Meet internationally renowned Chef May Chow: owner of two wildly successful restaurants, global LGBTQ+ activist and one of Asia’s best female chefs. To celebrate Women’s History Month, Chef May shares how her fearless approach in showing up as her full self has made her so successful, the importance of community in building a global movement and why being different is a competitive advantage.
IF: You are known as one of Asia’s most recognizable chefs. How did you get here?
May Chow: Let me start by saying I was never good at school. For a long time, I had a negative view of myself because I didn’t fit into the stereotypical idea of a ‘good student’ and food was the only thing that excited me. When I told my college counselor that I wanted to go to cooking school, he advised against it and said I should go to a university because my Asian family wouldn’t accept my career path.
I decided to pursue a hospitality degree at Boston University, even though it wasn’t my passion, and became a heavy partier. I also came out as LGBTQ+ and immersed myself in the gay community, which was liberating because I was exposed to people from different backgrounds who rallied together and embraced each individual’s unique identity.
After college, I was fortunate to work with progressive chefs like Alvin Leung & Matt Abergel who made a niche for themselves by building concepts around their personality. I had no idea you could build a restaurant that connected with people across borders -- that was the first time I saw how food can tell a story and create a global impact. They inspired me to create a space that embodied who I am and my unique voice, and that became Little Bao.
How has being ‘different’ made you a better leader?
All my life I’ve had to prove myself because I never fit society’s idea of what it means to be an Asian woman. However, I was fortunate enough to be celebrated for my differences, and I work hard to instill that feeling with my staff. A lot of successful Chinese women are very critical because they had to overcome a lot, but that energy can make you really harsh, especially to female employees. I take a different approach and create a positive environment for my staff, because having fun is essential to my work.
I’ve learned to give thanks to the women who came before me, but I also realize that I don’t have to be the only woman or token Asian anymore. We are a collective and don’t have to fight each other for opportunities. I am using my voice and my work to make sure there are more seats available at the table for everyone.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?
Connect with the people in your life who celebrate and encourage you. As an entrepreneur, everyday you hear the words ‘No, you can’t do that,’ but instead of giving up, I found a tribe of individuals who help me see what I’m capable of. Matt was an ally who told me I was good enough to open a restaurant and pushed me to believe in myself. Inspirational Asian chefs like David Chang & Martin Yan of the television show ‘Yan Can Cook’ showed me that it’s possible to see myself in this industry.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help from the right people. I asked David for advice because I knew he would want to help bring more Asian representation to the food industry in the US. He inspired me to reach out to Impossible Foods, and then you flew out to Hong Kong to host an event with me! Now we’re working together to change the food system on a global level. When you are courageous enough to plant the seeds, they can grow and you can scale your impact beyond the limits of what you thought was possible.
Impossible™ Hot Pocket
How do you incorporate sustainability into your business?
After I won the award for Asia’s Best Female Chef, I started to gain notoriety and noticed my words carried more weight. I spend most of my time in a kitchen, so I knew if I wanted to speak on global issues like sustainability and women’s empowerment, I needed to partner with the right people to find the answers.
I’ve been invited to forums with global leaders to tackle major food issues affecting our planet where I’m the youngest person in the room, not to mention the only chef. I never thought to myself, ‘I don’t deserve to be here’ but rather ‘I need to learn more.’ That’s where partnerships with the Women’s Foundation in Hong Kong and Impossible Foods came in... I’m constantly trying to learn and work with the right groups to scale my impact and influence Chinese culture so people eat better and care about the environment. I want to be the Ellen DeGeneres of the food industry and make sustainability fun.
What does success mean to you?
I acknowledge all of the men and women who struggled for me to be able to be where I am today. A lot of brave leaders paved the path for me and I want to call out their efforts. I am also fortunate to have been able to travel and be exposed to a variety of people from different countries, backgrounds and ways of thinking. Those experiences have been instrumental in shaping the person I am today.
I can’t take full credit for my achievements - I’m at the tipping point of a global movement that has been gaining traction for a long time. Have I worked hard to get where I am? Yes. But my success is the culmination of the community and culture I live in, one that allows me to celebrate myself exactly as I am.
What are your future plans?
I’ve learned that my journey is a marathon, not a sprint. If I want to help others, that starts with a successful business, which is only possible if I care for the health and well-being of myself and my staff. A lot of women experience burnout because they want to be a great CEO in addition to being a wife, mother, friend and daughter, and our culture celebrates that. When women aren’t spending so much energy trying to prove that we deserve to be leaders, we can create a healthier lifestyle, which leads to a truly sustainable business.
I’m also excited to partner with more female chefs and leaders who are doing innovative projects. We’ve worked hard to plant seeds of empowerment across the world, but they’re isolated. Now we need to focus on building a forest of trees that isn’t limited by physical location but is united in one global movement. Virtual platforms and events are giving us the power to do that and I’m really excited to see what we come up with.
Want to try a bit of Chef May's incredible food? Check out her Happy Paradise Xinjiang Dumplings Recipe.(opens in a new tab) If you want to learn more about Impossible Foods and how we can work together to grow your business, check out our page just for food service operators.(opens in a new tab)