Life is a prism of surprises. Some can be exhilarating, some are not so welcome. When they become obstacles, different people have their own ways of conquering them. Here are 5 Asian women in hospitality, a male-dominated industry, whose journeys so far have been more than noteworthy.
Amy Poon of Poon’s London
Amy Poon comes from generations of chefs on both sides of the family. Her father, Bill Poon, was the first Chinese chef to have been awarded a Michelin star in 1980. At one time, he had 4 restaurants and amassed a huge following. He retired in 2006.
She swore never to open her own restaurant and decamped to the Far East. Over the years, her desire to carry on the Poon’s name grew exponentially. She quit her job in advertising in Singapore and decided to bring back Poon’s food to its London home. With Brexit looming, some investors became more cautious about starting a restaurant. In 2018, a pop-up was launched to much fanfare, adored by the media and the public. She was moved by how much Poon’s food was still loved by so many.
Plans were afoot for a restaurant. In 2020, Amy was about to commit to a lease on a site but then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns ensued. Opening a restaurant in the dark midst of a pandemic seemed unthinkable. While home-schooling, she initiated Poon’s Wontoneria, offering Poon’s famous wontons (Chinese dumplings) with their own chilli oil. They are available at Joy at Portobello, a grocery shop in London and The Good Shed in Kent. Another classic at Poon’s, Zha Jiang noodles (pork with a pungent sauce with noodles in broth) is expected to follow.
You can read Bill Poon’s story here
Wei Guirong of Master Wei
It is every chef’s dream to open his or her restaurant. Wei Guirong finally did it with her husband and a business partner. Her Xi’an Impressions restaurant (opposite Arsenal’s Football ground) quickly established a cult following with their classic Xi’an dishes, such as Biang Biang noodles. These wide hand-pulled noodles demand serious skill in stretching and banging the dough and are freshly made to order.
In 2019, she launched Master Wei in Central London, her first solo restaurant, offering her signature noodles and other classic Xi’an dishes. You can read my review of her restaurant here.
Her success did not come overnight. She was one of a handful of women trainees among a thousand men at a culinary school in China. She took it all in her stride. She later became the first female head chef in Xi’an (in China). She came to England in 2008 and continued to hone her craft at Sichuanese restaurant, Barshu, in Soho, London until 2015, when Xi’an Impressions was born.
Soon after opening Master Wei, her efforts were recognised by Golden Chopsticks Award, winning “Founders’ Food Forward Award”, for being the first Chinese female head chef in London.
Saiphin Moore of Rosa’s Thai Café
Saiphin Moore, aged 18, left her home farm in the mountains in North Thailand for Hong Kong, not speaking English or Cantonese. She and her husband, Alex Moore, co-founded Rosa’s Thai Café in London in 2008. Thirty sites have since sprung up throughout London and beyond. She also has two cookbooks to her name.
Her entrepreneurial nature surfaced at the age of 14, when she opened her own noodle shop outside her parents’ home. She was the first one in the family to leave home for overseas, to become a nanny in Hong Kong. Aged 23, she opened her Thai grocery store in Hong Kong, followed by her own Thai restaurant there.
When she first came to England with her husband, she was initially lost as to what to do next. She eventually returned to what she knew and loved and opened her first Rosa’s Thai Café in Spitalfields, London. Impatient to expand, they risked and sold everything they had to launch a second site in Soho, London. They now have 20 branches in London with 10 outside. If that isn’t enough, she also started Lao Café and Hohsek noodle eatery, noodles being her first love.
Maureen Suan Neo of Nonya Secrets sauces
Nonya Secrets sauces are a culmination of some of the sauces used by Maureen Suan Neo in her Singaporean restaurants during her 31 years’ rein as a restauranteur. In her peak, she had 4 restaurants in London, lauded by food critics such as Loyd Grossman and Fay Maschler. Her cookbook was published in 1995.
She arrived in the UK, aged 19, having saved enough money for the flight. She had just a suitcase in hand. She enrolled on a secretarial and other courses. A restaurant was never her original plan, though she started learning Nonya cuisine from her mother, aged 4. Encouraged by her friends who loved her cooking, she and her husband opened a Singaporean restaurant in Fulham, London in 1982.
It is never the right time to start a new restaurant. Her eldest daughter “was born the day before the [restaurant] opening. I had to go into hospital. So, I missed the opening night.”
Hospitality industry is invariably affected by the economy. After Lehman Bros’ bankruptcy in 2008, bottomless corporate entertainment expense accounts ceased. Maureen and her husband decided to close all sites in 2013. By then, they had started a new business selling “Nonya Secrets” sauces. They are sold in Harrods, Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and many others and online: nonyasecrets.com.
You can read more about her story here.
Suzue Aoyama Curley, formerly of William Curley
Suzue Aoyama Curley together with her then husband, the world-renowned chocolatier, William Curley, opened their first patisserie and chocolate shop in Richmond in 2004, followed by others in Mayfair and at Harrods, London. They won numerous awards including Academy of Chocolate annual Best British Chocolatier award four times and other awards, including for Japanese ingredients-flavoured chocolates. They also found time to write cookbooks. In her manic life of running the William Curley shops, she recalled checking the text of their cookbook in hospital, having just given birth to their daughter in 2011.
She came to England aged 19, having won a scholarship to the world-famous culinary institution, Le Cordon Bleu. She worked in Claridges Hotel and Lehman Bros in-house dining. She was later in charge of tea pastries at Savoy Hotel, where she met William Curley.
The William Curley shops closed in 2016 following a split from their investor, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. Suzue now runs patisserie and chocolate workshops at Sozai Cooking School (sozai.co.uk) and offers custom-made special occasion cakes and chocolate gifts.
You can read her story further here.
In Asian culture, women were traditionally regarded as homemakers. These extraordinary women have risen above the parapet, unafraid to leave the comfort of their homeland. Some did not speak much English when they first started their adventure. They steered through choppy waters along the way and soldiered on, determined to reach their goals. They are like diamonds in the sky, shining a bright light on what women can achieve against all odds.
Terry Tong (Ms)
© Yippie Limited
About the Author
Terry Tong (Ms), a Hong Kong Chinese living in London and a former lawyer, reviews the best Pan Asian restaurants across London with recommendations on dishes on her website, yippieonline.com. She has interviewed many chefs and restauranteurs and her pieces have been published in a number of magazines. She also writes about the latest and hottest restaurant openings on her website.
Website: yippieonline.com for chef interviews and top Pan Asian restaurant reviews
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