Read the full article here.
Serena Poon, a celebrity chef, nutritionist, Reiki master, and founder of Just Add Water and Culinary Alchemy, originally studied nutrition at University of California, Berkeley, but sought a deeper understanding of using food as medicine when both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer. So, she went on to earn the Grand Diplôme at Le Cordon Bleu before training to be a Reiki master.
Being the oldest child in a first-generation Chinese family, Poon says she was initially most concerned that choosing culinary school over law or medical school would disappoint her family. However, she continues, her passion for healing people through food was “was stronger than any fear of cultural and generational disappointment,” and she followed that path without hesitation. It was upon entering culinary school that she experienced a different perspective. Not only did Poon realize that her gender mattered, but her size did too.
At the time, the chef explains that she had lost a lot of weight from the stress of caring for her parents. “Due to the physically taxing nature of working in a commercial kitchen, the assumption was that I could not do what others could do, what the men could do,” she says. “I knew I had to work harder, do extra, and excel to overcompensate for those preconceived notions.”
Poon also says that the fact that men outnumbered women in the space and that they weren’t treated equally was evident. “I had a few male instructors who were very supportive, but I also had a few male instructors who behaved like the stereotypical French head chefs depicted in film — dismissive and domineering,” she says. “So, I thought I had a sense of what working in the real-world kitchens outside of school would be like.”
That said, she was met with more unexpected challenges with her first job working for Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion. She describes the atmosphere of the mostly male kitchen as the typical “locker room” environment. Thus, she often had to balance ignoring the crass talk or acting like “one of the guys,” fending off harassment, and not being taken seriously unless she performed at a higher level than her male counterparts. Poon also says it took “weeks of patience, teaching, and training” to earn the respect as an equal and leader of men junior to her in the kitchen — something that carried over into her time as a personal and private chef and in catering services. “I was often put into ‘boxes’ based on my outward appearance and gender, so extra effort and over-delivering value and excellence in final product and service were paramount to the growth of my referral-only business.”
Since entering the culinary industry, Poon says that there has definitely been a professional learning curve in handling the challenges she faced. “At its onset, as both a female and a junior chef, in addition to my cultural upbringing, I was more hesitant in speaking my voice and standing my ground.” But as her success in the business grew, her confidence level and comfort with setting boundaries also rose.
Fortunately, she’s also seeing change in the industry, with more women entering the kitchen professionally. “I think much like the broader environment, women’s voices are starting to be heard in a historically male-dominated field.” Personally, she says, she’s also had more culinary opportunities and ways to share her knowledge as the industry has evolved. “The world is more open to the female voice and the healing and nourishment that comes with this voice in a position of leadership,” she says. “Feminine and masculine energy can both offer so much to every creative space, and it’s a really beautiful thing to see this energy start to come into balance in the kitchen and beyond!”