July 16 2018

For Chef Angela Dimayuga, All Food Is Identity Politics

New York-Table Talk
Bro chefs, Extra Value Meals, and spicy food with the culinary star who brought identity politics to the forefront of the food world, and now, The Standard’s world.
When Angela Dimayuga, the star chef of Mission Chinese Food, announced that she was joining The Standard, the news made headlines in the food press. The attention is a testament to the mark that she made at Danny Bowien’s innovative, critically-lauded, bi-coastal establishment. Dimayuga’s work both in the kitchen and beyond established her as one the industry’s most promising, inventive talents, and after her departure from Mission Chinese in late 2017, many were watching to see what her next move would be. The decision to join a hospitality brand—albeit one with a decidedly unconventional approach to hotels, and for that matter, food—was probably not a next step that anyone saw coming.  

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 Standard
The Standard
In preparation for opening the restaurant’s first New York location, Dimayuga worked for six weeks, six-days-a-week alongside Bowien at Mission Chinese’s San Francisco flagship. A side benefit of the training was that she was afforded the (rare) luxury of spending her days off with her family in San Jose. “My parents were really curious about Mission Chinese,” Dimayuga explained. “They were like, ‘Why are you going to work at this carpeted Chinese restaurant in San Francisco?’ They didn’t understand it. But when my dad found out that the owner [Bowien], through his success, sent all of his Chinese employees to China, he goes, ‘It reminds me of when I worked at McDonald’s.’”

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.
The Standard

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.

"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."

“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. 

The Standard
The Standard
With the elevated profile that came with these accolades, and an increasingly expansive view of what a chef should be, Dimayuga began using Mission Chinese as a testing ground for exploring the intersection of political, cultural, and creative ideas with food and restaurants. “With my work at Mission, I’ve tried to challenge our ideas of what American food is. American food is Chinese takeout. American food is Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s also ethnic food. The amazing aspect of an American dream story is that, even if you’re doing something completely different in your origin country, you can build a restaurant and become accepted in the American landscape. That’s absolutely what my parents did. It’s dense. There’s a lot to explore.”

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.”

The Standard
Dimayuga’s 2017 departure from Mission Chinese was covered at length in the food press. As was her post-election public repudiation of an overture from Ivanka Trump’s brand. The reality is that the two things were connected by Dimayuga’s fundamental conviction that food is inherently political, and her desire to be seen as more than just a chef.

“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.”
Writer
Alex Waxman
Photographer
Elvin Tavarez
Styling
Jacob Park