Nonky Tejapermana is Executive Chef at the Shangri-La Hambantota and her 23- year journey as a chef has taken her across the globe, cooking on land, sea and air. Here she talks of her passion for cooking and being a female chef in a predominantly male dominated hospitality sector Tell us about yourself, and what [...]


Cooking up something special in a male-dominated sector


Nonky Tejapermana: Not easy being a female chef

Nonky Tejapermana is Executive Chef at the Shangri-La Hambantota and her 23- year journey as a chef has taken her across the globe, cooking on land, sea and air. Here she talks of her passion for cooking and being a female chef in a predominantly male dominated hospitality sector

Tell us about yourself, and what made you aspire to join the hospitality sector?
I was born and brought up in Indonesia. Our country has 300 distinct ethnic groups and 17,000 islands. This creates a rich cultural diversity. Tourism is very important for our country’s economy. Our country has excellent hospitality skills, and we are offered opportunities to work at famous hotels across the world.
This is what inspired me to join the Hotel industry. I pursued culinary art and graduated from a hotel academy in Indonesia.

How do you view yourself as a female chef in the male-dominated industry?
Being a female chef is not easy, especially when one is holding a position. I think due to cultural reasons, there is a notion that men rule the world. However, I work hard to prove it wrong. I believe that us women can work shoulder to shoulder with the men and in some cases we can even outperform them. Because we have discipline, attention to detail and more importantly we prioritize hygiene and cleanliness.
I have been working in Sri Lanka for one and half years. Before I relocated to Sri Lanka, I served in popular destinations including Maldives, Sydney, London, Dubai, Qatar and the USA. I’ve worked in many countries but I like working in Sri Lanka.
Lots of women like to cook, but when it comes to choosing a career, they feel the work could be difficult and challenging, or requires a lot of consideration and dedication. But I think it’s a lot of fun to work in the kitchen. So I’d like to encourage young women to join the hotel industry. Because, I believe we can compete equally well with men. And men also don’t hesitate to admit that we are capable of doing a good job.

What were the challenges you had to face in this industry?
Sometimes we are compelled to face prejudice. Once when I applied to a hotel, my stature became a big issue to them, as they felt the assistants would be much bigger than me. However, with my skills I proved them wrong and not only was I able to build a strong working relationship, I even earned their respect. So I believe that regardless of prejudices, we need to prove to them that we are capable.
In my country women are in leading positions, starting from the President of the country to ministers. So we need to encourage women to pursue their aspirations. And it will be great to have gender equality. You need to treat your fellow chefs well. I treat my colleagues and subordinates like they are my extended family. And I try hard to make them happy. I would like to see more women getting hired in to the industry.

What are your thoughts on tourism in Sri Lanka?
Tourism in Sri Lanka is undoubtedly growing. And I’m certain that Sri Lanka can compete with other countries in this sector, as it has unique natural beauty, as well as friendly communities. The natural beauty we find here is not available in many countries. So this is a great asset. Sri Lanka moreover, has a wide variety of ethnic food and also through Ayurveda it promotes consuming healthy food. We have even introduced unique dishes into our menu like gotukola bread and gotukola pizza.

How do you view the female representation in Sri Lankan hotel industry?
After visiting several hotels in Sri Lanka, I feel there is potential to further improve female participation. Comparatively, the numbers are much higher in other parts of Asia, such as Indonesia and Philippines. At present, tourism in Sri Lanka is rapidly growing, opening new opportunities for successful careers in both tourism and hospitality industries. I believe, working in the kitchen is fun and interesting, especially when you can be creative to invent new dishes to please your customers. Another key benefit is that you can raise your culinary skills up to international standards, and eventually be thoroughly confident to even open up your own restaurant.

What do you specialize in?
I was part of Shangri-La during its opening in Jakarta, Indonesia. And thereafter, I have enjoyed working in many parts of the world. Therefore, as an International Chef I’m specialized in a wide range of cuisines spanning from oriental to western from and time to time I invent new dishes too. At present, I’m also learning how to make Sri Lankan food, and I particularly like pol sambol, roti and plain hoppers. In terms of language, working in different parts of the world has given me the ability to understand several languages including Arabic, French and German.

What is your advice to those who want to enter the hospitality industry?
You need to be a hard working individual with a good attitude in order to survive and progress in this industry. It’s also important to be humble and loyal, be self-disciplined and have the ability to sincerely love what you do.

What are your future plans?
I wish to pass down my years of knowledge and expertise to the next generation of hoteliers. I’m already engaged in training the fresh blood, and guiding them to receive ample exposure to excel in their culinary skills in both local as well as international platforms.
As for my own aspirations, I have opened two restaurants in Philippines last year, where I recruit unemployed youth in Philippines to help them build a financially stable future. And I’m expecting to open a restaurant in Macau as well as in Turkey. Being an Executive Chef and working across the world has fulfilled most of my ambitions. Once I retire from the industry, I hope to go back to my family and look after them.

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