Four inspiring female chefs in Bali

Four inspiring female chefs in Bali

By Janet Nicol | Cover photograph by Ulrike Reinhold

BEING A chef is hard work. And this holds true no matter what country you work in, the style of food you create, or whether you’re male or female. The hours are long, kitchens are crowded, and the work is stressful. However, as cooking increasingly becomes a more creative and diverse field, more and more woman are joining the profession. Some are opening up restaurants by themselves, while other are moving up the ranks into top positions at five-star restaurants. Though men still hold most of the top jobs around the world and get most of the media attention, things are starting to change. International groups such as Women Chefs ( and the Toklas Society ( are working hard to support female chefs. One of their missions is to encourage better working conditions – like proper maternity leave – something often lacking in many restaurant contracts.

Here in Bali, we are blessed to have some talented women leading the way for the next generation of locals and expat chefs. I interviewed four of these women to find out what inspired them to become chefs, and to hear their advice to those considering entering the intense world of the professional kitchen.

Photograph by Tania Gordo

Few Balinese women have opened successful restaurants without the help of foreign money, partners or men. Family and community responsibilities make solo entrepreneurial projects a tricky venture for most women. But not for 38-year-old Dayu. Over the past 10 years this determined mother of two has worked her way up to owning one of Ubud’s best known warungs.

What inspired you to become a chef?

My first inspiration is my love of cooking and after I dis- covered I had diabetes four years ago, I wanted to learn more about food and how it is linked to my health. I was already working as a chef, but I became more interested in learning about food. I also wanted to share my knowledge with other Balinese women so that they could learn healthier ways to cook. I think cooking is a great life skill and I hope I will be able to earn money from it when I’m older. I want to be a successful Balinese female chef. There aren’t many so why not me?

What are the biggest challenges of being a female chef in Bali?

Our biggest challenge is the work we must do for our families and our temple. It is  hard because of all the time it takes. I make it work because I have family help at home and I’m able to pay them for the work they do helping with my kids. I also make a very clear schedule about the amount of time I spend in the different areas of my life so that I can balance time with my children, my work, my temple and the banjar.

What advice would you give to young female chefs or entrepreneurs starting out on this path?

I would say the most important thing is to be patient with the food. It’s important to take care of how to clean it, cut it, prepare it and cook it. I would also say that you need to be honest with yourself about what you are doing and why. And it’s important not be jealous of other people. Jealousy is bad for everyone.

Dayu is the proud owner of Dayu’s Warung in Ubud


Sayuri Tanaka
Photograph by Suki Zoe

If you still think raw food is just salad, it’s time to get with the programme. Try anything this Japanese chef creates and enjoy with some of the best tasting food on the island. Sayuri is a bundle of passion, creativity and prana: a trinity that elevates her food creations to a whole new level. When it comes to food her philosophy is simple. “Have fun and enjoy cooking. Make yourself happy. Make people around you happy and full.” And most importantly of all, “it makes the world better.”

What inspired you to become a chef?

As a kid, my mother was a great inspiration and she taught me to prepare food with good intentions. When I was first introduced to raw living food in India, I was very inspired by the chef who taught me that eating was an act of giving and receiving. I intuitively knew this way of eating was aligned with the universal energy and my true self. Raw food affects me physically, psychologically and spiritually in very positive ways.

What are the biggest challenges of being a female chef in Bali?

Working in the kitchen is tough work for everyone, no mat- ter where or who you are. Bali has not presented any chal- lenges for me. Preparing raw food is especially time con- suming and labour intensive. Also being a retreat chef, there are so many things to organise sometimes I need to start creating the menu and sourcing the food six months in advance.

What advice would you give to young female chefs or entrepreneurs starting out on this path?

Preparing the food in a harmonious way will not only make you feel good, it will also help those who eat your creation to connect with nature. Isn’t it wonderful to be a bridge between those two things? On top of that, you are naturally contributing to a better world by choosing to provide vegan or/and raw food. Being a chef is really an art and it is an expression of who you are. Be wild, express yourself and create colourful, sexy and unique dishes!

Sayuri is the co-owner of Seeds of Life in Ubud with her partner Ben Richards. and

Kath Townsend
Photograph by Ulrike Reihol

Kath Townsend

When we taste good food we remember it for a long time. Something resonates deeply within our being that makes us feel nurtured and connected to the world around us. With over 22 years’ experience as a chef, Kath Townsend has mastered this fine artistry like few others on the island. She brings together all the ingredients needed to create delicious and inspiring food: An understanding of the culture where she works, a determined work ethic and a green ethos that includes gardening, organic food and sourcing local ingredients. If you have never taken the time to visit the lush grounds of Maya Ubud, let no day go further. Go.

What inspired you to become a chef?

I was actually born in a hotel and have spent my entire life living in them. My father was a hotelier and I assumed I would follow his footsteps and work in management too. I always loved to cook when I was a kid but thought of it as something just for fun to do. By chance I got a job in a kitchen in my late teens and I thought it was just awesome! I was hooked. Later I went on to chef school and I just love my work.

What are the biggest challenges of being a female chef in Bali?

Firstly, there is no chef school here, so that’s an obvious obstacle. I think probably earning the respect of men in this industry can be tricky, here and everywhere. One problem in Bali is that most general managers of hotels are male, and they still prefer to hire male chefs. So we are still a long way to go before being equally represented in both these jobs. Look, this profession is a hard. There’s no doubt about it and the workload is challenging and very demanding. If you have a family and kids it’s a pretty full plate.

My secret formula, which I highly recommend, is that you are kind to your staff. It has really worked for me.

What advice would you give to young female chefs or entrepreneurs starting out on this path?

My secret formula, which I highly recommend, is that you are kind to your staff. It has really worked for me. I connect with them, I learn their names and try to learn a bit about who they are.

I find that if I get to know them they cook better food. It’s that simple. I would also urge new chefs to have gardens so they can grow some of their own food. I am also a big fan of organic food and sourcing cooking locally, so I would also suggest to new chefs that they think about where they are working and try to learn and access what you can from your environment. Also girls, don’t take any crap from the boys!

Kath Townsend is the Chef at Maya Resorts.

Mila. Photograph by Ulrike Reinhold

Mila is a small woman with an iconic long black braid running down her back. The successful Javanese entre- preneur and mother of two teenage sons, holds the num- ber one spot for the best warung in Sanur. Few places on the island can boast a nightly line up to get in. But Mila’s warung is one such place, every night people line up and say it’s worth the wait.If you think Javanese food is just padang food, think again. Her home-cooked Javanese dishes are said to be better than anything else you can find on or off the island. Famous not only for the great taste and cozy atmosphere, Mila has another secret to her success; she employs only women.

What inspired you to become a chef?

My mother inspired me to become a chef. I have six sis- ters and two brothers, but my mother chose to teach her cooking skills to me. I started when I was ten years old and never wrote anything down. It’s all in my head. She was very tough on me too. If something wasn’t right, she always noticed and would say: “What did you forget? Think!”

Inspired by my mom’s passion, I serve traditional Javanese village food. My goal is to put the same love and care into my food that my mother did when our family and friends came to our house to share meals. I try to make my guests feel as welcome as they would if they came to my village in Java.


What advice would you give to young female chefs or entrepreneurs starting out on this path?

I think the most important thing is to be clear about what you want to achieve before you start your business. With a clear vision, it makes it easier to accept the challenges that come along they way, and they do come. If you are focused you can  and will perfect the business.

Mila is chef and owner of Mila’s Warung in Sanur. Find them on  Facebook: milas.warung

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