What is it like to flourish in Singapore’s brutal F&B scene, and even outshine the men in leading roles? These go-getters share their stories with TAN MIN YAN.
SANDRA SIM, 36, CO-FOUNDER, CO-OWNER AND CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER OF COTERIE DINING CONCEPTS (WHICH RUNS SUM YI TAI)
“Yen (Tay Eu-Yen, co-founder, co-owner and chief executive officer) and I are involved in every aspect of the business.
We have to be, especially with the manpower crunch. We both head down to the restaurants to help out when needed. I have been the door hostess, server and bartender, and because of my previous kitchen experience in Shanghai, I also take care of the kitchen staff and do taste tests. Yen oversees contract-drafting and other paperwork because she’s the lawyer. Both of us were also involved in designing the look of Sum Yi Tai’s Dining Club, negotiating with suppliers and putting menus together.”
“There may be more men in this industry, but there are women leaders I look up to.
One of them is Yenn Wong [the Hong Kong-based hotelier-restaurateur who owned hospitality group Epicure in Singapore]. I admire how she’s grown her business [ Jia Group, which runs a suite of popular restaurants in Hong Kong] so much that she no longer needs to be as hands-on with it. That is what we aspire to – being able to just focus on expanding the business. More concepts that combine Asian cuisine with bar culture are in our pipeline , but we’re waiting for the right time and location.”
GISELA SALAZAR GOLDING, 33, EXECUTIVE CHEF AT GRAIN TRADERS
“I have never felt out of place in this industry, even though it’s a male-dominated one.
No one has treated me differently. It helps that when I was growing up, my parents treated me exactly the way they did my two brothers. But the hard truth is that working in the kitchen is a physically demanding job with 14-hour workdays. Luckily, the old perception of women being weaker and the stereotype that a chef has to be a man are changing. Plus, women are gaining more confidence in themselves, so there’s definitely been an increase in the number of female chefs.”
“If you’re an aspiring female chef, your mentality is the most important thing you bring to the workplace.
If you come with a lack of confidence, people will notice and it will translate into the way they treat you. This industry is just as tough for men as it is for women – out of the 48 students that I went to culinary school with, only four remain in the industry. You just have to be prepared to make a lot of sacrifices – whether it’s time with your friends or family – and have a lot of passion. Otherwise, you won’t last a year.”
“What I love most about my job is how rewarding it is.
The partnership and synergy I have with my team – it’s like, I’d kill for them, and they’d kill for me! Also, you can’t beat good feedback from diners. The best thing people can say is that the meal reminds them of their mum or their hometown.”
STEPHANIE RIGOURD, 29, WINE DIRECTOR AT RAFFLES SINGAPORE
“I’ve never thought of the wine industry as an old boys’ club.
In France, women grow up around wines just like the men, and from a young age, my dad would let me try wines the way he did with my brother. I have so much pride in my job – I’m first and foremost a sommelier; gender comes second. I also have many women participants in the wine apprenticeship classes I hold [at the hotel], and some have expressed interest in becoming sommeliers themselves.”
“In Singapore, the biggest problem I have isn’t that I’m a woman, but that I’m angmoh!
I get the ‘oh no, not another angmoh coming to show off – give me the wine list and leave me alone’ vibe from certain diners. But generally, if you greet a table with confidence, a nice smile and a sense of humour, it works. I believe you should be open and adapt your language to your customers – if they’re not knowledgeable about wines, just be straightforward and don’t use big words.”
“Being wine director at this hotel at my age makes me feel I should set an example.
More women are now studying wines and signing up for wine certification courses, and I want to encourage that. For starters, wines should be made fun and accessible to everyone, so people get interested and the market can mature – especially in Singapore where wine drinking isn’t part of the culture. This is why the hotel makes a conscious effort to lower the prices of wines sold in its restaurants. I also hold wine apprentice classes and blind tastings (called Thirsty Thursdays) to introduce new wines every month, in addition to regular wine dinners. I try to make these fun and relaxing. In this respect, being a young woman helps because I bring a sense of freshness and dynamism.”
KINO SOH, 29, HEAD BARTENDER AT FRESH!
“I used to feel that certain customers didn’t take me seriously because I’m a woman.
At one of my previous workplaces, bartenders doubled as wait staff. When I attended to customers, some of them would immediately assume I was one of the wait staff, and would ask to order drinks from my male colleagues! Unfortunately, harassment is also inevitable – I get asked for my number almost every day. I usually just produce my name card, and fortunately, most of these men don’t contact me. My male colleagues rarely intervene because they know I can take care of myself, but once in a while they come to my rescue if someone makes me really uncomfortable and can’t take a hint.”
“Being female can help with resolving misunderstandings.
It’s true that male customers tend to back down when I intervene on miscommunication between them and my staff, but it’s tricky because you don’t want to reinforce the perception that just because you’re a girl, you can get away with certain things and let your gender take precedence over your capabilities. Ultimately, I just enjoy my job, stay confident and keep a clear head.”