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In an extract from new book, The Female Chef by Clare Finney, Glasgow-based chef, Julie Lin, discusses being a woman in hospitality

Author Clare Finney, interviews 31 women about their experience of working in hospitality.

Published: September 21, 2021
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The below is extracted from The Female Chef by Clare Finney and Liz Seabrook, £28, Hoxton Mini Press, out September 23

Julie Lin, Glasgow-based chef and owner of Malaysian street-food restaurant Julie’s Kopitiam

‘There is a culture of machismo and fear that still exists in the industry – that is normalised. I want to talk about it.’

The week prior to our interview, Julie Lin tells me, she hailed a cab and was a picked up by a chatty 22-year-old who still lived with his Indian family. As he drove her across Glasgow, the young cabbie told her how, during the course of lockdown, he had learnt to cook with his mum. ‘He said his mother had this amazing wealth of knowledge, and that it did his head in that his dad did nothing in the kitchen. He realised that, going forward, he needed to be the change.’

‘It was like I’d got into a cab with an angel,’ Lin continues, laughing delightedly; for this vignette of a Glaswegian cab driver in many ways sums up her feelings around cooking and gender. Though she owes her own culinary skills to her mother – a Malaysian woman who emigrated by herself to Scotland to work as a nurse in the 1970s, and cooked to feel connected to her homeland – her ambition going forward is to ‘get to the point where gender doesn’t matter. I am very happy to celebrate the skills women have handed down over the centuries; the maternal cooking that runs through so many societies; but I think if we are going to get rid of the more negative ideas around cooking and restaurants and gender, we need to ultimately disentangle the two.’

For a woman who has made her name cooking the homely Malaysian food of her mum and grandmother, and who has only ever worked under female chefs, this might seem surprising. Yet she is committed to ensuring anyone who wants to cook like she does, in the style of restaurant she runs, can – a testament to her belief that no one group should have a monopoly over what restaurants and cooking should be.

Everyone who comes to work at her restaurant, Julie’s Kopitiam, is taught the same way she was: through watching, following, tasting and feeling, rather than reading and writing down rules and recipes. It is a ‘feminine’ approach, she acknowledges – but as her mum always told her, ‘it makes you more confident in the kitchen. You know you can do these things with these ingredients, and what you can substitute if you don’t have them.’

Besides, in a small, ‘cupboard-sized’ kitchen like that of Kopitiam – which occupies the ground floor of a townhouse – it’s essential that everyone can do everything.

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‘In Asian restaurants you don’t really have the same hierarchal model you do in restaurants in Europe,’ Lin continues. ‘Everyone can do the pass, the front of house and the back of house, the chopping and the washing up.’ It’s a model that makes for a healthier working environment – friendly, collaborative, with a sense of shared responsibility – but it is also inherently more inclusive, says Lin, enabling her to offer employment and experience to people new to the industry.

There’s no denying that Britain’s restaurant scene has a diversity problem. Though there are plenty of people from ethnic minority groups working as pot washers and kitchen porters, there are depressingly few in senior positions. By taking people on who might not have had the opportunity, time or money for formal chef ’s training, Lin hopes to ‘encourage diversity, and create a new generation of chefs that can work in a different way’.

‘It takes longer to train people like that, but I think the outcome is worth it – because that way you get independent cooks, who bounce ideas off each other. They can adapt a template,’ she continues, ‘but they don’t have to be exact. They aren’t chained to a recipe.’ Though she had been encouraged to put on Malaysian specials in her first chef’s job, at a top Glasgow restaurant, it was while working at an Indian street-food place that she realised what she calls ‘estimation cooking’ could have a serious economic value, outside of the domestic sphere.

Indeed, the approach is part and parcel of cuisines across Southeast Asia – because ‘you can’t regiment that style of cooking. The strength of each batch of curry paste is always different depending on where your ingredients come from – and you need to taste as you go because it’s very difficult to fix once you’ve finished.’ Emboldened by her experiences at the Indian restaurant, and by the popularity of the Malaysian street-food stall she ran part time, in 2017 she moved into bricks and mortar. Today Lin counts herself lucky. Kopitiam is based in ‘an extremely welcoming and multicultural area of Glasgow, and we have a nice, friendly kitchen. We do get a lot of people who haven’t been chefs before.’ Yet her passion for inclusivity and equality is by no means confined to her kitchen. ‘There is a culture of machismo and fear that still exists in the industry – that is normalised. I want to talk about it.’ Not content with simply ploughing her own path, she regularly champions the work of people in food ‘who are fighting that culture’, through interviews, collaborations, recommendations and events. ‘Because if you have a group of chefs creating a different style of kitchen standing together and shouting about it, then you can create a movement. You can be the change.’

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Julie Lin’s Lap Cheong Fried Rice (腊肠炒饭)

‘This is the first dish my mother ever taught me to make. I used to call it breakfast rice because we would have it in the mornings at the weekend. My mother doesn’t enjoy the greasiness of lots of sausages in the kitchen so this was our alternative. The dish is so incredibly simple yet imperative when learning how to wok-fry rice. There’s a subtle art to getting smokiness into the rice that comes from patience; she taught me so much of this when mastering wok hei.’

Serves 2
2 eggs, whisked
2 spring onions

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3 lap cheong (Chinese sausages)
3 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp light soy sauce
400g cooked jasmine rice
1 tsp dark soy sauce
100g peas
1 tbsp oyster sauce
salt and white pepper

Begin by thinly slicing the lap cheong on a diagonal. Then mix together the soy sauces and oyster sauce with a pinch of salt and white pepper (to taste) and 2 teaspoons of water.

In a non-stick pan set over a low–medium heat, scramble the eggs with a pinch of salt and white pepper then set aside. Chop the white sections of the spring onions into 3cm/1in chunks. Finely chop the green part and set both parts aside separately.

Add the vegetable oil to a wok over a medium heat and tip in the sliced lap cheong and the chunks of white spring onion. Fry for around 2 minutes until fragrant. Add in the rice and peas, then immediately pour over the soy sauce mixture. Turn the heat up to full and wok-fry until smoky and all of the sauce has been incorporated.

Add in the scrambled egg and the green part of the spring onions and mix through. Mould the rice into bowls, then flip out onto plates. Serve with fresh, sliced cucumber and chilli paste, if you like.

Gaby Soutar is a lifestyle editor at The Scotsman. She has been reviewing restaurants for The Scotsman Magazine since 2007 and edits the weekly food pages.

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