Chef May Chow on cultivating inclusive spaces in the restaurant world
As she approaches an impressive 10-year anniversary for her beloved Little Bao, chef-founder May Chow is embracing her role as a leader in the industry. Lifestyle Asia chats with the Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017 about how we can make the restaurant industry — and others as well — a more inclusive and equitable place for all.
Somewhere along the line, May Chow realised she was a role model. Not because she necessarily intended to be, but, if not her, then who?
“I think there was a funny moment when I thought, ‘someone should do something about this,’” says Chow. And that’s when it hit her. “Oh, I have to do something about this.”
The this-es come and the this-es go, but being in a position to make those changes; to do those somethings? That’s a whole new ballgame. It’s also a position you find yourself in when, like Chow, your talent and hard work earn you titles like Asia’s Best Female Chef 2017, Prestige 40 Under 40 honours and you see your restaurant — in her case, the MMMs-Award Winning Little Bao — coming up on an impressive 10 year milestone in Hong Kong’s highly competitive restaurant industry.
It’s the sort of thing that clichés about success — you know, great power, great responsibility and the like — were made for, because it’s not just about the achievements that come with hard work, but about the opportunities to uplift others as well. It was a topic on the minds of all present this summer as Veuve Clicquot presented “Bold Conversations”, a panel discussion featuring three accomplished female leaders: Marisa Yiu, director and founding partner of ESKYIU and co-founder, lead curator and executive director of Design Trust; Juliette Gimenez, CEO and co-founder of Goxip Group; and Chow herself, with Rikko Lee as the event’s guest emcee.
Similar to other programmes they’ve hosted around the world, Veuve Clicquot brought this group of successful female entrepreneurs to discuss their ups and downs, struggles and successes in navigating their corners of the industry, while addressing how women (and male allies, as well!) can uplift and support other women for a more equitable world.
“It’s incredible to see Veuve Clicquot using their platform to create an opportunity for inspiring dialogue to happen between these amazing female role models and share them with the local community,” says Chow. “I think these activities strengthen the bonding for women to continue to persevere through challenging times and I think it’s important to consistently and regularly remind ourselves to take action.”
Following the panel, we caught up with Chow to talk about her own role models, turning the page on the beloved Happy Paradise and how we can all do better to diversify representation across all industries.
A Bold Conversation with Chef May Chow
With a lot of talk about role models — who are some of yours?
I have so many role models within and beyond my industry. [One is] Jane Fonda, for her multi-faceted life in acting, activism, and relentless pursuit of art. She once said if you asked her if she would have an award winning show on Netflix in her 80s, she jokingly said she thought she would be dead. She even popularized the usage of VHS because of her exercise videos. She reminds me to always keep an open mind towards changes, always stay connected to youth and continue to add value in any way possible.
What have you learned from your fellow panelists?
Each panelist has their unique voice, Marisa always inspires me with her undying devotion to Hong Kong. During the lows of covid and its restrictions, her uplifting message that the role of design is more important than ever to preserve Hong Kong’s culture and identity. While many were leaving, she found it crucial to stay behind and defend Hong Kong through design. Of course, her eloquence in words when she explains herself also inspires me. We all agree that we need each other to constantly cultivate hope for one another to keep going.
How can we all do more to highlight the work of women in F&B (or any industry) without marginalizing or tokenizing them?
Diversifying representation should not just be left to articles. It should be in our everyday considerations from boardrooms and business meetings to events and decision-making. I think representation also means we should be acting on it, meaning we should feel weird if we go to panels and don’t see a woman speaking — and then address it! We should also include a diverse portrayal in all our work. I rewatch movies from the ’90s that I loved as a kid and I now just find it hilarious that it was just purely all blonde people. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days? I think we know the way to move forward already — we just need to keep doing it.
Who are some of the up-and-coming women in Hong Kong who inspire you?
I was very excited to see [Ho Lee Fook chef] ArChan Chan move back to Hong Kong. I was very impressed by her career and I believe she will be a strong role model for future chefs. I had the pleasure to collaborate with her and she is a mentor and a leader. I see Simran Savlani starting her sauce business and would love to see it thrive. I am a big fan of Wendy’s Wok World and I hope to see her to take wok and her art beyond restaurants — I think she is an artist even more than a chef.
How can men do better to support women in their industries and spaces?
We love male allies! Some of my greatest mentors are men. To me it’s about giving opportunities to females to rise up the ranks; spending time to understand how to nurture women and make them feel empowered. Matt Abergel of Yardbird actually forced me to do things, to take job opportunities when I thought I didn’t deserve them — he just gave me a lot of opportunity to try things, and believed in me. Also, I do think women strive better with camaraderie, so I think it’s important to point them towards female role models as well.
You’ve closed one chapter with Happy Paradise — how does it feel to know the impact it had? Do you think the brand or dishes may make a return in a different form?
I’m very proud of the team and its achievements. The past five years, we’ve been named a Top 20 restaurant in Hong Kong; Anthony Bourdain came; we had Virgin Xtravaganzah every year for her amazing drag art performance; we collaborated with award-winning chefs like Ton from Le Du, XinRongJi, Masque. We’ve been featured in so many local music videos. I feel satisfied and complete for this project and its journey.
Its a bit humorous to me how many mistakes or how naive or unprofessional a project it was in some ways, but I think the achievements or my knowledge of what is possible couldn’t have been achieved without it. I think it sets a great pedestal for us to continue to strive forward. I believe Happy Paradise will definitely return but probably in a much more mature and evolved way. Definitely goodbye to twenties May — of parties, drinking and neons. That will have to go or be a memory in our yearbook.
What’s next for May Chow and Little Bao?
Most people who know me know that I am a very spirited person, but I’m not in a rush to do a new restaurant. We are very excited to continue to push forward Little Bao — it’s almost 10 years — so I hope to continue to evolve the brand and its offerings so we’re worthy to stay around for the long run.
First things first, I am going to get married and will go to US and South America for a much deserved trip with Jodie. I’m the official placemaker for Rosewood this year, so you will see many new collaborations and forays — we’ve already launched my first Rosewood mooncake! And we want to explore the traditional Chinese traditions with our own spin. For Little Bao, we’ve already done Bao Down collaborations with Richard Ekkebus; Bombana has promised to do one; Chef Manav from Chaat will be next. There’s a lot of new things going on for Little Bao so stay tuned!