Josephine Loke does not get squeamish when dealing with blood and gore. The head chef of 665°F steakhouse has no qualms ripping off the head of a fish when a knife won’t do the trick, then having a chuckle when she splatters her kitchen partner with bloodied guts.
Butchery comes naturally to her: “When I first saw the whole hulk of meat, I was curious, but it wasn’t daunting.
“Once you understand the bone structure of the carcass, you just have to follow (and carve along) the lines.”
It is with the same ease that the 28-year-old helms the kitchen at the steakhouse in the newly-opened Andaz Singapore. An open-kitchen concept allows Loke to observe the body language of her diners, intuitively knowing when a guest is in a rush — and needs dinner sent out fast — or when a couple is having an animated conversation and should be left alone. The pass is manned with a steely efficiency: Loke calls out orders firmly but quietly, while her young team of eight bustle about handling slabs of raw meat and open flames. There is no shouting or cursing to be heard à la Gordon Ramsay. Fear is not an emotion she wants in her kitchen.
“What I noticed about kitchens ruled by fear is, when the cat’s away, the mice will play,” says Loke, whose resume is studded with top names such as two-Michelin-starred Odette, Tippling Club, and Pollen. As the only female chef then at Tippling Club, she learned to hold her own.
“I wouldn’t ask guys to carry something for me just because I am a girl, even though sometimes they would offer,” says Loke.
“I have carried half my weight in sacks of flour.”
Living on chef hours became the reason she moved out at age 24. “My mum really hated (me being a chef) because of the long hours,” she shares. “In Tippling, I would go home at 3am. I’ve worked for 48 hours straight before. She doesn’t know this, by the way.”
At Odette, she picked up the art of working with ingredients and turning out beautiful food. You see the influence here in the starters: Hamachi (Japanese amberjack), for instance, is dressed in a ponzu sauce built from a dashi stock the team makes from scratch, with kombu, ginger flowers and bonito flakes. A touch of mayonnaise gives the dressing a fuller body.
The slabs of Australia-sourced, halal-certified beef are where she goes big on flavour. A two-tiered Pira oven where meat is cooked over charcoal and roaring flames is kept at a constant temperature of 665°F (hence the restaurant name), and Loke bears the scars that come from playing with fire. A dollar-sized scar on her inner wrist, from when hot beef fat dripped from the oven onto her right hand and seared her flesh off, is proof that she can take the heat.
“Of course I couldn’t stop and tend to the burn,” says Loke. “The orders were coming in and I was still grilling beef. I just went about service as usual, though I did dab on some cold butter to soothe it.”
“Capabilities are not based on gender.”
It is handling paperwork that she finds most challenging. “I used to want to be a food writer, and I didn’t mind the writing so much,” shares Loke. “But working out the numbers and checking on costs is not fun for me,” she says with a chuckle.
Her role model: Clare Smyth, the first female chef in the UK to lead a three-Michelin-star restaurant at, coincidentally, 28 years old. “I like how Clare is really gutsy. She takes no sh*t from people,” says Loke.
“Being a chef is about tasting and experimenting, and it comes down to how much you want it. Capabilities are not based on gender.”