ISSUE 34 SPRING/SUMMER 2019 OUT NOW         ISSUE 34 SPRING/SUMMER 2019 OUT NOW    

Angela Dimayuga

Interview by
Meriem Bennani
From Issue 34 – SS 19

Growing up in a family where meals were consumed in an informal, immigrant family style, Angela Dimayuga always knew she wanted to be a chef and push boundaries in the field. Here she talks about her creative liberation, her newly opened queer bar at The Standard in New York, and the invisible magic you can only receive from the shared experience.

MERIEM BENNANI  The first thing I wanted to ask you is, we all have these strong crystallized images in our subconscious, either visual or sensorial. They are kind of like traumas, but in a good way—things that are at the roots of our personal mythologies and have somewhat influenced our practice. I was wondering if you had any transformative moments that feel like starting points for your work as a chef and creative director blending food, nightlife and visual culture?

ANGELA DIMAYUGA  I wanted to be a chef ever since I was a child—I was always very sure of it. I was obsessed with cooking shows on PBS, and I would watch Jacques Pépin or Julia Child instead of cartoons.
As a child in a big family—I have 5 brothers and sisters—I had a lot of chores, but my favorite one was helping out my mom or babysitter cook. I think for me food was always a social activity, because we actually never really sat down at the dinner table for a formal, American-style meal—it felt more immigrant family style. There were so many of us, and my dad would work at night sometimes, so my mom would just make a big pile of something and then we would eat it at our leisure. The only times we sat down together to eat was when my mother would say, “We’re making taco salad,” so we’d be all excited and make them together. That’s childhood for me.
I was always building new recipes, and at seven years of age, I already had my “signature dishes.” A formative cookbook I had was this Halloween cookbook called Gross Goodies, which was basically just like nasty weird versions of food.  I loved to make  “Crusty Belly Buttons”—basically shortbread cookies that you put your thumb in, fill with jam and bake so it looks like a belly button. My older brother’s friends would ask me to make them for when they came over.

MB  So at this point you were already cooking for others, not just for you.

AD  Yeah, I’ve always wanted to cook for people. I also have this strong memory, or maybe it’s more of a myth, that’s cemented me on my life course. I was around ten and starting to get really bored, feeling layers of depression about being stuck in the suburbs. I was daydreaming a lot, laying face down on my bed in this room that I shared with two of my siblings. One day I had this insane vision, so vivid it felt like I actually lived this. It was this flash moment when I saw myself in the third person, a bird’s-eye view of myself as an adult with a short bob and glasses, driving in my car in a city, and I knew I was a chef. Then it just closed up, and that was it. I was like, “What the fuck was that?!” I became obsessed with it through various stages of my life, it just kept on coming up, and for my whole life I carved out space to become a chef.
It wasn’t a straightforward path. For example, when I was thinking of college at seventeen, I decided wanted to go to culinary school—the best culinary school in the area of San Francisco, which was called the CCA: the California Culinary Academy. I went in for a preliminary interview with my parents, who were super supportive of me doing it, and I remember opening a door to a stage auditorium and seeing a classroom of students wearing chef coats and thinking, “Well, this is dumb.” I remember thinking that it wasn’t for me; none of those people felt like my people.

MB  Interesting. So you didn’t have that revelation about becoming a chef?

AD  No, definitely not by going there. I hated tour. I decided to get my bachelor’s degree instead. Originally I started studying hospitality management, but I didn’t that either and switched to Humanities. That’s when I started taking classes for the first time that I really enjoyed—philosophy and gender studies and film and women writers—and I got really interested in interdisciplinary work. When I started cooking, it was more about community for me. I moved to New York and first worked at a café owned by a female chef that I really admired; then when I was just twenty-one, I started an organic catering business with a friend. But when I helped open Mission Chinese Food in New York, that’s when my creative liberation started. I was there for six years, and as I gained more power and took a on more leadership, I decided I wanted to start working collaboratively with all different types of creatives including artists.

MB  Obviously you have a genuine sensitivity to visual culture, but I wonder how that first fed into your work as a nightlife organizer? I remember my first time stepping into a lesbian party and being like, “Okay, so this is going to change my life.”

AD  Maggie Lee and Jen Shear went to Pratt and were my immediate friend-family group. We would go to crazy parties together at all these venues that are gone now. I always loved theme parties, so we would go and wear really crazy outfits to these parties. They weren’t overly queer; I actually never went to gay parties, really. When I started working at restaurants, especially at Mission, I would assign myself as the party organizer, throwing really themed parties for our staff. I would also invest $2,000 every year into my own birthday party and it would be very thematic. For me, it was an opportunity to give a gift to all my friends by throwing a fabulous party and get to see everyone in the same room, because I would work my ass off all the time. It was very jovial. For my 30th birthday I rented this Colombian party bus to drive us to Queens to New York City’s only casino, Resorts World which coincidentally had a performance by a Rod Stewart cover band! You know, I’ve been really lucky, and I’ve gotten to work with some of the best chefs in the world, but those people aren’t very much like me. I just always felt marginalized as a young Filipino queer person. So it was always important for me to stay inspired outside of that circle by making parties and doing collaborative work with artists and other folks who I continue to be inspired by.

MB  That makes sense to me. For example, I feel like my biggest inspirations are in cinema and not art or video art. I like the idea of opening up a closed circuit and bringing in something from an outside world. I like how that brings fresh air. In your work with food, you’ve always been pushing boundaries and taking risks and testing and bringing this sensory experience into eating. So I was wondering: In my family, there’s this idea that you should always abide by traditional Moroccan recipes, not change a thing. How do you reconcile family tradition and experimentation?

AD  For me, cooking is all about pushing boundaries. The fun of cooking is that you just keep playing off of something and your dish is done when you say it’s done, but you can do different dishes forever. It’s different from making a song—

MB  You read my mind! I was going to make a connection with DJs. Both practices are all about moving between places, histories and references, and putting things together in a way that feels good.

AD  Yes, it always needs to feel good. When it comes to cooking, I don’t appreciate irony and irreverenceit’s like saying fuck you to history. Even if it’s a cliché, I think if you’re making something lovingly, the energy that goes into the dish and the experience of sharing is totally different. I love the connection you made to the approach of the DJ. A musician works so hard to make a song perfect, then releases it and can’t really change it anymore without collaboration and further editing. But like a DJ, a chef keeps making reiterations of that dish and feeding it to different people. I never thought of this analogy before, but I love it. It also applies in that the only way you can experience my work is if I am physically in the same room and making it. Whether it’s for three or 300 people, it’s still very intimate. It makes it kind of serious.

MB  I agree that your work is very serious. It’s the same for me. I get asked if I’m serious because my work is all about humor. But that’s why we get along creatively: we get inspired by something that is cartoonish, but it’s very serious.
I also wanted to ask you about how chefs make work that disappears right away, at least physically—only the sensorial memory remains—while art is so obsessed with longevity and the archival. A little over a year ago, you authored a menu that was eaten everyday, which was as close as it gets, as a chef, to that kind of temporality. Now you cook mostly on a dinner event basis.

AD  I think that allows me to be more experimental and play around. You know, I was told as a young chef of twenty-two that people either are good at plating or they’re not, and I was. I feel that now I apply that ability to conceptualizing and designing spaces. I want them to become fixtures, to feel like institutions. That was my main drive working on NO BAR, an inclusive space in the form of a new queer bar that I started at The Standard, East Village in New York in February: that it be people-oriented. It’s one of the first corporate brands to have a queer space in their properties. It’s a bit different with cooking, because you consume it and then it’s gone. In 2017, I became really good friends with the artist Anicka Yi. I was very interested in the sensory aspect of her work, using mold, discussing Asian female bodies through bacteria-phobia, decay and usage of fragrance in an installation—that just really spoke to me. She made me feel really confident about being an artist in my own right. I had never really felt comfortable with that label, because I always had great friends that were strong artists, poets and filmmakers, and I had somewhat of an inferiority complex. But she said something that really resonated with me and changed my view of my own work: that with cooking, you feed your work to people, you share it, they physically consume it and metabolize it. That was an insane validation, and I find that’s very powerful to forms of art that are typically seen as second-rate. In a way, that archival aspect doesn’t matter because you can have these spaces. I am so happy NO BAR is there, because since leaving Mission, that’s a new place now that is representative of where I am now in my life and everyone can share and experience it.

MB  Part of that archival obsession has to do with capitalism and the art market. You have to prove that a print is archival if you want to sell it to a collector who wants to keep it in the family for three generations. But the way that art can be experienced and metabolized in the body as a memory can be an archive in a similar way, as every time I eat the food you made I remember the experience, who I was sitting with and if it was fun or not, and then the way the food felt, and then your presence.

AD  Yeah, exactly—I love that. I was having a conversation with somebody today about why NO BAR’s opening night was really special. She told me there was something that night that was so valuable, but very difficult to quantify; that the value of what I’m doing is this invisible magic that you can only experience if you’re there. That’s what lasts forever.

Angela Dimayuga (American, B. 1985) is the creative director of food and culture at The Standard Hotel.
Meriem Bennani (Moroccan, B. 1988) is an artisy who lives and works in New York.
Photography by Charlie Engman.

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