Misogyny, racism, ageism—these are just some of the challenges Bettina Arguelles had to face before she became the first Filipina executive chef of five-star international hotel Sofitel Philippines. As she rose through the ranks, she learned that the industry is a fierce battlefield for women, Filipino women in particular. How did she emerge victorious?

You finished a degree in communication before taking up culinary studies abroad. What made you pursue this path? 

I have always been an avid cook and even dabbled in it entrepreneurially from time to time. I didn’t actively pursue a formal education in culinary (arts) because my parents would never be able to afford it. At that time, culinary schools were uncommon in the Philippines and one had to go abroad to pursue it. It was just something that seemed out of reach for me and so I took my degree in communication at Ateneo which satisfied my social and creative pursuits. When my kids were already in school and we relocated to Singapore, the moon and stars aligned. I found my opportunity to take up culinary with its very robust F&B landscape. I was in the right place at the right time.

“I think the biggest pressure is on being Filipino. I would like to prove that we don’t always have to resort to expats to get the job done and done well.”

You’re the first Filipina executive chef in a five-star international hotel in the Philippines. What are the pressures that come with the title and how do you deal with them? 

I think being the first anything, you are always under the shadow of a doubt, whether your capabilities are up to par with the expectations that come with the job. You are always being compared to your predecessors and/or peers (in my case, Caucasian or Western men). Especially in a male-dominated industry, femininity is often perceived as a weakness or a novelty. However, I think the biggest pressure is on being Filipino. I would like to prove that we don’t always have to resort to expats to get the job done and done well. I would like to, albeit in a very small way, open doors for countless other Filipinos rocking it in the industry. More than myself, I think I represent something symbolic. I don’t want to be considered a novelty, but the start of something great.

My age and being a mother was a point against me (it was assumed I would be unable to focus or work long hours). Being a woman was considered a handicap.

I deal with the pressure one day at a time, one problem at a time. It’s easy to be overwhelmed, with the magnitude of Sofitel F&B operations, which is a beast of a machine. Believe me, many days I question myself and my capability. Coming in in the thick of the pandemic and having to reopen after the lockdown was a challenge I don’t think anyone was prepared for or had prior experience or knowledge dealing with. Anyhow, if I fail I can deal with that. But if I never even try, I would not be able to live with myself.

What’s the toughest challenge you’ve had to face when you were rising through the ranks? How did you overcome it? 

Misogyny, racism, ageism—you name it. I was a 31-year-old Asian mother-of-two culinary student-trainee overseas. Imagine what an easy target I was. More than a decade older than my peers, from a third world country that even other Asians discriminated against me. My accent was a target. My age and being a mother was a point against me (it was assumed I would be unable to focus or work long hours). Being a woman was considered a handicap. I tried so hard I broke my back trying to prove otherwise. But I have no regrets or grudges. Each of those experiences proved to be the fire that forged my will to succeed and rise above (the challenges).

What are the top qualities an executive chef must possess? 

Adaptability. In operations, you’re getting thrown curveballs every single time and one needs to be fluid to adjust to all kinds of circumstances. 2020 is the perfect case study. We needed to think out-of-the-box to navigate through the impact of COVID-19.

Innovation. I think it’s imperative that I don’t come to the table with just a list of goals or objectives, but to come with a vision. Passion is important as well to see your visions to fruition. Lastly, leadership. One person can only do so much but with a highly motivated team that shares your vision and is inflamed with passion, all things are possible.

Hotel dining moving forward will need to be able to compete with independent restaurants in terms of online presence and accessibility.

Has the pandemic demanded a new kind of thinking for chefs? 

Definitely. Indeed I think for all of us, it has prodded us to think and conduct business differently from what we’re used to. One needs to be creative, entrepreneurial, and a problem-solver. You also need a good dose of courage, especially for our hard-hit industry, to get out of your comfort zone and just go for it.

How different is it to work for a hotel brand versus heading your own restaurant? What opportunities do you see in hotel dining moving forward? 

Working for a big hotel brand is very much different from running your own restaurant, it’s like apples and oranges. I like hotel operations because I get bored quickly. I like doing multiple things simultaneously and a hotel setting allows me to do that. You have multiple outlets, which is like running several different restaurants with different cuisines and personalities—banqueting, room service, club lounge, events and promotions. It truly is a playground! I love conceptualizing, working on world cuisine, doing different stuff. I can’t picture myself working on one menu, one concept alone. A brand like Sofitel offers the resources to be able to do this. I come to work every day knowing I will be doing something different from yesterday. Never a dull moment!

Hotel dining moving forward will need to be able to compete with independent restaurants in terms of online presence and accessibility. More curation or bespoke food offerings and concepts rather than cut-and-paste ideas will be the new normal for hotel dining.

What entrepreneurial lessons or insights have you learned during this time? 

You have to take the bull by its horns and strike while the iron is hot. This is not the time to be timid. Perseverance is key. Never take “no” for an answer!

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