May Chow is heating things up in the kitchen and inspiring Hong Kong’s youth to dream big and break the glass ceiling both inside and outside the food and beverage sector…
With the gender balance in the hospitality sector still famously out of kilter, was that something you struggled with when you first entered the business?
Well, there wasn’t any obvious discrimination, with no one saying they wouldn’t hire me because I was a woman. Instead, it was more a case of microaggression, for example, with people seeing me as more suitable for a pastry chef role than taking centre stage in a hot, busy kitchen. That all adds to the perception that women should stick with the salads and not carry heavy things, that they’re somehow inferior.
While you worked with many well-known male chefs prior to opening your own restaurant, were there any women who made a strong impression on you along the way?
The first woman that I worked for was a Boston-based pastry chef named Karin. I loved her because, even though she had graduated with joint honours in aerospace and electrical engineering from MIT, she’d opted for a career in pastry as that was her passion. She trained me so well that I could make everything on the menu after just three months. For me, she was my MIT professor and she allowed me to major in pastries.
Flashing forward a little now, in 2012, you opened your first restaurant – Little Bao. Can you tell us more about that experience?
Looking back, I was so naive. I opened that restaurant without having any clear idea as to how to go about it. I had, however, seen others do it and I believed I could replicate what they had done and be successful. At the time, I felt like I was drowning, but I didn’t. Instead, I had to learn how to do everything. One day, I would be washing the dishes, the next, I would be front of house.
The original Little Bao site recently fell victim to urban renewal plans. How did you feel about letting it go?
I actually knew that was going to happen about six years ago, but I didn’t tell anyone except my partner and a few close friends. In the end, we only announced we were closing a week before we shut the doors for good, which shocked a lot of people. Walking by it now is definitely a bittersweet experience. The last six years, after all, have been something of a rollercoaster. In truth, though, it was no longer enough for me – at least not in that particular space…
In 2017, you were named the Best Female Chef at the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. Did you see that as some kind of vindication?
At the time, I was just starting my career and I wouldn’t really have chosen to win something like that at that point. I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder – to be famous at 30 and gone by 40 – so I had to think hard about what accepting it would entail. While I was initially hesitant, I then wondered if I could put the win to good use. Ultimately, I thought that if someone very ordinary like me could gain such an accolade, that could act as an inspiration to others.
You came out about your sexuality a few years back. Was that difficult in a conservative city like Hong Kong?
Well, when I lived in the States, I was out among friends but still very much in the closet as far as my family in Hong Kong was concerned. Eventually, when I moved back to Hong Kong full-time, I didn’t want to revert to who I was before – an insecure 13-year-old. It was difficult to be honest about who I was, however. I was very aware of this innately Chinese desire not to embarrass your family. After about a year, though, I did come out to my parents. That was hard, but over time, my mom came to accept me and learnt to love my partner. Later, when some of her friends also found out they had queer children, they reached out to her and they were able to give each other advice and support.
You had the chance to sit down with Anthony Bourdain [the celebrated US celebrity chef] before he died. That must have been quite an occasion…
Every chef knew that having Anthony Bourdain come to your restaurant was akin to winning the lottery. A true hero of mine, not only did he come to see me, but he also brought along Christopher Doyle, my all-time favourite cinematographer, and his girlfriend Asia Argento, the Italian actress, whom I had also admired from afar. On the day he was due, I invited all my close friends to come along and help create the right ambience. When he arrived, he was very genuine – in his case, what you saw on camera was really him.
Do you have one piece of advice for any female or queer would-be entrepreneurs who may be reading this piece?
As an entrepreneur – whether you are a woman or a man – it’s important to work hard and remain true to your initial vision. In the case of women, they should also know that there’s a lot of support out there. If any woman ever reached out to me, for instance, I’d be willing to share what I know.
Something else – something that I noticed at the recent Asia’s Best Restaurants Awards – is that men are constantly looking to promote themselves, while women are nowhere near as bold. I’m not sure if that’s because women are naturally more humble or feel that they shouldn’t behave that way, but they really should. At the end of the day, be adamant about what you want and don’t be afraid to offend anyone who might get in your way.
Photos: Jack Law
Art Direction: San Wong
Make-up: Esther Kwan
Venue: Happy Paradise