The politics of a Filipinx kitchen in America today

Angela Dimayuga, the lauded New York City chef and vocal activist, discusses using the term “Filipinx,” navigating the wild year that is 2020, and her upcoming debut cookbook.

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New York (CNN Philippines Life) — Chef Angela Dimayuga brings a certain swagger to the kitchen. It’s what made Rachael Ray In Season count her among the “8 Women Taking Over the Food World” in 2018, and it’s what gave hospitality powerhouse The Standard reason to create a job title just for her. It’s also what she’s putting on the page with her debut “Filipinx Cookbook,” which is backed by major cookbook publishing house Abrams, and comes out in 2021.

Beyond her undeniable skills in the kitchen — she is a James Beard Award nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2016 — it’s her fearlessness in engaging in the political aspects of food that has made Dimayuga a celebrated figure in the industry. She famously stood up to Trump in 2017 when Ivanka Trump’s website contacted her about being featured. “So long as the name Trump is involved, it is political and frankly, an option for the business to make a profit,” she responded, even prompting Anthony Bourdain to call her “My hero!”

One of the first things you’d notice is her cool personal style, which landed her on the cover of food magazine Cherry Bombe’s first ever fashion issue. She’s the type of person who can pull off wearing her hair in space buns, casually sports statement sunglasses (even in cooking videos), rocks vintage designer pieces from the likes of Dior and Jean Paul Gaultier, and hunts down 90s nylon Prada bags on eBay. Her penchant for accessories and colorful hair definitely made her stand out on the pages of the Food section of The New York Times.

She’s also dabbled in fashion design herself, having made a four-piece, gender-neutral swimsuit out of recycled plastic bottles for Los Angeles-based, sustainable and eco-friendly apparel brand Everybody.World. There have also been occasions when her love for fashion and food intersect. High-street fashion label Opening Ceremony flew her to Paris for a special dinner back in 2015, and she prepared a grand feast for a Kenzo runway show there just last year.

On Angela: Jacket by L'Enchanteur, shirt by Jean Paul Gaultier via James Viloria, pants by Carl Jan Cruz. Photo by JUSTIN J WEE

Dimayuga, who’s from San Jose, California, is the fifth of six children to Filipino immigrant parents who moved stateside in the ‘70s. She knew early on that she wanted to pursue a career in the culinary arts, but was convinced by her dad — a retired McDonald’s regional manager and inventor of the Extra Value Meal — to go to college instead of culinary school. Still, after her studies, she developed her talent and technical skills by moving to the East Coast and working her way up the ladder for 15 years. She started as a line cook in Brooklyn, New York’s Vinegar Hill House, and soon became the executive chef at renowned Manhattan institution Mission Chinese Food. Now, she’s the very first creative director of food and culture for international hospitality giant The Standard.

While more people in the States are becoming familiar with adobo and silogs thanks to Filipino restaurants cropping up in major cities, her contributions to The New York Times have helped bring about a new wave of appreciation and understanding for Filipino food. With her “10 Essential Filipino Recipes,” her NYT Cooking video on “How to Make Filipino Coconut Milk Chicken Adobo” and much more, she’s showing people just how easy and accessible our cuisine can be by giving others the means to recreate dishes in their own homes. Dimayuga has always been drawn to food because of the idea of people gathering around it, and dining as a communal experience. Because of this, she considers sharing her recipes a significant and powerful part of her work.

On Angela: Suit by Eckhaus Latta. Photo by JUSTIN J WEE

Here, the lauded New York City chef and vocal activist discusses using the term “Filipinx,” navigating the wild year that is 2020, and her upcoming debut cookbook. The interview is edited and shortened for publishing.

The term Filipinx has sparked some debate online, what with some pointing out the Filipino language being genderless. Why do you feel most comfortable with it as an identifier?

It's a signifier that I felt comfortable for myself and one that I do not impose on other folks or groups. My idea is that it's furthering that conversation of revolutionary work and trying to create more solidarity within different groups.

The experience of living in San Jose specifically is really unique in that there was a large percentage of Asians in San Jose. It's a big city, but the neighborhood that I lived in is primarily Asian, and primarily, Hispanics. Specifically, a lot of community members of mine were Mexican. And so understanding that, I want to use that identifier Filipinx as a Filipino American. It’s just responding to the diaspora and knowing that I'm a part of the diaspora.

I think a lot about Latinx community and having solidarity with them, and utilizing ‘x’, specifically for me as a person that identifies as queer, is super important because I'm a person that's committed to queer, trans, and gender nonbinary liberation.

How has the term lent itself to your upcoming “Filipinx Cookbook”?

When I think about the book, it’s going to come from my perspective as someone that's Filipinx and Filipino American. So it's going to include conversations around pre-colonial ingredients, dishes. Likewise, with thinking about our pre-colonial history, but then also just thinking about my placement in the diaspora.

It has this really wide range. The book itself is going to come from the Filipinx point of view. The recipes themselves are kind of like a very layered. It’s a complicated process to think about one body of work that's going to be recipe-driven, but includes so many narrative stories about my upbringing, and trying to honor heritage recipes, by modifying them respectfully, or just creating brand new dishes that utilize Filipino ingredients. My intention behind it is to be as respectful as possible, but celebrate the technique, celebrate the beauty and bounty of ingredients.

You’re in the Cayman Islands for an experimental artist residency, and I heard that you’ve also been doing research by interacting with the Filipino communities there.

I was exploring, again, like this idea of Filipino foods within the diaspora. Here in the Cayman Islands, it's really interesting because the largest immigrant group are Jamaicans, and I think it has a lot to do with the proximity as a Caribbean country to Jamaica. And then the second most popular immigrant working group is Filipino.

It’s been very surreal for me to just be in such close proximity to Filipinos of the diaspora as well, where you go to like a little corner store or bodega or liquor store, and the person that’s ringing you up will undoubtedly be a Filipino. You go to the grocery store and they have like a Filipino food section in the freezer. They have a Filipino pantry section. And these are at huge supermarkets. Even in places like San Jose where I grew up — where there's a large Filipino population — there aren't like specific sections at the grocery for our products. It just makes a lot of sense to me because these food and snacks become ways that the Filipino folks here can comfort themselves.

Angela is currently the Cayman Islands for an experimental artist residency where she's met Black Caymanians and Filipinos who have helped her in understanding Filipino ingredients more. She's also cooked an "Honorary Filipinx Dinner" at the Palm Heights Hotel featuring Filipino food of the diaspora, which she collaborated with the hotel's chef in residence Silver Cousler (who's also Filipino-American) and Humberto Leon, the co-founder of high street fashion brand Opening Ceremony, who took care of the decor. Photos from ANGELA DIMAYUGA

Are there any particular ideas or recipes that were born out of your stay there?

Ingredient-wise for sure. The climate here I think, allows for a lot of the same produce that can grow in the Philippines to grow here. So that access to — and really getting nerdy about — like coconut that’s not just coconut water, but like different ages of coconut meat — whether that's coconut jelly or mature coconut that then you shred. There's different products that you can make with them, and I learned how to make coconut vinegar.

And it seems like a small detail but when I was researching latik, it was just really wild to me to think about my connection to that word. My mom was a [Bayanihan Philippine National Folk Dance Company] dancer, which is something that I'm always really proud of. It was so wild like reading about the word latik, and then realizing that it had a connection to maglalatik, which was the dance using coconut shells as percussion instruments. In the area that the dance originated, it was actually depicting war against colonization [between the Moros and the Christians]. So there's also these connections that are becoming really personal to me that's just influencing my way of thought.

Did you find any similarities between Caribbean cuisine and Filipino cuisine?

Sometimes, when I make something, my friend that's Mexican that lives here in the Cayman islands, who's traveled all around the Caribbean... He'll see so many connections with Filipino food and Caribbean food, and that's simply just because we share similar climates. So, of course, there's going to be dishes that are similar. And that just makes me have warm, fuzzy feelings inside. That makes me feel like I'm on the right track, that there's something really unifying and beautiful about what I’m doing. Just thinking about the link makes me just feel like there's a stronger connection that we can have through experiencing food.

You’ve been gone for a bit, but you’ve also never stopped voicing your concerns over what’s happening in the U.S. What has it been like navigating 2020 as a cis, queer, Filipinx woman?

I went through a really bad depressive spell. This was during the health pandemic, but then kind of continued on when the racial pandemic started to hit after Tony McDade, Nina Pop, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd have all been killed.

At the beginning of this pandemic, my first feeling was like I've had a limb cut off. As someone who ran restaurants day-to-day, and then moved on to become a creative director, I got to do a lot of community organizing. For example, I helped open up a concept of this queer bar at The Standard East Village that was super inclusive. The idea was that [No Bar] should be as inclusive as possible.

After starting the queer trans BIPOC party Gush in 2017, Dimayuga put up the 'new wave' queer bar No Bar in New York City. Photo courtesy of ANGELA DIMAYUGA

I was going into a nine to five job and then engaging in community work or organizing afterwards. I think one of the other safe havens for me besides like, searching for community through Filipino food was participating as a nightlife organizer. I started this queer trans BIPOC party called Gush back in 2017. And this was like, post-Trump. I thought a lot about the environment that like the New York City nightlife scene didn't provide me. It was like if I went to queer femme parties, they weren't diverse. Or if I went to diverse gay parties, there were mostly cis gay men there. And so it was really important for me to create a space that centered folks that weren't hetero cis men, and that our bodies in that space weren't for the male gaze.

I also started a chef series dinner where we were supporting the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) immigration rights project so that I can invite chefs to really think about their placement in the world as either immigrants themselves, or folks that participate in the restaurant industry — knowing that the people [who] are the backbone of the restaurant industry are largely immigrants, or black and brown undocumented folks. And so I had a hard time with not being able to express myself on that organizing and programming effort.

Has organizing always been a huge part of the culinary career you envisioned?

The reason why I think I fell into food is that, for me, it's like an opportunity to socially engage. I came from a big family, and so I find a lot of comfort in being around a lot of people and doing it through food, which is like an act of generosity and sharing.

Is owning your restaurant somewhere in the future?

I think people always want to ask me, “Angela, so when are you gonna open up your own business?” I understand the restaurant business now, having worked in it from the ground up for many years. The margins are really slim. It really relies on exploitative labor, on black and brown labor, undocumented labor. And those I think are not things that I can solely fix on my own. I have moved on from running brick and mortar restaurants, to doing programming and organizing at a larger scale, boutique hotel chain that's global — getting to create concepts that I think are respectful.

I helped open up our hotel in the Maldives. It was really gratifying to help work on a food program that celebrated Maldivian cuisine, instead of just doing Italian cuisine or like Americanized cuisine out in the Maldives. We had an opportunity to celebrate the beautiful food that's in the Maldives, which tastes basically like if Sri Lankan food had a tropical lean, lots of seafood. It's beautiful and gorgeous.

On Angela: Top by Vivienne Westwood via James Viloria and pants by Carl Jan Cruz. Photo by JUSTIN J WEE

What, then, is the goal if not to put up your own place?

I want to, as a visible chef, take my platform responsibly and share the platform as much as possible with my community.

It made me feel really uncomfortable that if I wasn't running a restaurant kitchen with my menu items, then for folks to access my work became really difficult. The idea that my food was inaccessible made me feel really uncomfortable. And so I feel really proud that, through my natural relationship building with a publication like The New York Times food section, I now have an opportunity to be a more regular contributor there. I feel like I'm on the right path now, in having the opportunity to publish the food stories and recipes that anyone from wherever they are — they can be like friends that live abroad or my sister in San Jose or a mom in the Midwest… If they're interested in the recipes that I'm writing, then they can go ahead and make them.

In the past few months, industries have been facing a reckoning with regards to racism and lack of diversity, and this includes the food industry and food media. How have you felt about this movement?

I think, because food is inherently political, because it includes cultures that are driven by people and the people that make them, then a lot of personal examination needs to be done. I think what we're mostly seeing is the food industry reckoning with what is not okay anymore, whether that's not having proper representation. There [are] conversations around appropriation, and, I think, even further to conversations around proper credit, or who gets to cook what food. I feel like everyone's asking the right questions right now. I think the work that people are putting in now will hopefully create a more equitable future. And I hope that we're going to move past like pointing fingers, but actually figure out how we are contributing to the more hopeful big picture.

I'm participating in these conversations, and it feels like it's being required. And so that requirement is going to create a new future for this next wave of restaurants. And that's, frankly, really exciting.

With everything that’s going on in the world, and with everything that you’re busy with, how are you making time for yourself?

I feel like having access to nature has really helped my own personal spirituality. If you have access to that, that's something that's really grounding and I feel like that helped me feel like really human through this whole process. And knowing that like, there are my ancestors that are guiding me into practicing my expression this way, and furthering my art expression is through food.

On Angela: Suit by Eckhaus Latta. Photo by JUSTIN J. WEE

I saw in a post of yours on Instagram that you’re also casually making flavored milk during your free time.

Good, good. I'm glad! Yeah, I've been doing small things like that. Those milk projects are just for me. I ran out of milk.

Doing something simple like making these like, fun nut milks or alternative milks is a small gesture of me trying to take care of myself. And if I get to share these recipes, then these people can enjoy and make these things that are opportunities to care for yourself and have joy and share it, you know.

What are you looking forward to in 2021?

Well, you know, 2021 is going to be really interesting because I feel like I'm going to also have a greater connection to this Filipino community, because that's the book release. I'm really looking forward to that, and sort of mentally preparing what that'd be like to, have such a tangible... like, through a book, reach to this community.

I'd love to work in the Philippines, I'd love to spend some time there and be with like-minded folks. I feel like that would be really nourishing and mind-expanding. I want to continue on that path of what I've been trying to do, which is self-healing work, see how I can contribute in a really purpose-driven way, but then also think about how to create a community where I haven't had it yet.