In contrast to her towering male counterparts, pans and knives look much larger in Chef Li Si's hands. To the surprise of many, this petite Chef de Cuisine helms the young team at Japanese-Spanish restaurant, BAM! in Tras Street, Singapore.
Surprising people has been a constant in the 30-year-old's journey – even now, with over 12 years of experience under her belt.
"When customers want to compliment the team and I show up, they're surprised to see a female," she laughed. "I look a lot younger - even our suppliers mistake me for a student and ask me where the chef is."
Li Si started her culinary education with At-Sunrice GlobalChef Academy in 2005. She recalls that her parents reluctantly supported her as this path was unconventional for a woman at that time.
Although Li Si's mother was not as supportive of her decision in the beginning, she has now eaten at all the restaurants Li Si has worked at.
PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/TARINI TILVE
At 19, the young, budding cook had to work twice as hard to prove that she was as capable as her male counterparts.
When she went on her first internship alongside a male classmate, she was placed in the pastry section even though she was a culinary student.
Her classmate, however, was thrust into the sweltering heat of the hot kitchen to grill and cook over fire – an ability that Li Si had learned and practiced in school.
It wasn't until years later as a full-time kitchen staff did Li Si realise that what she went through was quite unusual. Pastry students belong in the pastry section, while culinary students would practice in the hot kitchen.
"I was not upset, I just accepted it. We were new so I thought it was normal," she said.
Chef Li Si was one of eight nominees for the Chef of The Year 2019 award in the female category.
PHOTO CREDIT: BAM.SG
Despite keeping her from cooking over heat and flame, Li Si appreciated her time in the pastry section.
"I was actually grateful that I learned baking. It is a useful skill that I can use to innovate," she recalled.
While the initial road was difficult, Li Si carved a name for herself and was promoted.
"Once they saw that I was responsible and could do the work that was given to me, I was placed in the hot kitchen," she said.
In 2009, Li Si became a finalist for the World Gourmet Summit’s 'Outstanding Culinary Apprentice', where she was chosen based on her performance in school and her internship.
The winner is chosen based on level of passion, sense of responsibility and enthusiasm for learning.
PHOTO CREDIT: TOH LI SI
After culinary school, Li Si continued to grow when she got the chance to learn under prominent figures like Chef Andoni Luis Anduriz of Mugaritz, a trailblazer for innovation and creativity who sits on the board of Euro Toque, an international association of European chefs.
She even traveled to Spain and Dubai, cooking for other restaurants and participating in inter-hotel competitions to gain more exposure.
"In Dubai, I was the only senior female chef in the whole hotel. When I went into meetings, I would get weird glances or surprised faces," she mentioned. "It took time for people to get used to it."
Chef Li Si (far right) spent three years with her team in Zengo, Dubai.
PHOTO CREDIT: TOH LI SI
Li Si believes the reason there are not as many women working in the industry is because of how physically taxing it can be. She often cooks in the sweltering heat of the kitchen for up to 15 hours a day.
However, in the past decade, Li Si is happy to have seen an increase of women in the industry.
"It is funny because women naturally have traits that make good chefs, like being organised, being good at multitasking and having attention for detail," she mentioned.
Li Si’s Braised Inaniwa Udon from BAM! is made of various mushrooms and fat choy.
PHOTO CREDIT:YOUTH.SG/TARINI TILVE
A long way from her pastry section days, Li Si had to claw her way to the top and earn the respect of her peers through blood, sweat and tears.
Leading the young, passionate team of BAM! for 3 years now, this chef has mastered the art of navigating the kitchen despite her small frame.
"I definitely want to show people that you don’t have to look a certain way to follow your dream. It’s about being able to adapt and overcome your challenges."
BANNER AND TEASER PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTH.SG/TARINI TILVE