For the sixth consecutive day, the cherubic 32-year-old has been prepping the kitchen since 8am. It is a busy festive period at 2am:lab, the dessert label that catapulted Janice Wong’s pastry career to international stardom. Charlene is taking an unusual spin on traditional mooncakes, and is in charge of ensuring that their soft, delicate mochi skins are made with precision.
Dusting flour off her black apron, Charlene skips out to meet me; the humble and passionate millennial has been looking forward to this interview. We head to Bettr Barista Coffee Academy upstairs, away from the bubbling kitchen stove, and I whip out my tape recorder, eager to uncover the difficulty in young females trying to succeed in the cooking world.
“I am the oldest of four children, and grew up very much like a boy,” Charlene begins, her voice crisp and bright. She may not seem like your typical girly female but oozes femininity nonetheless and with an expressive, almost childlike, wonder.
“I was short, but fearless. I would fight with the boys, run and play in the sand. I would climb up the kitchen top to reach for food, turn on the stove, experiment cooking different things. At seven years old, I made my first instant noodle dish.
Both my grandmothers cooked a lot. They were always eager to have us taste their dishes. From there, my palette was trained. I always had to tell them which version of their home cooked dish tasted better. At 17, I already knew I wanted to be a chef. I never wanted to be anything else.”
“I enrolled into culinary school right after high school. Never thought about anything else.”
Charlene continues, “When I was waitressing, I would watch the Chinese chefs with such admiration. Wow, you have such a big wok! You cook for so many people at once! And it tastes so good. How do you do it? Because of that, I enrolled into culinary school right after high school. Never thought about anything else.”
With such passion, why don’t we find more females in the kitchen? Charlene pauses, then turns serious: “It is not easy to specialise in Asian cuisines. In 2001, there weren’t many girls in the kitchen. Physically, it is very difficult for a girl to handle a huge Chinese wok. If you see how big the banquet woks are, you will know it is a physically challenging job.
When I was in the Japanese kitchen, I was told that when females are slightly warmer in the month, it will not be good for the fish. That’s why I chose to specialise in Western cuisine.”
It seems there are not enough female chefs in Asian kitchens because of practicalities and scientific beliefs, but that’s besides the point. The real crux of the problem is: why are kitchens still mostly male-dominated?
“Men are less drama than women. As women, we have to control our emotions. Yet, we cannot be angry the same way guys do.”
“The world is changing,” says Charlene. “I remember, at 17, I had to go for seven interviews before nailing an internship. They thought I was a small kid who could not survive the kitchen. To avoid drama, they did not want me around.”
Therefore, to prove her worth, Charlene had to work as hard as other males in the kitchen. She turns reflective as her eyes conveyed how her soul was searching for that defining moment in her career. “I hung out with the guys more. Men are less ‘drama’ than women. As women, we have to control our emotions. Yet, we cannot be angry the same way guys do. So I found a way to put my emotions in different boxes – when I change into my uniform and come to work, it is my attitude that matters the most.”
Physicality still posed a challenge even though it came much later when Charlene was making pasta for 90 people. “They all had to taste the same. The texture of the noodles would change very fast. It could go from al dente to soggy in 30 seconds,” she explains. To combat the physical obstacle, she had to hit the gym during break times to train her wrist, so it’ll be strong enough when she tossed the noodles. Now that’s hardcore!
“We always have our own spoon, ready to taste everything. If you don’t taste everything from scratch, you cannot rectify it.”
Charlene goes on to describe how mentally and physically exhausting it is to be in the kitchen six days a week. A few people are cramped in a small space beside an oven burning at 400°C. The scene isn’t the most pleasant – everyone is perspiring profusely, heart rates are up, and guests await. That is why a chef’s favourite hobby on off days is to catch up on their beauty sleep.
One interesting item that Charlene has with her at all times in the kitchen is a spoon. “We’re ready to taste everything. If you don’t taste everything from scratch, you cannot rectify it. You will need to change everything if there is no taste test.” I nod in admiration, then gushed about how proud Gordon Ramsay would be of Charlene’s answer – he always bellows at amateur cooks on MasterChef to always taste the dish beforehand.
What do you like to make after a hard day’s work? Charlene smiles and replies, “I live with my grandmother, so I love making soups. All kinds in fact! I met a potager who cooked soups for 30 years, and love how these are comforting dishes that nourishes the body after a hard day’s work.
Depending on what goes into it, soups evolve in so many ways. It can be paired with bread, noodles, rice, even porridge. And my grandma loves eating them too. It is really down to comfort and staying healthy.”
I now have a newfound respect for chefs, especially females. The next time my order does not arrive promptly, I’ll just ask for more chips to stave off the hunger and wait patiently for a sumptuous meal to arrive.
Images by Esther Yeo