We won’t blame you if you’ve never heard of Johanne Siy or tried her cooking. Most of us haven’t. Even some of the most seasoned foodies and culinary personalities in the Philippines only learned her name in early June 2021 when Singapore’s World Gourmet Awards named her Female Chef of the Year.

Top food consultancy firm Peter Knipp Holdings Pte Ltd established the WGA in 2001. Originally called Awards of Excellence, it honors trailblazers from various branches in the food and beverage industry, from brilliant chefs and lifetime achievers to restaurants and bars with the best service. The public votes for candidates who have been nominated by industry insiders. The WGA is also supported by the Singapore Tourism Board.

In Siy’s case, she was evaluated not only for her creative and culinary skills, but also for her leadership in the kitchen, commitment to quality, professionalism, and consistency.

“I was not expecting it,” Siy tells CITEM. Having taken up the mantle of head chef for Singapore’s Lolla restaurant only in October 2020, her tenure was relatively new and self-effacing. Smack in the middle of the pandemic also meant traveling Filipinos didn’t get much of a chance to try and promote their kababayan’s (compatriot’s) cooking.

The 13-seater she was running was decidedly hip, with a blue Peranakan-tiled façade framed by frilly plants. According to the New York Times, it was the physical incarnation of an eponymous secret supper club founded in 2008. Plates are small, focused, produce-driven, and Mediterranean-inspired. Within a few months of its opening in 2013, Zagat had already included it in its 10 Hottest Restaurants of the World List.

To follow and maintain that tradition is no easy feat. Siy redirects her appreciation to the people around her. “I am very grateful for everyone’s support—my family, my team who stand by me every single day, and all the people who believed in me and voted for me,” she says.

Growing up local
Before moving to the bustling Lion City, Siy had an idyllic childhood, which she admits she tends to romanticize in her head. “Our house was just about 100 meters from the school. By the time I was five, I was walking home on my own,” recalls the Dagupan native.

At some point, enterprising businessfolk turned the warehouse next to their house into a bakery so the smell of bread baking became her alarm clock every morning. Most of her childhood recollections revolve around food: her first time trying bibingka from a street cart, dinners enjoying the crispy skin of espada (hairtail fish) while pretending to watch Newswatch in front of a black and white TV set, the flavor of her first Hershey’s bar.

Her first taste of cooking, however, began when a sweet old lady—“a master of kakanin,” Siy describes—came to live with them. “My brothers and I spent every afternoon of that summer break helping out in the kitchen making these delicacies.” As a kid, she felt like she was playing with edible playdough and could be as creative as she liked. The bonus was that she could eat her creations.

While it may seem like child’s play, it may have been the precursor to Siy’s career as a chef.

Full speed ahead
After university, Siy landed a job in an American multinational company and moved to Singapore. “It was intense because they only hire from the best schools and you are expected to show results every time,” she says. The experience saw her travel the world and meet people from varied backgrounds and fields.

“It was very mind-opening especially to someone who grew up in the province and rarely ventured out of the compounds of UP Diliman,” Siy adds.

Cooking was fun but it was a way to appease her hollow-legged brothers and not a viable career. “Back in those days, being a chef wasn’t aspirational. It’s not cool like it is now,” she admits. Living in Singapore and visiting Western countries, however, showed her that she could make a living while doing what she loved.

Thinking she was late into the game and wanting to catch up, Siy decided to offset her perceived disadvantage by enrolling in a good culinary school. The Culinary Institute of America gave her the comprehensive and intensive training that she craved. Being in New York not only exposed her to the culinary scene, but also a different kind of disposition.

“When you go to New York, you understand that there is a certain vibe. Everyone comes to the city to accomplish something. The drive and ambition around you—they’re palpable,” she observes. “For a young cook, you thrive off this energy.

Siy stayed in New York for several years, training under Chef Eric Ripert and Chef Daniel Boulud, before returning to Singapore to work at the highly acclaimed, two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Andre. When Andre Chiang shut down his namesake resto in 2018, she went to Europe, working nonstop—in some cases, she worked for free in exchange for experience.

By her third time, she began seeing Singapore differently. Suddenly, the country’s limitations became more obvious. “I missed the connection to the land, the sea, and the source of the ingredients we work with.” In a country with one of the most highly valued real estate in the world, the land was too expensive to grow food. “Most of the produce in the top restaurants are imported. You get it in a box,” she says. Siy found herself in a rut.

To pull herself out of her stupor, Siy studied sourdough. She became so passionate about baking bread that she thought she’d never return to a restaurant kitchen again—until a friend messaged her to ask if she was interested in working at Lolla.

Searching for culinary freedom
She describes her culinary style as evolving. “Work hard. Never stop learning and leave your ego at the door” is, after all, her mantra. But in describing her inclinations, she reveals that she leans toward a simple elegance where everything on the plate plays a role.

Siy also emphasizes originality as an important factor in her cooking. “The thing I hate the most is when I come up with a new dish that I’m extremely proud of because I think it’s innovative only to find out later that something similar has been done before,” she confesses. “That makes me depressed.” These days, she avoids looking at social media when she’s doing R&D to avoid inadvertent influences. Instead, she studies and draws inspiration from the ingredients.

While she’s not the most recognizable chef (yet!), Siy’s Female Chef of the Year accolade is the culmination of several years of hard work, humility, and courage—as well as another step that will take her to the next leg of her career.

As she continues to do good work in Lolla, Siy has big plans to have her place. “I want to serve cuisine that is more personal to me and work alongside like-minded individuals with a shared vision for an endeavor that is inspired, unique, relevant, and most importantly brings joy.” She adds that it doesn’t necessarily have to be Filipino food, admitting that she’s not an authority in it, but something that reflects her journey.

“To a certain extent, I do that now in my current role, but I still have shackles that I need to shake off.”