Do you like your job? Or wonder what it would be like if you’d gone against your parents’ advice and pursued your dream career? Her World’s Career Confessions column spotlights the professional journeys of its subjects and reveals how each individual’s career path and the choices they have made can have an impact on their personal finances, psychological health, and interpersonal relationships.
At 29, Aeron Choo is one of Singapore’s youngest female chefs. She also became the first female chef-owner of a Japanese restaurant when she opened Kappou at Fortune Centre when she was 22. Not content with this honour, Chef Aeron kept on striving to do better, in hopes of achieving more.
Over the years, she has travelled to Japan often to elevate her techniques and knowledge of the country’s cuisine. In fact, she does this for about 10 days every month, working at various Michelin 2 and 3-star ryoteis (traditional Japanese restaurants) to delve deeper into the Japanese culinary culture. She also recently collaborated with German luxury giant Porsche, creating a unique and authentic menu based on 72 micro seasons – the ancient tradition of dividing the Japanese solar year across 24 periods.
Her determination has led to accolades such as a top three spot in the 10th Washoku World Challenge held this year, and she was the winner of the Washoku World Challenge Asian Regional Qualifying Tournament. Kappou has also evolved and now has a new home in the heart of the Central Business District at 18 Robinson.
Chef Aeron’s love affair with Japanese cuisine started at a young age. When she was 16, she commenced her culinary studies in Japan, eventually becoming the first Singaporean to graduate from the prestigious Japan Sushi Instructors Association in Tokyo.
It hasn’t been an easy journey for her, though. Working in a male-dominated industry has meant she has had to work hard to stand out, especially since she isn’t even Japanese, nor does she speak the language fluently. She says she has faced “uncountable” professional challenges, the main inconveniences being her nationality and gender.
“But I’m blessed with great opportunities and masters around me who accept me as just a soul who will keep the Japanese food culture alive with all she can till her last breath on earth,” she adds.
Name: Aeron Choo
Job Title & Industry: Chef-Owner / Hospitality (F&B)
Years of Work Experience: 14
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A Japanese cuisine chef. Japanese food was the only food that I knew could be eaten raw but it was always expensive and out of reach for me and my limited pocket money. I guess this built up a mysterious yet upmarket vibe about Japanese food and I somehow wanted to be the one making it one day.
Another ambition I had was to be a lawyer for women’s rights in India. My classmates spoke about their family and seniors having arranged marriages at a really young age. I guess if there was something I could do for them, why not, but first I’d have to be equipped with the right tools. Why in India? Because I know the situation is worse there than in other parts of the world.
How did you get your start in the hospitality industry?
I started the old-school way – I got a job at a Japanese-owned restaurant with a Japanese head chef and started from the bottom, as a dishwasher.
How do you feel about being one of Singapore’s youngest female chefs?
I don’t think age has too much relevance to your skill set. I think it’s more about the sense of the individual and the individual’s lens of the world and how he or she connects with Mother Nature, the 72 micro seasons in a year and the amount of hard work and effort one puts in during their journey to push through stereotypes.
What would you say is your biggest career achievement so far?
I would say that being a better version of myself each day has been my biggest career achievement because it’s easy to compare ourselves with others but we never take a good look at ourselves to see what our own changes are and if they are for better or for worse. I look at how I constantly improve on the same thing, year on year.
What drives you as a chef?
The smile from the heart of whoever tastes my cooking and, of course, myself as well. I want to continue producing dishes that get reactions like, “Wow! It’s amazing and I just want more.” I guess it is the most precious first step to any of my creations.
Do you think women are more accepted as professional chefs in Singapore now?
Yes, I see more and more female faces in our industry and more of them winning awards says something.
Which female chefs do you look up to and why?
Clare Smyth (the first and only British female chef to be awarded three Michelin stars for her restaurant Core by Clare Smyth in Notting Hill, London). She seems like a really tough woman as she survived the old-school kitchen culture, has her own vision and consistently pushes through and breaks boundaries to make her own rules. She has paved a flatter road for other young women chefs who want to embark on the same journey. I would love to cook alongside her one day. That silent power she has that works hand-in-hand with Mother Earth gives me the power to be better.
What would you say are some qualities that make you a good chef?
I’ll use my teacher’s words when I asked why he took me under his umbrella – “Your eyes are right.” I guess I have somehow found my balance in the five of five rule in Japanese cuisine (the five principles of Japanese cuisine: five senses, five colours, five tastes, five preparations and five attitudes). It seems so simple, yet it also requires learning to achieve the most difficult of layering and depth in cooking, also known as the umami.
What kind of food do you enjoy in your downtime?
Always Japanese still. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy my pasta and my pigeon too but nothing speaks to my heart like Japanese cuisine. It can even just be a very simple dish like egg over rice cooked right.
What advice do you have for women in Singapore who want to become chefs?
The industry does need more chefs, regardless of gender. But for women who want to become chefs, I would really wish for them to take the first step into the industry and not rush into trying to get achievements as that will come with time and practice. They can start by doing apprenticeships/internships, attending workshops or enrolling in a professional culinary school. Take gentle baby steps instead of heading right in.