Leading Female Celebrity Chef paving the way for Malaysian girls

Malaysian Students' Global Alliance
5 min
Sunday, March 14, 2021

For centuries, women's’ autonomy was limited to a large extent and prohibited from partaking in many basic activities on the sole grounds of gender; some even imposed by law. After many battles, women in the past put an end to this discrimination treatment by breaking out of the shackles put onto them and their capabilities. However, it came to their realisation that the long-standing inequalities led to men dominating a lot of these industries as women were mostly relegated to homemaking and are expected of nothing more. Hence, it was an intimidating endeavour for women to penetrate these industries where the existing patriarchy and capitalism combined only further aggravated inequalities. 

However, women today are tackling this prevailing issue head-on by fearlessly taking charge of their lives and pursuing whatever their hearts desire regardless of the status quo. They continue to break barriers and have emerged victorious in many industries worldwide. This bold step forward by the current generation of women has paved the path for the future generation of girls to continue defying society’s expectations to instead focus on realising their full potential. Hence, in line with our ‘Gender Inequality: Balancing the Scales’ campaign, we have curated an Article Series that shall discuss the journeys of successful women who have achieved wonders in a variety of industries across Malaysia. Our feature for this article is the highly successful Chef Anis Nabilah who has been in the culinary industry for over 14 years and has done over 50 TV shows.   

Background and education 

Growing up, Chef Anis was one of the eight children in her family of 10. She has always considered herself fortunate to be raised in a family of seven girls who were taught that gender roles are irrelevant. Each person should be given the autonomy to decide for themselves what they intend to pursue in life. The primary motto her parents raised her to adhere to is ‘nothing is impossible’. As for her interest in cooking, Chef Anis first started helping around in the kitchen at age 7 to aid her working mom, who had to raise the kids whilst making a living. The kids would then follow the mother to the kitchen and would receive basic tasks in the kitchen. Hence, exposing them to the basics of cooking.  From the tender age of 9, Chef Anis had started cooking on her own out of interest. 

However, when it came to picking a line of education, Chef Anis initially resorted to picking law and journalism as opposed to venturing into cooking, as she did not want to replace the excitement and joy that comes with cooking with stress. However, her  mother, working in the line of HR, advised her otherwise having seen many people dreading their jobs as there was no element of passion in it. Instead, she said that ‘Imagine having a hobby for a job.’ This motivated her to pursue culinary which at that point in time wasn’t half the glamour it was today but was more of spending long hours in the back of a kitchen. Yet, she went forward with it out of pure interest.  This was the beginning of her journey being exposed to the gender inequalities that existed within her industry. 

On her first day of culinary school, the orientation, which was supposed to be one of the most exciting parts of beginning college, she was caught off guard when her choice of education was questioned. After the introduction, many lecturers and classmates questioned her choice. Some of them commented that based on her looks and gender, she is not suited for this line of work. However, it did not occur to her how sexist a statement it was back then until she experienced further similar treatments once in employment. In college, she then went on to work hard to prove those who doubted her and victoriously topped her class almost every semester. 

The beginning of her culinary journey 

Upon graduation, Chef Anis went on to work part-time and truly enjoyed the process of being in a kitchen and getting that hands-on experience. There were various things she learned during her part-time work. For example, she discovered the thousands of different cheeses that exist, their distinctive taste and textures, many of which she did not obtain in culinary school. Following that, at a very young age of 21, she landed her first TV show. This was not part of her initial plans but being able to teach others the simplicity of cooking was something she always aspired to do. Hence, she partook in the audition and was successful in her endeavour. 

She had defied the expectations of her lecturers, what they believed was a tough-line for a woman to survive in. She recalled having to perform the basics from dicing and chopping to cooking on camera at 21 with no prior experience; where everything was needed to be prepared by her on camera. That very show became the first-ever Malaysia cooking show to be bought by an International TV station. In spite of the struggles, she thoroughly enjoyed this choice—being able to present and teach to the public. In fact, unlike the many other successful chefs out there, Chef Anis' dream is not to open up a restaurant of her own but a culinary school to educate her audience on New Age cooking skills, with emphasis on the Asian style. Professional cooking is one of the many skills that can be attained with sufficient effort, and hence, gender should not even be a factor, she stresses. 

Three to four years into her career, the sexism within the industries was brought to her attention gradually. Despite facing it in college, she never realised this inherent issue faced by women until she became more active on screen, some of which required her to partake in interviews. In almost every single interview she did, she would be asked questions such as: What is a young girl like her doing in a male-dominated industry? Who makes a better chef, male or female? There were even times where she would be live interviewed alongside her male ex-bosses, and she would be asked such questions. Chef Anis’s stance has always been the same - those questions are absolutely irrelevant!

Cooking skills and many others out there should not be measured or gauged based on one’s gender. Cooking is an art form that requires creativity that varies on an individual basis. Thus, it is not to be competed through the perspective of gender. The only way forward in the industry is if one puts in the required work to achieve their desired outcomes, and gender simply has no position in this discussion. It only exists due to the cultures and long-existing traditions influencing the stature of women in society. In fact, complicated recipes like ‘Rendang’ that are being cooked by women at home to perfection are being done without any prior professional lessons. So, why should it not be considered as of great value than those cooked by professional chefs? Chef Anis herself believes no one including herself could be on par with her mother when it comes to her mother’s infamous ‘Rendang’. This goes to show skills and hard work are the determining factors. 

Growth and Success 

Hence, Chef Anis went forward with her goals with absolute perseverance despite the many comments and remarks sent her way. She achieved a multitude of things: making history as the ‘First Malaysian Chef to be on Food Network Asia’, ‘Youngest Chef to be featured on Asian Food Channel (AFC)’, ‘Top 80 of the Most Influential Chef in the ‘Restaurant Australia Campaign’’, and others - soon to be making a substantial mark on the international arena. 

She believed these achievements were possible because she enjoyed her job, and it was something she ‘lived and breathed for’. That is the message she wants to put forth to all young girls out there; Hard work and passion will get them anywhere. Women are capable of many things, and they shouldn’t let society’s expectations overshadow their capabilities. Her patience during her challenging times was one of her virtues that led her to achieve this level of success at a young age. However, at the same time, she also believes standing up for oneself is equally as important, as long as the message is delivered courteously. She doesn’t believe in making noises to prove a point. Instead, “action speaks louder than words” is a strong message to prove to people how wrong they can be. This way of life has served Chef Anis quite well till date. Eventually, the sexist remarks and questions have been reduced in the past two years as people are coming to terms with the reality that gender is not a factor when deciding on merits. 

Through her personal experience, the primary reason why women’s participation in the culinary industry in the past wasn’t as high as men were due to factors such as gender roles and how domestic responsibilities such as raising a family are placed on women’s shoulders primarily. This doesn’t reflect that men are better chefs than women. Instead, it shines more light on the substantial difference in the burden placed on a women’s shoulders as opposed to their male counterparts who have greater liberty in choosing their career over family. Eligible and skilled female chefs on the other hand, were indirectly forced to exit the industry to bear the familial responsibilities once they got married. Other challenges in working in a professional kitchen are that it requires long hours of constant cooking and carrying heavy pots and pans; these tasks generally require more strength. Thus, there was a misconception that women might not be suitable. However, Chef Anis is an exemplary example to prove why that assumption is not true. 

Concluding Thoughts 

Contrary to what some may think, her journey to date was never all sunshine and roses but, it involved a lot of heartache and pain. However, Chef Anis has always shared with her audience how she uses the criticisms and doubts that were thrown at her to fuel herself to keep moving forward and not allow them to halt her progress. She had to work twice as hard as her male colleagues to be noticed and recognised for her skills and not dismissed for her gender and looks. Some of the offensive comments thrown her way were along the lines of, ‘she is pretty, we could put her in tight clothes for people’s satisfaction’. It hit closer to home when an acquaintance of hers said on camera that it was easy for people to love a female chef; all they need to do is wear a skirt. 

Many of these misogynistic comments being made on television as a joke only further aggravates the issue of inequality because whatever is being produced on TV is being registered in the public’s mind as the norm. To present such a misogynistic mentality on TV shows that we as a society condone such behaviour, and this behaviour has to stop. It is very unjust to dismiss one’s skills and hard work merely because one’s gender is female.  

Even though it bothered her a lot, she kept going forward because eventually, she realised that these chatters only exist because of her unconventional breakthrough. After all, it shows she had made an impact, even if it is a small one. As her mom used to say, if people cannot appreciate her success it is because they were intimidated and that is okay. Do not hold it against them but to ‘keep doing you’. She held on to those words and continued challenging herself to work hard and push beyond the boundaries set around her to prove that nothing is impossible. Someday, she will attain all she and all of her predecessors had ever dreamed of.

This is the message Chef Anis hopes to impart through her experience - ‘Nothing is ever impossible; if you set your mind to it and focus all your energy and hard work into achieving your goals, nothing and no one can stop you’. 

We at MSGA believe and strongly push for girls today to confidently penetrate and shatter the power structures that exist within male-dominated industries to overcome inequalities for the betterment of the forthcoming generations. It is once again our responsibility and certainly within our capabilities to bring about this change as we have seen in the story of Chef Anis; She, who shattered that glass ceiling, paving a path for future generations of girls to boldly combat society’s expectations. 

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