As Standard Culture learned from sitting down with Dimayuga a few weeks after stepping into her new role, the decision was actually the result of a radical transformation in her thinking that started in 2012 when she was first immersing herself in Mission Chinese’s eccentric take on American Chinese food.
The daughter of Filipino immigrants, Dimayuga grew up in San Jose in the ‘90s. Her mother worked as an administrator at IBM, and her father managed a McDonald’s franchise, where, as part of a regional drive-through sales competition, he began experimenting with his own homegrown tactics.
He won the competition, and used the prize money to take his employees to Las Vegas. When the corporate higher-ups caught on, one of these ideas—pre-set combinations of previously separate menu items—became that most American of American innovations: the McDonald’s Extra Value Meal, a template that spread to the fast food industry as a whole.
Through scrappy immigrant ingenuity, Dimayuga’s father made a lasting impact on the way Americans eat, and Dimayuga drew parallels to her own experience and thinking about food. “It made me understand why there are certain aspects of restaurants that I like regarding logistics and organization, and maybe that comes from the strategizing that he did.” Dimayuga also looked more closely at her family’s deep connections to food. Her grandmother, the designated chef of the family, hails from Pampanga, the Philippines’ culinary epicenter, and the family specialty was pastries and deserts. Her sister turned those family recipes into a business, and today, Red Ribbon (which she sold in the late ‘90s) is one of the biggest Filipino food chains in the world, with hundreds of locations nationally and internationally.
“For me, thinking about my parents’ immigrant story and myself as a cog in the restaurant industry was a critical point, absolutely. All these things I realized about my background and family history with cooking became more poignant to me as a professional chef.” Ultimately, this exploration shaped how Dimayuga began thinking about her work, allowing her to see it in a wider, richer, more personal context—one that was inextricably linked to her identity as a queer, lesbian Filipinx-American.
In New York, Dimayuga set about infusing this perspective into her work, from reshaping the menu (to great acclaim) to forging a different kind of kitchen culture—one in which she talked openly with her staff about issues of intersectionality that arose in the course of service. It surely helped that Dimayuga was a force in the kitchen. The food was one-of-a-kind, delicious, and wildly imaginative, a testament to Dimayuga’s rare combination of fluency and deep-seated curiosity. The New York Times named Mission Chinese “Restaurant of the Year” in 2012, New York magazine named Dimayuga “Best Chef” in 2015, and she was nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award in 2016.
Dimayuga’s exploration grew to encompass cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural, and experimental collaborations with artists, fashion designers, and flavor-chemists. The result was a dynamic cultural confluence that pushed her further into the spotlight.
“There was a moment there [in 2014] where people in the media started to be interested in me because they saw what my splash at Mission was. I really wanted to make sure that whatever I said was thoughtful, and I wanted to take that platform seriously. I’m not interested in the irreverent, punk attitude that a lot of these ‘bro chefs’ have. That’s not what drives me to be a chef, that was never what was inspirational to me.”
“After I made the Ivanka Trump statement, I was able to cut out a lot of things that didn’t pertain to me a lot quicker. People were starting to see me as a whole person. I hated that people just thought I made good spicy food. I really cared about balancing out that menu. And I wanted to balance out people’s perceptions of what a chef could be, or what anyone can be. You can be multi-faceted. It made me realize that I wanted to think about my career differently.”
For Dimayuga, The Standard is a platform where she can do just that working directly with chefs on conceptually-driven cooking that changes how people think about food. “I like to see people do things outside of their comfort zones. I think people find me approachable to work with because I move with the utmost curiosity. What I’m changing about the landscape of food is thinking about it as a political act.”