Get to Know the Filipina Named Chef of the Year at the World Gourmet Awards

Here's why Lolla's Chef Johanne Siy is all for produce-driven cuisine.

Johanne Siy with her dish  on the background.
PHOTO BY World Gourmet Awards, Facebook/Lolla ILLUSTRATION Warren Espejo

(SPOT.ph) Filipinos exhibit great talent in the kitchen, both locally and abroad—and while this need not be proven through external validation, it’s always worth celebrating when Filipinos are recognized on the global stage. Time to make a toast, Spotters: Filipina chef Johanne Siy has been named Female Chef of the Year at the 2021 World Gourmet Awards in Singapore!

Chef Johanne Siy was awarded the Female Chef of the Year.
Chef Johanne Siy was awarded the Female Chef of the Year. 
PHOTO BY World Gourmet Awards
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Currently the Head Chef of Singaporean establishment Lolla, Siy is hailed for her mindful and produce-driven approach to food. To get to know the celebrated chef better, we sat down for a virtual interview where we discussed Siy’s background, philosophy, and the impact of her Filipino roots on her cooking.

On Taking Risks and Following One’s Passion

Believe it or not, Siy’s background is in accounting and her initial career track was being a brand-builder for Proctor & Gamble. “I have always loved cooking but never thought of it as a viable career. In the olden days, no parent ever encouraged their kid to pursue a blue-collar job,” Siy shares. During her days working for Proctor & Gamble (P&G) however, she would throw dinner parties for friends—and these became the highlight of her week. “I would stay up till the wee hours of the morning coming up with a menu and experimenting [and] I knew it was what I would love to do eventually,” she shares. She soon decided to follow her passion and did a 180-degree shift, going the culinary path instead.

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“It took me a while to really acknowledge it and take action,” Siy admits. “P&G is a really good company and very few people have the privilege of working there—you work with really remarkable and talented individuals, you get to travel a lot, you get to stay in the best hotels, you get to influence the strategy for world-class brands… It was hard to leave all that behind to follow one’s passion and take up something that requires one to work like a manual laborer, making hardly enough to cover the cost of living.”

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This turned out to be a worthy risk. Siy’s impressive resume includes getting a culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and working for the likes of Chef Eric Ripert and Chef Daniel Boulud at Le Bernardin and Café Boulud in New York City, as well as Chef Andre Chiang at Restaurant Andre in Singapore. Siy has also staged at acclaimed restaurants like Noma and Relae in Copenhagen, as well as Faviken in Sweden.

Siy’s Love for Produce-Driven Cuisine

What exactly does the term mean, anyway? “Produce-driven cuisine is letting the product do the talking,” Siy explains. “The quality of the produce is front and center, while the chef’s ego is relegated to the back burner… With produce-driven cuisine [however], chefs and culinarians are going back to the land, learning about how things are grown, fostering relationships with farmers, fishermen, hunters and producers.” Ultimately, she explains, produce-driven cuisine entails the recognition that “we are all part of an ecosystem and we can only prosper if we move together.”

Spot Prawn Crudo, Sea Urchin, and Oscietra Caviar.
At Lolla, Siy and her team cook up small plates using seasonal produce and other fine ingredients—like this dish of Spot Prawn Crudo, Sea Urchin, and Oscietra Caviar.
PHOTO BY Facebook/Lolla
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This is in opposition to the more chef-centric route that others might take. “There was a time in gastronomy where techniques were the core focus,” says Siy. “It didn’t matter so much where the product was from, whether it was frozen, grown in an ethical and sustainable way or whatever.” Siy relays how the produce-driven approach is “humbling.”

“For chefs, it comes with the recognition that you are only a small part of the cycle. This is actually how a lot of restaurants at the top of their game operate.” Her experience at Noma, Relae, and Faviken has helped shape her philosophy. “At [these restaurants], they take this further because they integrate the sourcing into their own operations [as] they forage or grow the ingredients themselves in their own farm, and their cuisine is actually itself defined by their locale.”

Being a Woman of Color in the Professional Kitchen

Siy admits she’s faced challenges as a Filipina in an international setting. “Unfortunately, the culture in most kitchens is still very backward. It is very slow to adapt to the times. The negatives that we are all trying to eradicate from society like bullying, discrimination, abuse are still rampant in a lot of kitchens,” she relays. “I have seen my share of verbal and physical abuse; I have been intentionally burned with hot pans for being in the way, shoved, and so on.” Still, she is thankful to have gotten to work for chefs who “didn’t care about politics and promoted people based on their abilities.”

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“While I have been subjected to a lot of criticism as an Asian woman cooking elevated modern European food, I have also been praised for my unique take on it given my upbringing,” shares Siy. “There are pros and cons, good and bad—but then that applies to everyone in every aspect of life.”

And to this day, Siy continues to uphold her Filipino roots. While she admits she doesn’t cook Filipino food professionally, she shares that her upbringing influences her approach to food. “For instance, our cuisine encourages a lot of customization to one’s taste—and that’s the role that sauces or sawsawan play. It is acknowledging upfront that each individual has a different palate versus a more generalized approach to cuisine.”

About the World Gourmet Awards

Previously known as the Awards of Excellence, the World Gourmet Awards is a renowned award from the folks behind Singapore’s World Gourmet Summit. The goal? To recognize the efforts of notable folks in the food industry—those that “[demonstrate] exceptional service and utmost dedication to their craft.” This year’s recipients were announced through a virtual ceremony that took place on May 18 and 19.

For more information, check out the World Gourmet Awards' website.

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