On Ann Siang Hill in Singapore, past a row of shophouses, stands a quaint restaurant with aquamarine tiles and “Lolla” written in black paint outside.
As soon as I entered the door, I was transported to a yakitori restaurant in Japan — an industrial interior, low lights and a countertop surrounding the open kitchen where the black-clad staff work.
I sat on one of the high chairs and immediately got attended to by the staff. They were serving a special 4-course lunch menu that rainy day.
At the helm of this restaurant is a Filipina who defied the odds to be Asia’s Best Female Chef — Johanne Siy.
Chef Jo stepped out into the open kitchen right in the middle of the lunch rush. The restaurant had a handful of people by then. She chatted with the diners before disappearing back into the kitchen.
I was sitting next to a Singaporean family, and the mom was raving about the sourdough bread with kombu butter. She asked how I came about the restaurant.
“I’m from the Philippines and the chef is Filipina,” I explained.
“Oh yes. She made this place famous,” the lady quipped as she went back to her meal.
But Chef Jo wasn’t always a chef. In fact, she moved to Singapore in 2003 to work for a multinational company. She was fresh out of university and she thrived in this bustling concrete jungle…until she didn’t.
“I was really looking for something more meaning than just having a job that pays you a salary. I wanted to have a connection with people. I wanted a more meaningful life,” she recalls.
Having grown up in Dagupan, Pangasinan where family restaurants are in abundance, Chef Jo found meaning in cooking for people.
“Cooking is something that’s always been close to my heart. Growing up, it’s how I spent my summers. I’d play around in the kitchen, cook for my brothers who are always hungry,” she laughs. “That was a great source of validation.”
And so she took the risk of a lifetime, left her corporate job, and traveled to New York City to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America.
“When I decided to change my career, I was a little bit older,” she says. “Most chefs actually start when they’re 15, 13. They start out in the kitchen especially in Europe. But when I started, I had already worked in corporate for about seven, eight years. So I was at a disadvantage in terms of age and this job is a very physical job. You can only do it while you’re young, really to be honest. I wanted to get myself a leg up and go to the best school that I could afford.”
She traveled all over the world to master her craft. She worked in kitchens for free. In fact, she was spending for her culinary dream.
“I was paying for my own accommodation, for my own flights. I used up my savings. And then I came back to Singapore. I didn’t want to cook anymore because nothing grows here. So I was a little bit disillusioned. I wanted to just be a baker,” she shares.
But when the pandemic closed down the world, a door opened for Chef Jo in Singapore. The then-Mediterranean restaurant Lolla lost its kitchen team. Someone approached her to take over. Chef Jo was apprehensive, but she took it.
“I said ‘Okay, I’m just gonna help out for a few months.’ I didn’t sign my contract. I was a part-timer. But it’s such a waste for a restaurant to close just because of something like that. At the time, this restaurant had been here for about eight years. I said I’m just gonna help out and one thing led to another,” she says.
She never left.
Now her restaurant serves more than just good food; they serve an experience. The servers explain the dishes one by one, and even offer tips on how to eat them to get the most flavor. I saw one chef painstakingly plucking herbs to top one of the dishes. And Chef Jo oversees the entire kitchen, the younger staff and every meticulously-prepared dish.
In February, her dedication and talent finally got recognized as she was named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2023 by Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Chef Jo is the first Singapore-based chef to win the award and only the second Filipino, after Margarita Forés in 2016.
“I never expected any of the accolades that came because we’re a really small restaurant if you compare us to all the other restaurants in Singapore. We’re very small. We don’t have a marketing team, we don’t have the budget for all this PR. So we just do what we do and we try our best,” she says.
She says the customers are to thank for the recognition she and the restaurant have received.
“[We are] thankful for the support of people who put us on the map. Diners who spread the word which is how it happens actually. When I ask diners how they heard about us, it’s always ‘Oh my friend told me about this place.’”
Lolla has become some sort of a pilgrimage stop for Filipinos who visit Singapore too. Chef Jo says she’s had the pleasure of serving a lot of Filipino tourists.
“I’m very thankful for that because of the support that I get from Filipinos. When they visit, I think we’ve become part of their itinerary right now so it’s great to be able to reconnect because I don’t go home as often right now,” she says.
While she has called Singapore home for nearly two decades, the Filipino taste buds remain with Chef Jo.
The main dish that day was crab relleno, albeit with a saucy and foamy twist. The appetizer was avocado with smoked eel consommé, initially inspired by the kinilaw. Calamansi is also a mainstay ingredient in their menu.
“It’s a take on the flavors that I grew up with. Here and there you can see [the inspiration from Filipino cuisine]. They always say you can take the Filipino out of the Philippines, but you know, you can’t take the Philippines out of the Filipino,” she explains.
Chef Jo has achieved a lot despite her late career change. Now, she wants to help other chefs carve their names on the kitchen block as well.
“Ultimate dream — I suppose to be able to live a life of meaning and a life that matters in the sense that I’m able to help other people also achieve their dreams. If it’s a matter of training, providing livelihood, or inspiration to the younger generation that’s it. Material wealth to me has always been a means to an end. It’s never been what the end in mind is,” she says.
And how does it feel to be a Filipino making a mark in the world?
“It’s very rewarding but at the end of the day, you do what you need to do. You do your best and try to bloom where you are planted,” she says.
Right now, Chef Jo is planted in Singapore. But she hopes that one day, she gets to cook for Filipinos back home again. — LA, GMA Integrated News