She-Hustles is a lifestyle series celebrating the diversity, passion and grit of the many inspiring female entrepreneurs we've met on our journey with SOJAO. It is a collective arsenal of inspiration that fills our lives with positivity and soul.
Owner & Chef, Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar | Gokoro - Concept Bar
Our second episode of She-Hustles features Aeron Choo, the 25-year old maverick chef-owner of Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar and Gokoro – Concept Bar. When Aeron reached out to us about our sheets, we recognised her name through an article in the newspapers earlier, and decided to dine at Kappou. The food was excellent and it was a mind-blowing experience watching this young female sushi chef helm the entire night of service by herself, with only an assistant who helped to serve and refill our drinks. She was incredibly passionate, down-to-earth and open with us as she shared her story on her journey.
“I started working at 14 years old. At such a young age, you can’t really find an office job, there wasn’t anyone that was going to hire me. Hence I decided to start working in F&B, specifically in Japanese cuisine. By right, in Japanese culture, women are not allowed to work as a sushi chef. I guess my stubbornness is my best and worst point. It is a double-edged sword.”
“It’s not easy as a female to walk this path. In fact I’ve had to shave my head to be able to work at a good Japanese sushi restaurant. If I wanted to be a pastry chef, life would probably be so much easier haha!”
“It was symbolic to shave my head. We would start out every morning shaving our heads, because it is a brand new day and we have to open our hearts up again to learn and succeed. It was also very difficult to pick up the Japanese language initially, but I found that once you opened up your heart and just do it, it comes naturally after some time. My focus was on learning and getting the experience. I didn’t want to let the Japanese culture get in the way of my progression.”
“It was very hard to find the first sushi restaurant willing to take me in, but I was very lucky to have found a good mentor, who was really kind to give me an opportunity. On my part, I didn’t even dare to ask for a salary or any days off, I was only provided food and lodging. I was willing to do anything, my only request was – please teach me and make me a better chef. My sincerity won him over once he realized that I was trustworthy and here to protect their culture and the Japanese cuisine. After that stint, he recommended me to other restaurants and I never had trouble finding work again.”
“I’m the first and still the only female sushi chef to own my own restaurant in Singapore. I opened Kappou in December 2016. We focus on using seasonal ingredients to make small plates. Kappou is still 100% owned by me and we don’t have any outside investors.”
“I’m always pushing myself, I don’t want to stay stagnant. I travel four months out of a year to work overseas and get more experiences. I live simply and don’t have much expenditure so I’m comfortable with doing these while I’m young and be able to chase after what I want - to feed my soul.”
“My worst experience in life was in New York. Being lowly-educated, visa was an issue at that time. Without proper job employment, I wasn’t paid well and had no control over my salary. I thought that my dreams would finally come true in New York, but I was wrong. I was sleeping and living on the streets far from the city. I could only find menial jobs as a construction worker, factory worker, and house-mover. Six years later though, those skills came in useful when I had to build my own cupboards and shelves for the opening of Kappou.”
“What do I do for self-care? I love to sleep lah honestly! I just love to hide under my blanket and hibernate in my Sojao sheets. The amount of sleep I get varies but on average I get 3-4 hours everyday. On cargo auction days, which is up to four times a week, I sleep as late as 5am just to secure my produce from Japan. I live near the restaurant and I cycle to work everyday while listening to music. Protein shakes for breakfast are a must, because I might be hung over from the previous night. Then I design my menu and sketch out some ideas on plating the dishes, so that I can tell my staff how the food should be prepped for the day. ”
“There are moments I have felt burnt out. When I was an apprentice, there would be moments where I was so physically and mentally tired that I would cry while taking out the trash. Now as a business owner, I’ve learnt to seek help and I will go for counseling. I can never change the fact that I’m a female in this industry with a culture that generally doesn’t respect women. With the guidance of counseling, I am able to cope better and understand things from a different view and be a better leader. If you are going through anxiety or depression, just pick yourself up, and focus on your ultimate goal. Just focus on it.”
“Overcoming the difficulties I've faced as a female sushi chef has made me the strong human being I am today.”
"I’ve had a steroid cell tumor that was 12cm long in my womb, which I only found out about when I was 23, and I’ve had major surgeries to remove it. I never understood why I didn’t have my period, but in a way the tumor was actually a blessing in disguise because in Japanese culture, if you have your period, you cannot work in the restaurant. Moreover as a female, I technically wasn’t allowed to work as a sushi chef in the first place, so I really think it’s meant to be.”
“The quantity of the produce from Japan has been declining. A combination of global warming, natural disasters and man-made environmental damage, has caused instability in the ecosystem. Last year for example, the seasonal fish that are usually available during Autumn suddenly disappeared. That causes prices to be unstable. I am not a believer of farmed fish so it is a big headache to calculate the costings sometimes, but I stick to it because I believe in the quality and beauty of wild caught fish in their natural habitat.”
“I think we can learn from the Japanese in terms of recycling. Everybody plays his or her small part and it can even be incredibly difficult to find a general trash bin. In Japanese restaurants, trash goes bad quicker in the summer months so they even have a walk in freezer just for their trash. I believe this is the bare minimum that we should do as humans to help the environment.”
"Sushi is my life. I’ve sacrificed everything just to become a good sushi chef. I love it so much and I think I’m very lucky to have found my path and been able to make it, as a female in this industry."