s a lot of work that goes into every single dish because where we were was on 51st between sixth and fifth avenue. So it was close to the theater district. So we had three seatings, things like pre theater,¬† then mid sitting and then another one , we did three at night and then, and we also had like a lunch service. So in total it’s about that much.

But yeah, from him, I actually learned how to focus. You have to know what you’re about and make sure that you stay true to that. So for them it’s fish, it’s seafood, ,they know that they’re all about seafood and fish is always going to be the star of the plate.

Every decision that they make it’s based on that. And that’s why I think they can afford to do so many covers because as long as they protect that and they stay true to that, everything else is just falling into place. , you don’t have to worry about it so much. So those two, I suppose, are the major influences.

Anton Diaz: There’s still a debate is fine dining dead? What do you think¬† in this industry of fine dining restaurant what will happen in the post pandemic world?¬† A lot of¬† culinary students are trying to en¬† ter or a fraid to enter, and they wanted to know¬† what do you think will happen in this space?

Chef Jo: No, actually here, we’re still pseudo where we’re at this phase called heightened alert because there has been an increase in the number of cases. So there’s no dine-in so everyone is doing take out at the moment. But if everything improves, it’s going to be opened up in, I think the 14th of June, we don’t know yet what the conditions are, the terms are, whether it’s going to be reduced number of groups or like maybe two per group or whatever. So we’re scheduled to open around that time though.

But yeah, this is a question I suppose, that everyone is trying to figure out right now,¬† what’s going to happen? I personally think. It doesn’t mean the end of fine dining. In fact, what we observed happened during the time that no one traveled¬† was that the fine dining places did really well because money that would otherwise be spent traveling is¬† used to treat yourself like here. So you travel with your taste buds, ,you go to France to another really good, fine dining restaurant that specializes in French cuisine, so that’s what people did. And in fact, a lot of people got into this space as well, not just in terms of actually making the food, but also, like reviewing restaurants, Hawker centers, because, there was a boom during that time.

Business overall, it’s not as good as it used to be because of social distancing. You can only do a certain number of covers versus before, , you can easily double that, but people were spending, yes, people were spending locally. So it is a big boom to domestic F&B.

Anton Diaz: I wanted to get your thoughts because a lot of people are using this pandemic to reinvent themselves.  If you enter the industry now, what are the  skills  or  mindsets that you need to have and any tips for them?

Chef Jo: I think if we’re talking about the landscape being the Philippines, I think Filipinos have an inherent advantage now because we’re naturally maabili dad and very resourceful because of the way we were raised and the realities, so I think that helps us a lot in times like this, because we’re able to pivot and like easily adapt to the changes. So that’s one thing, so I’m looking for opportunities where no one else can see that is a skill that we have. So I think that is something that really worked to our advantage in this case.

But I think we also need to, whoever’s interested in going through it, will really need to do a lot of their homework , in terms of what is the need in the market. Is there someone who’s already fulfilling that need. Do I have the right to win versus¬† this person? Or like this restaurant is already in that space, things like a strategy standpoint. And of course at the core of it, your product has to be good. So focus first on getting that right.

Anton Diaz: What happened in Singapore did a lot of people, they lay off employees or what happened in the restaurant industry?

Chef Jo: A lot of the ex-pats left because¬† like things they don’t necessarily have to be located here to do certain things. And¬† maybe familial responsibilities as well overseas. But the government actually, released a budget to support certain industries that were hardest hit by the pandemic. So like rent support or encouragement for rent reduction, jobs support scheme. So to a certain extent it’s not as bad, I would say. Especially if you were a local, a certain percentage of your salary was covered by the government during that period of circuit breaker when we were closed.

Anton Diaz: Have you applied anything you learn in P&G or you have to redo everything again when you started in the food industry?

Chef Jo: I realized that what I learned from P&G is mostly Management and strategy brand-building things like this. So now I’m able to apply it. But at the onset, when you’re starting out as a com mis, as a line cook,¬† it’s really more important¬† to build up your, your cooking skills, your foundation, your techniques are basic, right? So it doesn’t come into play, at that point. Maybe certain things like prioritization and working smart.

But¬† it comes out more,¬† rely on it more as you go up and assume positions of management. The thing with the industry is there’s a big gap from¬† the time you are sous chef, and then the time that you become a head chef, because there are certain things that are not necessarily cooking related that you have to excel at once you become a head chef . So if you had that corporate background, I suppose you can use that to give you like a leg up¬† once you reach that level. That’s what happened for me.

Anton Diaz: Looking back at your career, what were the three things that really helped you get to where you are today? Parang ang bilis so bra¬† from the time that you left into getting to the head chef, don’t you think it’s so fast? I, I understand you come at it late and then you kind of hack , I mean, intelligent about how to get to the top of the industry. Maybe you can just share what really worked for you to getting to where you are now and , winning that prestigious award female chef of the year.

Chef Jo: No, actually I don’t think it was fast personally. I think just right perhaps, I mentioned earlier that I was getting into it much later than most. So what I did at that time was actually, I knew that, and I was cognizant of that fact. So I work doubly hard. For example, while I was sitting in school, I was already working in like few other places.

I would volunteer for certain things. So at any point in time, I had multiple things going. Taking on multiple jobs, just so I can maximize the time. For instance, if I was in New York and then the time that I was working. And then when it came back, my off days I would study, I would go visit restaurants.

When I’m on leave from Andre, for example, I would fly to Hong Kong, visit a friend and work for a few days in his or her restaurant, things like this that¬† you¬† help yourself by acquiring more skills. And at the same time, see what everyone else is doing and have a better perspective of¬† what’s out there.

And then by the time you try to think about what do you want to do? , you have all this at the back of your head, so it’s easier. So it’s that it’s I think working doubly hard. I’m not taking shortcuts. I went through the line. I went through,¬† from the start of being a com mis. Breaking down fish, breaking down lobster, doing all the grunt work, feeling potatoes, and all that, that I never skipped a¬† step , burning yourself like every night¬† on this station and that station until I find the leak. Was able to make myself see and promoted for whatever was my contribution that I brought to the team at that point.

Yeah. So, yeah, I went through all that and I think it’s important in this industry, not taking shortcuts because it’s, to me the last known, or maybe one of the remaining vestiges of meritocracy where you on ly progress as far with your talent¬† you can’t rely on connections or anything because the proof is really in the pudding. It’s only as good as to what you put out. So yeah. So don’t take shortcuts, work doubly hard.

And I think check your ego at the door because¬† the danger for most chefs is that¬† you’re very sure about what you are and what you’re about with your brand is. So at some point you kind of stopped learning because you think, oh, this is how I want it to be. This is already the best way but there’s always so much to learn. Like it’s constantly evolving. So to not shut yourself off from that and just continue moving forward and improving.

Anton Diaz: It’s a very important message because sometimes¬† some students here when they¬† graduate in culinary school, they feel like a head chef already.

Chef Jo: No, no, no, no, you’re right. You’re right. People are in a hurry, especially now. We’re so used to things being instantaneous, you have to be patient. You have to¬† enjoy the journey. In fact, at the point that you become like a head chef or exec chef where you’re thinking more about developing menus and things like that. You will miss cooking in the line you will miss the work you used to do before. Not having to think about and worry about all these things and just focus on cooking, cooking every single day.

Anton Diaz: Do you envision the next 10 years for you? What’s¬† next for you, Chef Jo?

Chef Jo: I have a long way to go as much as there is this recognition right now, I feel like I’m only just starting. there is so much more to learn. There’s so much more to achieve. At some point down the line, of course I want to do I want to go through that experience of building something from the ground up something that is like fully that’s all about me. Like my baby, , in terms of conceptualization, every single aspect of it I’m involved.

¬†I also want to do something that would put the spotlight on Filipino cuisine. At the moment, I actually¬† I don’t cook Filipino cuisine professionally. Of course it’s mostly European. The French cuisine is my training.¬† But I think we always talk about the period when like Filipino cuisine will have its moment, but it doesn’t, it never seems¬† to happen. And I don’t know why, so I want to be part of that movement and want to contribute to that too like putting the spotlight on whether it’s our cuisine, our producers or just pro ducts that are from home that are really outstanding.

Anton Diaz: I’m curious are there a lot of Filipino chefs who are on the top of the restaurant industry in Singapore.

Chef Jo: More and more now. Yes. In fact, the current head chef now of Burnt Ends. Patrick is also Filipino. I think he’s Filipino Canadian another friend Kurt Sombrero, who is the head chef of Meat Smith Little India also Filipino and yeah, a lot of other Filipino chefs actually that I’ve come across.

Anton Diaz: Can you talk to the people in the industry? Maybe getting into the industry or, , having problems now with the pandemic, any message to them and any advice moving forward?

Chef Jo: I think the advice is don’t be afraid to take risks. Especially if it’s something that is close to your heart and you’re really passionate about.¬† Make sure you do the due diligence. you don’t just jump into it blindly. You do your homework, you figure out. You do a, self-assessment what you’re good at. What you’re really passionate about. Is there a need for it in the market. Are you good at it? , it’s important to, to be upfront and honest with yourself about these things before actually jumping into something like this, because it’s very easy to say follow your passion, but do you have what it takes at the end of the day to actually see it through? Right.

That’s I think where most people falter you start it, but¬† somewhere along the way you lose steam. So at the start, make sure that you do it with the end in mind. You figure out where you want to be and work towards that and make sure that you continue to motivate yourself, or you improve yourself to such an extent that you can see that plan through.

Anton Diaz: Thank you so much. I’m sure a lot of the people will be watching this discussion will be inspired with your story. Now I’m curious lang, was there a point that you regret at the early start of your career like regret leaving P&G or all in at the start all the way.

Chef Jo: No at some point. Yes, of course, definitely. There were instances when I was like, what did I do this ba? What was I thinking that time?¬† There are moments where you doubt and you’re like, huh? I don’t know. Maybe I was not thinking properly at that point in time.

But when I stepped back and look at it again this moment, so that doubt, , the decisions that I made, I left all that behind. Like if I just followed that path, I would be like a VP or a GM or whatever. Right. Well, no, I don’t know right? Like it depends. Cause you see your peers like progressing and doing so well and you’re like, you’re happy for them, but at the same time it does, you can’t help but question about it.

And it’s during those moments that I stepped back and think about, okay, But do I enjoy my work? Do I still wake up in the morning? Like really excited about, , as opposed to, for example, I’m doing something else. And that is when it goes back to how you’re passionate about like the passion that you have for this. And that’s why you did it in the first place.

Anton Diaz: I’m so proud of you winning that award and I think the entire Philippine nation ang da ming nag congratulate, but I’m sure they don’t know you yet. And thank you for sharing this bit of story. Cause it’s really inspiring, especially during this time to hear this kind of story , Filipina winning¬† the award. I think more than that, the 10 year journey,¬† getting to where you are- it’s so inspiring. And I just remember, there’s really just a few people then who jumped from a multinational company like you a Laundry BM in Singapore.

Chef Jo: You mentioned that actually, speaking of you’re one of those people who actually took the risk and pursued your passion much earlier than I did. One of the pioneers, , you had no role models, no one to follow or, , like up. Yeah, it’s the, that’s a gutsy thing to do, I think.

Anton Diaz: I think we’re in a cycle now in this pandemic. I know a lot of people are thinking about reinventing themselves. With the vaccines, people are seeing the end is near, not anytime soon, but at least you can see the light and people are starting to hope again. And thank you for sharing your story.

Chef Jo: It’s been an honor talking to you and sharing. Thank you for listening to it.

Live an Awesome Life with Christ,

Founder & Digital Creator, Our Awesome Planet

Disclosure: Thanks to Nikkei Team for the experience. I wrote this article with my biases, opinions, and insights.

P.S. Can’t wait to go back to Singapore to try out Lolla’s ūüôā

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