When you grow up with a family that takes cooking very seriously, it’s hard not to inherit the obsession with food. For Diane Chang, the love and dedication to food that serves as the foundation for her business as a caterer and personal chef, can be attributed to watching her Po-Po (grandmother) and mother cook food throughout her childhood and young adult life. Watching these women carefully craft meals from their Asian homeland, is the energy that Diane tries to channel in her own food that combines traditional Chinese flavors, herbs, and spices, with the comforts of her American upbringing.
We caught up with Diane to talk about being a woman in the food industry, learning from her elders, and how her food pays homage to her first generation Chinese American identity. Check out the interview below.
Where did you grow up, what are your first memories?
I grew up in Southern California, just east of Los Angeles in the suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley. My first memories are growing up in a heavily Chinese and Mexican community where I learned to speak Mandarin at home and a little Spanish just by playing with the neighborhood kids.
How did you get into food?
I was very lucky to grow up with a serious cook in the family, my grandmother or Po-Po. But when I was young I didn’t really appreciate the traditional Taiwanese-Sichuan cuisine she was making me because I wanted to assimilate which meant eating McDonald’s and other American fast food. It wasn’t until I got to college, living on my own, and needing to learn basic cooking skills that I became fascinated with meal-preparation. And naturally, I began to appreciate the painstaking process of cooking meals every day. From there on, I began to observe my grandmother and mom in the kitchen, and seeing what efficiencies and techniques my grandmother and mom would employ.
And of course, I have to say my first job out of college as an editorial assistant at Bon Appétit Magazine definitely increased my hunger (no pun intended) for more food knowledge.
How does writing help you with your cooking/business?
To be honest, writing is more for my own peace of mind and creative expression. In that sense, it does allow me to break up the monotony of cooking for work. I’d say I’m as much of a writer as I am a cook.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
It’s definitely oriented around health/nutrition as well as tradition. I like to explore my own cultures (American and Chinese) to create dishes that incorporate the different flavors. I also have become very interested in Traditional Chinese Medicine, especially when I’ve spent so much of my life getting second-hand information from my grandmother and mom. Cooking with local ingredients is important to me. Also, finding ways to create delicious food while being budget —and ethically- conscious.
How do you set up your pop-up events? What do you think people should consider when hosting these kinds
of food events?
It always begins with an idea of what I want to serve and the vibe I’d want the event to be. Then I reach out to my own network of friends and colleagues to find a cool space that fits thematically, and other cooks who can help me in the kitchen.
I think it’s critical to utilize the resources you already have. There’s a really strong community of food lovers and food professionals and when you work with people you trust and respect, the event is often times 1,000x more fun. Money aside, these events should be enjoyable for both you and the guests and the people who help put it on.
I know that your Chinese heritage is a huge source of inspiration for your food. How do you combine flavors to appeal to American tastebuds?
My goal (and inspiration) has always been to tell stories through my cooking. My story is largely about being a first-generation Chinese American and how that’s shaped my palate and life! I don’t have to try hard to appeal to the American tastebud because that’s a part of who I am as well. I just think about what I’d like to eat, what does a good job of showcasing my heritage, and then I go for it.
What are your favorite places to eat?
I LOOOOOVE mom and pop restaurants. Where the food is soulful and interesting. I love a good taco shop where the tortillas are handmade and the hot sauces are prepared with care. Or a Vietnamese restaurant where the soup broth is cooked for hours if not days and the herbs are fresh and flavorful. I’m also always on the hunt for a good Taiwanese or Sichuan place because I want to be reminded of home!
How do you see the role of women evolving in the food business?
It’s become increasingly more acceptable for women to lead a professional kitchen but it’s also exciting to see women traverse an entirely different paths from the conventional restaurant track. I think social media has effectively increased an awareness of female-led businesses for other aspiring female entrepreneurs. It’s also now celebrated in a way like never before. Unfortunately in male-dominated kitchens or environments, there is still a culture of pay inequality and harassment. I think it’s important for men and women to work together to disrupt this unhealthy culture. And it requires women speaking up and men listening.
When you’re not thinking about food, what are you doing?
I love to draw, knit, play music, and write poetry. I also love to travel and all of these activities that are unrelated to food, somehow make me a better cook. =)
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Header photo by Anna Wolf