AFN’s Female Foodies: Heartwarming Tales from Humble Kitchens

AFN’s Female Foodies: Heartwarming Tales from Humble Kitchens

Aspiring to be a food celebrity? Get inspired by the amazing food journeys of our female chefs this International Women’s Day.

Cooking is a life skill that everyone has, but turning your passion for all things delicious into a sustainable, rewarding career is no mean feat, especially in a culinary field dominated by males. Our amazing foodies Sarah Huang BenjaminIli SulaimanDebbie Wong and Janti Brasali share the inspiration and challenges behind their extraordinary cooking journey with us in this mini Q&A session, and dish out refreshingly honest advice to those who want to pursue a similar path.

How did you start your cooking journey?

Sarah: I fell in love with food and cooking at a very young age, when I realized that food makes people happy. I love to make the people around me smile, and one of the most direct ways to do that is to cook them a meal. 

Growing up in the 90s and early 00s, the ‘professional’ chefs we were exposed to in the media were almost all men, and there was this culture of very angry, volatile restaurant kitchens that was popular. I’m sad to say that this had an effect on me, and that I decided not to go to culinary school because I couldn’t see myself thriving in an environment like that. 

Instead, I just explored my passion for food while I was at university, teaching myself recipes and honing my skills. At the same time, I started a food blog and really fell in love with telling stories about food, whether through writing, or later, videos. In the end, I’m very glad that I went down this path instead, and I’ve discovered so many aspects of food – like history, culture and politics – that I want to keep on learning about.

Debbie: When I was 12 years old and put on my first imaginary cooking show in my parents’ kitchen, it certainly did not cross my mind that I was about to pursue a male-dominated career space, although I did notice the baffling contradiction that the most celebrated chefs in the world were men, yet most people would agree that the best cooking in the world was their mother’s… think about that one. Female cooks bring something intangible, an essence, a soul that is unique. It’s not just about perfection in execution, not about ego… it’s about intent - like mom’s cooking.

Related: 10 Fantastic Dishes By AFN's Female Foodies To Celebrate International Women's Day

Ili: I have always been inspired by the women who cooked for me growing up. I guess in most Asian households, the women are the ones who are in the kitchen as you rarely see men cooking meals for their families. So my love for the process of making food was encouraged and nurtured by my two grandmothers. They included me in the tasks of making meals for the family and entrusted me with family recipes since I was really young (like 4 or 5 years old). Now that I have made a career out of it, I do not see there is a need to put yourself against anyone (male of female) in this industry. Its big enough to accommodate everyone.

Janti: Food and the love of it has always been an important part of my life. When I look back on my fondest childhood memories, many of them took place in the kitchen, where I spent much of my time with my dad and my aunt. The kitchen is where they flourished, and their passion for cooking was contagious. Naturally, I picked up a lot of skills and knowledge, and the foundation of what I know now came from the time we spent together back then. 

I found my own passion for cooking during my University days in America. I used to cook meals for my brother, cousins and friends on a daily basis – my own set of diners whom I felt comfortable with. As time went on, I started to enjoy my time in the kitchen a lot more and decided to challenge myself creatively. Cooking with unfamiliar and more adventurous ingredients, and creating my special versions of dishes. The true joy I felt then was when my friends and family enjoyed the meals that I prepared, their amazing feedback and compliments is what spurred me to further develop my skills and expertise. 

Related: What You Should Cook For Your Favorite Women, Based On Their Zodiac Sign

What motivated you to become a chef?

Janti: When I became a mom, cooking became part of parenting. I wanted to nourish my children with delicious and nutritious food, and to also give my kids an experience - similar to that of my childhood, spending quality time cooking with my father and getting together around food. I’m glad that this has now become a family tradition that I can enjoy with my father as well as my children. 

Seriously Keto started out as a home-based passion project in Jakarta where I was cooking mainly for myself as well as a few friends and family. I had just started the keto diet, and realized there were no options available for me when it came to confectionery products, so I decided to use my culinary knowledge to make my own. From there, I saw that there was an opportunity to help my community and (eventually) the world, since I believe sugar is the root cause for many diseases (diabetes and cancer to name a few). The idea of having the power to make a difference in someone’s life is the real driver for why I wanted to pursue this line of work.

Ili: My goal has not changed since I won Food Hero Asia in 2015 which is to preserve Malaysian legacy through food. I believe I have since encouraged many Malaysians to start cooking which is a great achievement but I still have a lot more to do to ensure that Malaysian food as a whole (not just our nasi lemak and rendang but our more traditional dishes like gulai, ummai, and laksas) is represented to the world. Still so much to do and so much more to cook and document!

Sarah: Having fallen in love with storytelling, I have so many creative projects that I want to pursue. Most of all, my most long-held goal is to write and produce a cookbook that doesn’t just contain recipes, but stories about people, culture and history. I’m still working on this, because I want to get it right!

I’m motivated to pursue all my projects because I realize that food is something that we all need, that we all indulge in, but we could afford to learn so much more about it. I’ve been really lucky to find this platform, so I want to use it to help people increase their understanding of food and the way it affects our world. That’s my motivation!

Related: 8 Tasty Recipes Under 30 Minutes For Busy Working Women

Do you have any advice for other women who would like to pursue this line of work?

Debbie: I’ve often been asked the question of how I navigate a career in a male dominated industry. Honestly, the whole world is male dominated, and while I’ve certainly experienced moments of inequality, I have only embraced my femininity and feminine power more despite it; and for me that’s really the key: be unapologetically you — who can stop you then? Know your power, and trust yourself. The industry is waiting for you.

Sarah: I think that any women who want to get into this line of work should explore their niche, and find something they’re really passionate about, that stays true to who they are. It’s easy to get swept up in stereotypes, like “women should talk about baking”, or “grilling meat is manly”, but cast all that aside. The most important thing is that what you’re talking about day in and day out is meaningful to YOU. That way, no matter what criticisms come your way, you’ll know you’re on the right path. 

And as an aside - don’t ever let yourself be bullied into anything that doesn’t feel true to you! Even in this line, the pressure on women to look or act a certain way is a lot stronger than for men. But stay true to yourself, and you’ll know what’s right for you!

Ili: It is hard work, you have to be honest (because if it is not honest it will never work) and be prepared to fall in love with food and cooking.

Janti: Launching a business is like having a baby, you really need to nurture it and spend time with it in order to make sure it can grow to become the success that you are proud of. There will be incredibly difficult days but there will also be incredibly rewarding ones, so push through and don’t give up!

Who are the women that you look up to?

Sarah: This may sound corny, but the woman I most look up to is my mother. She is truly fearless, and she’s always inspired me to be curious about the world, and learn anything and everything I can. She also loves food, and it’s a lot of fun eating with her. She taught me that food isn’t just a meal on a plate, but a symbol of culture and the representation of people’s stories. 

One of my personal heroes is Nigella Lawson. I love her approach to food, because she really celebrates every meal. Whether it’s a breakfast for one, or a feast for ten, every meal is worth taking a moment to appreciate and to luxuriate in. She’s one of the reasons I do what I do now.

Ili: The women at home who spend their lives cooking for the people they love. I find inspiration in the home cooks and the OGs of food.

Debbie: Nigella Lawson. Here’s a self-made woman - successful, respected, powerful, cooking the food SHE wants to cook - and I cannot think of a more feminine presence, in food media or elsewhere. 

Janti: One of my biggest inspirations is Mrs Melina Yong. She is a renowned cook herself, having cooked for several important wine events in Europe, as well as in Singapore. Not to mention that she is my mentor who regularly shares her cooking tips and tricks with me.

What dishes would you like to prepare for them?

Keto Carrot Cake (Lo Bak Go)

Janti: Out of my many keto recipes, I would most love to share with her my personal favourite, which is the low-carb Turnip Cake “Chinese Lo Bak Ko"

Sarah: It would be so much fun having my mother and Nigella at the same meal, and I’d cook them my famous prawn mee. It’s my mother’s favorite dish, and I think Nigella would love the combination of flavors in each bowl.

Debbie: Like myself, Nigella strikes me as someone who would appreciate simple food made well, food that’s comforting and approachable, yet still feels special. So I would probably prepare a classic roast chicken with crispy skin, flavored with lots of roasted garlic, lemon and herbs. I would roast some potatoes and carrots  in the chicken fat, then serve it with a  fresh, crisp salad dressed in a shallot dijon vinaigrette.

Ili: If I were to cook for any of the women who have taught me their trade secret, it would be a batch of fluffy doughnuts filled with creme de patisserie, because who doesn't like a doughnut? I wouldn't dare cook something that they are really good at. I would make a dish or a dessert that is fun and different from what they are used to, as a treat, to show my appreciation for them.


Related: 10 Unusual Sweet Treats that You can Nibble on After Every Meal

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