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(Yonhap Feature) Female chefs strive to expand presence in Korean food scene

2018/02/09 09:00

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By Choi Soo-hyang

SEOUL, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- Cooking for family comes natural for many South Korean women, but few, if any, have demonstrated their culinary talent beyond their homes in professional kitchens.

Among 24 restaurants that received stars for top quality cuisine by the Michelin Guide 2018, only three were headed by female chefs in the male-dominated Asian country.

The development underscores the challenges facing many female chefs, as some of them quit on their way to making a name for themselves due mainly to marriage, childbirth and child-rearing.

"I saw many talented fellow female chefs quit the profession due to difficulty in juggling work and child care," said Ha Jin-ok, a female head chef at Haevichi Hotel & Resort on the country's southern resort island of Jeju.

"This is the part where we can't resolve things by ourselves," the 48-year-old said, adding her husband is active in sharing household work.

She was tapped to lead the Korean fine dining restaurant Hanoru at the premium hotel in 2017 after 25 years of working at top-tier hotels on the country's most popular tourist island.

Among 78 chefs at the Haevichi hotel, only 21, or 27 percent, are women.

Chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants in the guidebook's 2018 edition pose for a photo during a ceremony in Seoul on Nov. 8, 2017. (Yonhap) Chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants in the guidebook's 2018 edition pose for a photo during a ceremony in Seoul on Nov. 8, 2017. (Yonhap)

Ha is one of the few female chefs who has managed to break the glass ceiling in the country's culinary scene.

"I promised myself to do my best, thinking my performance could lead to more opportunities for fellow women chefs," Ha said as she recalled the day when she was offered the position to lead the restaurant.

South Korean women have seen their influence dramatically grow over the past decades as more women have received a college education and worked their way up the corporate ladder.

Still, not many female chefs have been able to make their presence felt in professional kitchens.

Experts say working in the kitchen is often physically challenging as chefs deal with fire and knives and deliver heavy ingredients while working on their feet for hours on end -- a toil that could turn away prospective female chefs.

In this undated photo provided by Haevichi Hotel & Resort, Ha Jin-ok, head chef for the hotel's Korean fine dining restaurant Hanoru, poses for a photo at the hotel on the country's southern resort island of Jeju. (Yonhap) In this undated photo provided by Haevichi Hotel & Resort, Ha Jin-ok, head chef for the hotel's Korean fine dining restaurant Hanoru, poses for a photo at the hotel on the country's southern resort island of Jeju. (Yonhap)

"When situations are bad, we work up to 15 hours a day, six days a week, and such a labor environment could be more demanding for women," Jeong Han-sol, a cook at a local dining bar, said.

The 24-year-old said he has never been under a female head chef during nearly a decade of working at more than a dozen restaurants.

Many female chefs actually admit that a difference in physical strength is one of the first hurdles they have to get through.

Yet there are also voices emphasizing that the phenomenon is just another reflection of the persistent obstacles facing Korean women in a society where C-suite jobs are still largely dominated by men.

"Physical limitations do exist, but now I know how to move ingredients several times if I can't do it at once, and I use a chair if any tool is beyond my reach," Ahn Soo-hyun, a female chef at Grand Intercontinental Seoul Parnas, said. "They are no big deal."

  

In this photo provided by Grand Intercontinental Seoul Parnas, chef Ahn Soo-hyun poses for a photo during the Young Chef Challenge cooking competition held by the hotel in Seoul on Feb. 1, 2018. (Yonhap) In this photo provided by Grand Intercontinental Seoul Parnas, chef Ahn Soo-hyun poses for a photo during the Young Chef Challenge cooking competition held by the hotel in Seoul on Feb. 1, 2018. (Yonhap)

Ahn, 22, was one of four winners at a cooking contest held among chefs under 30-year-old at Grand Intercontinental Seoul Parnas and Intercontinental Seoul Coex last week.

The hotels' operator said three of the four winners were women. Only 72 out of 296 chefs working at its two chains are women.

The 22-year-old -- who grabbed the prize with her soy bean paste consomme with shepherd's purse clam ravioli -- said she hopes that the media will cover more women chefs in the industry.

"There are many charismatic women who can cook just as good as their male counterparts," Ahn said, pointing to local TV shows that feature all-male chefs.

In this undated photo provided by food business startup Prep, its CEO and chef Lee Song-hee poses for the camera. (Yonhap) In this undated photo provided by food business startup Prep, its CEO and chef Lee Song-hee poses for the camera. (Yonhap)

Chef Lee Song-hee, 39, is one of those female chefs demonstrating great leadership, running three restaurants and a food startup at the same time.

"When I first opened my restaurants 13 years ago, there were male chefs who declined to join our team knowing that I -- a 20-something woman at that time -- was the owner-chef," she said.

"Junior chefs often tell me how there are restaurants that still have a so-called macho culture and even sexual harassment incidents," Lee said.

"But in our case, we have nothing to hide from our kitchen, from sanitation to our culture and performance," she added, explaining why all kitchens at her restaurants are open-style.

The employment rate of South Korean women stood at 50.2 percent in 2016, compared with 71.1 percent for men, according to Statistics Korea.

South Korea has taken a series of measures to bring stay-at-home moms back to work in recent years in order to boost female labor participation, but experts say small-sized businesses, like restaurants, are often a blind spot.

"There aren't many cases where women working at small enterprises go on maternity leave," said Bae Jin-kyung, a co-representative at the Korean Women Workers Association. "They are often pushed to leave, not pause."

   "Considering the harsh labor environment, long working hours and low payment, it is not a surprise that many opt not to return after they leave the restaurants in a society where the household chores are largely placed on women," Bae said.

This photo provided by Grand Intercontinental Seoul Parnas shows participants at the Young Chef Challenge cooking competition held by the hotel in Seoul on Feb. 1, 2018. (Yonhap) This photo provided by Grand Intercontinental Seoul Parnas shows participants at the Young Chef Challenge cooking competition held by the hotel in Seoul on Feb. 1, 2018. (Yonhap)

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