76-year-old female chef cracks the glass ceiling, one egg at a time

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76-year-old female chef cracks the glass ceiling, one egg at a time
Hu Limei (second from left) poses for a photo at Hilton Beijing Wangfujing, where she cooked three dinners as a guest chef, on March 2, 2017.
China Daily/ANN

As we celebrate International Women's Day, let's take the time to appreciate women who strive to break the glass ceiling in predominantly male industries and prove that they are equally capable.

One such woman is 76-year-old retired chef Hu Limei, one of the very first generation of professional chefs in new China.

She was the executive chef at Shanghai's oldest hotel, the celebrated Park Hotel, in the 1980s, and served many big names, including former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin.

Hu has spent most of her life in Shanghai, but she is a master in imperial-style Beijing cuisine.

Although retired, she is still active and looks out for opportunities to interact with people who love food.

We caught up with her last week as she visited Beijing for the "China Master Chef Banquet" at Hilton Beijing Wangfujing, where she prepared dinners for 50 people three nights in a row as a guest chef.

Most women cook at home but most professional chefs are men. Why is that?

It's challenging for a woman to establish herself in the male-dominated kitchen.

First, you need to have stamina and good physical condition. Chefs work hard and long hours.

Then, most chefs prefer male over female apprentices and colleagues as they think men are less distracted from family life and children than women.

How can a female chef earn respect from her male counterparts?

If you want others to appreciate your work, you need to earn their respect. When there are difficult or menial jobs in the kitchen, you rush to do them.

You do everything that a male chef does, and you do it better than them.

What is the most important thing other than working hard?

Use your brain.

You watch and learn how to best coordinate not only with your supervisor, but also with other chefs in the kitchen.

When I started my career, I taught myself Shandong dialect in order to better communicate with my Shandong master. I am from Ningbo and we worked in Shanghai.

In a few months, I could speak Shandong dialect better than his son, who grew up in Shanghai.

If you want to do better than others, then you go that extra mile.

What's most people's reaction when they discover that you were a chef?

Usually they were very surprised and many would tell me that I looked like a teacher.

You have a big and happy family. How did you balance your career and life as a wife and mother when you had to compete with the men in the kitchen?

I was passionate about my job, so I wouldn't easily be distracted by other things, but that didn't mean I had to ignore my husband and family.

My husband was very helpful. I am very grateful for the support of family.

What do you cook these days?

Since I am still able to cook and get around, I feel happy to be able to share what I have learnt in my life. I join cooking events now and again.

Sometimes I tell stories behind the food to the customers and they love it, which makes my happy, too.

What's more important than being happy for an old person?

Is there any advantage of being a female chef?

Women pay more attention to details, and wouldn't mind working harder and spending more time to perfect things.

What were the happiest moments for you as a chef?

To see my customers finish everything i've made for them.

Imagine you are a male, how would you have done your job differently?

As a man I certainly would be physically stronger but I might not have the same spirit to prove myself to be able to do as well and even better than men.

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