How Johanne Siy battled societal expectations to craft a winning formula at Singapore’s Lolla

Josh Ong - 07/02/2023

Johanne Siy has been crowned Asia’s Best Female Chef 2023, the first special award to be announced ahead of the reveal of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants on 28th March. Read about how the Filipina chef abandoned a business career to follow her passion – and now runs one of Singapore’s most exciting restaurants

As a young woman, Johanne Siy seemed destined for a successful business career. Smart, dedicated and ambitious, she moved from her home country to Singapore to work for a major corporation. But there was always a nagging internal doubt that her real passion lay elsewhere. Eventually that voice calling her to the kitchen proved too loud to ignore – much to the delight of Lolla’s ever-growing army of fans.

Born in Dagupan City in the Philippines, Siy grew up in a close-knit and supportive family. While she loved food, becoming a chef was never considered an option as an intelligent woman in southeast Asia. Sandwiched between two brothers in age, her formative memories of the kitchen came from the need to feed her incessantly hungry siblings. This necessity eventually earned her the responsibility of preparing the feasts around family celebrations, such as Lunar New Year. Yet societal expectations meant she didn’t view this growing interest as a serious career path.

Instead, Siy found herself following a more conventional route, relocating to Singapore to work for multinational manufacturing giant Procter & Gamble, where she worked her way up the corporate ladder for over six years. Yet she remained deeply passionate about gastronomy. Her new home, an international hub of different cultures, cuisines and ways of thinking, further opened her eyes to a wealth of fresh opportunities and mindsets. She realised her lifelong love of food could expand beyond being just a hobby. “Singapore made me realise that hospitality is a viable career – that you can actually pursue something that you love and make a living out of it,” says Siy.

Making the leap

The Filipina left her comfortable position, salary and benefits for an industry renowned for its unpredictability and unforgiving nature. “It was a risk I was willing to take – to give up a stable job and start again from the very bottom of the tree,” she explains.

Heading to New York, Siy enrolled in the renowned Culinary Institute of America (CIA), following in the footsteps of the school’s esteemed alumni, ranging from Pujol’s Enrique Olvera and Grant Achatz of Alinea to the late Anthony Bourdain.
Following her time at the CIA, Siy continued to develop her craft under chefs Daniel Boulud and Eric Ripert at their New York restaurants

On graduating, Siy secured positions at Le Bernardin and then Café Boulud, taking inspiration from Eric Ripert’s perfected seafood simplicity and Daniel Boulud’s old-school French excellence. She would have stayed in the city for as long as she could, Siy admits, if not for personal commitments that pulled her back to Singapore.

Upon her return to Asia, she worked at André Chiang’s acclaimed Restaurant André for four years, concluding her time as sous chef. After the restaurant closed its doors in 2018, Siy took the opportunity to broaden her culinary horizons beyond the kitchen, travelling around Europe, working on farms and foraging. This concluded with a two-season stint in the kitchen of Fäviken in Sweden, a former regular on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, as well as a short two-month period at the five-time winner of The World’s Best Restaurant title, Noma.

Lockdown leadership

In 2020, she returned once more to her Singaporean base on a mission to open her own restaurant. Unfortunately, she arrived back to find a city locked down by the coronavirus pandemic. Vacancies within its crippled hospitality sector were rare, even for a chef with her high-calibre experience. Finding a job was a difficult enough task on its own; building her own restaurant from scratch was even further out of the equation.

Siy was left considering her options when she was contacted by the team at Lolla, which was in need of a head chef. The restaurant, which first opened in 2012 as a permanent outpost of a popular supper club, had been one of the city’s hottest dining seats in its heyday, with a menu focusing on tapas. But Covid-19 had winded the restaurant, and Siy accepted the head chef position as a temporary measure to help it regain its footing. When Siy joined, the kitchen team had been reduced to just two chefs, but it did provide a relatively blank slate to work on.

Lolla's abalone and king oyster mushrooms course is one of the many standout produce-driven plates

Resourceful, hard-working and creative, the chef began to reshape the restaurant, shifting away from the solely Spanish fare. Taking inspiration from her time spent in Scandinavia, as well as the breadth of experience she had gained from the culinary giants of North America, the restaurant’s new menu steered towards sustainably-minded, produce-driven plates.

The result was a simplified menu of modern European dishes with touches of Asian ingredients, each delicate and meticulously presented. Think gently poached razor clams suspended in an elegant oyster custard, enhanced by the pop of vibrant green dill oil; or abalone and king oyster mushrooms, served alongside a teapot of mushroom consommé, supercharged by house-made miso.

Siy was also interviewing candidates to replace her own, originally temporary, position. “I was asking all of my friends: ‘Do you want to work for Lolla?’ But while that was happening, I had to overhaul the menu and introduce new elements. Then we started to get good reviews… One thing led to another and after a little more than two years I’m still here,” she laughs.

Siy’s fresh direction reinvigorated Lolla, with diners starting to flow back through its doors in increasing numbers. It has continued to turn heads in the two years since her takeover, with the restaurant debuting at No.75 on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants 2022 extended ranking. Today, securing a seat at her venue is a challenge, particularly one of the 14 stools that situate diners mere inches from its small brigade of chefs creating some of Singapore’s most exciting seasonal dishes.

Pushing boundaries

Siy is justifiably proud of her coronation as Asia’s Best Female Chef 2023. Hailing from a part of the world where women leading kitchens is still something of a novelty, she is happy that her achievements are being recognised. However, she believes that her own personal notoriety is just the tip of the iceberg for female representation in kitchens.

Siy is proud of the team and culture she has built at Lolla since she took the reins of the kitchen

“Unfortunately, in Asia, the expectation for women to get married and start building families is still very strong,” she says. She adds that this often interferes with careers in hospitality, particularly from the top down where investors and entrepreneurs are less willing to back female-helmed businesses.

Within kitchens themselves, Siy also acknowledges that the industry continues to struggle to attract and retain a female workforce due to its reputation for being a male-dominated, physically demanding career. “Currently, there is this vicious cycle where women repeat that ‘it’s so hard working in a kitchen’. It works its way into their psyche, and they start genuinely believing that it's no place for a woman to be.”

“There is no denying that men and women are different. There may be certain things that you cannot do because you're not as strong as the big guy next to you. Accept and embrace those limitations and try to find a smart way to work around them,” she explains, adding that the most resourceful chefs she has ever encountered have all been women due to their ability to persevere.

“Kitchens are nowhere near as macho or hostile as they used to be,” she continues. “But the reality is that most women still don't have access to the opportunities that men have in this industry. Currently, we’re not tapping into half of the population. Imagine how much we could achieve if we were able to do that?”

In a perfect world, Siy would like to see her field reach a place where the Best Female Chef Award is made obsolete. For the time being, she is happy that a wider conversation around the topic is taking place. When she first entered the profession, she had no successful female chefs as role models to aspire to, especially within Asia. Today, as the winner of the Asia’s Best Female Chef Award, she hopes that she can be a living demonstration that women cannot not only survive but thrive in the culinary sector - in Asia and beyond.

Now watch the video with Johanne Siy, Asia’s Best Female Chef 2023 winner:
Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, is returning to Singapore on 28th March 2023 to mark its 10th anniversary: tune in to the livestream of the awards ceremony on YouTube or Facebook from 20:25 local time. To stay up to date with the news and announcements ahead of the ceremony, browse the website, join the community on Instagram, follow us on Facebook, visit us on Twitter and subscribe to our YouTube channel.