From 2012 to October 2017, Angela Dimayuga (b. 1985, San Jose, California) was executive chef at Mission Chinese Food, a Szechuan restaurant started by chef Danny Bowien. Founded in San Francisco, it would be brought to maturity in New York, and, early on, Dimayuga’s vision established the restaurant as one of New York’s premier dining rooms. With Mission’s version of Chinese food, she sought a debauched nostalgia, riffing on tradition with an almost cyberpunk sensibility.
Dimayuga is driven by a deep inquisitiveness, fueled as much by New York as by forward-thinking food science. She has taken on collaborations with artists (notably Anicka Yi) and fashion labels (including Eckhaus Latta). The restaurant’s menu numbers fifty-plus items, though this interview was inspired by an off-menu dessert that has haunted the lineup since it was conceived for the latest location, in 2015. Called simply Shave Ice, it comprises shaved ice flavored with seasonal fruit puree, dished over cottage-cheese ice cream and wheat germ, and the server unceremoniously dumps Pop Rocks onto the concoction tableside. Though seemingly assembled from items found at your corner bodega, it nonetheless achieves the same sweet-sour buzzing sensation that characterizes traditional Szechuan cuisine. Taken together with the restaurant’s lounge-like atmosphere (also the product of Dimayuga’s vision), the entire experience instills a seductive and disorienting tension—the score for Twin Peaks is even piped into the bathrooms.
Though she’s moved on from Mission Chinese, her impact is already noticeable in New York. Hers was an integral voice of resistance in 2017, speaking out about sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, and making bold the stakes for queer people of color when she responded to an interview request from ivankatrump.com, writing, “As a queer person of color and daughter of immigrant parents, I’m not interested in being profiled as an aspirational figure for those that support a brand and President that slyly disparages female empowerment. Sharing my story with a brand and family that silences our same voices is futile.”
THE BELIEVER: A lot of your dishes have a heavy focus on ingredients, but some are not what you’d expect at a Szechuan place. They’re more evocative. We’ve agreed to talk about Shave Ice, a dish that seems to frame the entire menu. Its complex operation lets the Pop Rocks stand in for Szechuan peppercorns.
ANGELA DIMAYUGA: Mission Chinese’s style of cooking is really bold, really spicy, really fatty. It’s fun, but it made certain dishes inaccessible and excluded some people. The first thing that I put on the menu was cabbage salad. The ingredients are cabbage, miso, anchovy, tahini, soy. It’s a cooling dish next to the Chongqing Chicken Wings, which are the spiciest thing. It’s also the idea that you can grab little ideas from any of those things or ingredients or experiences and it becomes something else. When you make something that way, it’s so fun and innovative without claiming it as mine. No, actually, it’s just a bunch of bits that happened to me, most by accident. There’s things on the menu that are there because we didn’t have electricity once, or I broke my leg. Sometimes it’s as simple as: I like cottage cheese.
BLVR: With your food, anything that gets plated seems to shed light on another aspect of the psyche. And a lot of it seems to have to do with the culture immediately surrounding the restaurant—there’s galleries, fashion pop-ups and parties, and it’s Chinatown.
AD: We’re in New York. We can access a lot. That’s exciting, how diverse it is, the fact that most of the dishes on the menu aren’t Chinese at all and I’m not Chinese, nor is the owner. I only have one person in my kitchen who is Chinese and he’s half-Chinese and he was born in New Jersey. We’re not anti-consistency or narrative, though. There’s fifty things on the menu that are served year-round. Depending on the season, I’ll get fancy eggplant from the Union Square green market or some herb that farmers grow for us hydroponically in TriBeCa. We look at our menu like a language. We have a lot of things on the menu, and it’s designed to be served year-round. We’re also still trying to get at a certain idea and, in this case, this is the way that we express the idea of “seasonality.” When I’m making all these dishes, it’s also highly reverent to things that I like. It’s not a big joke. With Shave Ice, it’s an homage to the shaved ice that I had in Hawaii as a kid, and an homage to the Taiwanese shaved ice, which is badass when you fill it up with all sorts of other stuff like condensed milk and adzuki beans. I’m never going to do it exactly like that and I’d never call it Hawaiian shaved ice. The food that I do and the funny names are how I pluck out what I like. I’ve called something Grilled Fish and a Basket of Sour Fruits and Vegetables instead of Bossam, this traditional Korean meal of pork shoulder, glazed meats, and sides. We still did Bossam, but I’d rather glaze a fish in kvass to get at the same idea.
BLVR: It feels like your food is from a firstperson perspective. The dessert has a lot of that character. It says very plainly, Here is a Szechuan dessert. Sweet-and-sour, an explosive sensation in your mouth. It’s fiery, it evolves over time, there’s a contrasting texture, there’s a theatricality. Often it’s bright red. But there’s no Szechuan ingredients, and you’re telling us it’s a Szechuan dessert. What rules led to the making of Shave Ice?
AD: Shave Ice happened because we wanted a dessert when we upgraded to our new location. It had to be really badass, so we invested in one of those machines that makes Taiwanese shaved ice and taught ourselves how to use it. The first version was called Sweet Milk Ice, but the starting point for Shave Ice actually came out of a different set of parameters. The whole thing stems from another dish. It has one similar ingredient that carries over. It’s called the Cooling Option.
BLVR: That’s a really poetic title.
AD: It was originally based off a staple Taiwanese breakfast soup. Someone’s mom will make it for you. What you find at the bottom of the bowl is black vinegar and then they pour freshly made hot soy milk onto it. It coagulates; it’s broken or acidulated. Then it’s just about the toppings—ginger, scallion, maybe chili oil, white pepper, and crullers that they stick on top. Usually I don’t make something that’s quote-unquote “authentic,” because I am not that interested in doing something that’s so linear. I was really fascinated that you break this beautiful soy milk that you’ve made. You—
BLVR: Ruin it.
AD: Then it becomes a more interesting texture. I also grew up without ever having soy milk. We had whole milk and 2 percent milk growing up. You don’t curdle that. I was fascinated with curdling. The ingredients were really cheap. I was asked to do a breakfast option for a food conference hosted by the women’s food magazine Cherry Bombe. There’d be pastries and coffee and yogurt, but I thought it would be cool if I gave them curdled soy milk. After I agreed to do it, they said, “Just so you know, we don’t actually have a heating source. And we have a yogurt sponsor.” I flipped the recipe into a cold dish. I took a clear take-out container and you could see everything inside of it. At the bottom, instead of black vinegar was a dollop of really sour 0 percent Greek yogurt. I laid in two ice cubes and floated fresh, cold soy milk on top. The yogurt also had wheat germ, boiled peanuts, diced, really cold cucumbers, and was dotted with chili oil and shiso and flowers. It was a crunchy, almost wet salad—the yogurt, and the tartness, made it really good for breakfast.
BLVR: It sounds like it would really open your palate, which is a fun way to define the first meal of the day.
AD: At the end of it, you have a pool of seasoned soy milk. You drink it and the ice cubes hit you in the face and it’s gone.
BLVR: There’s a touch of camp in drinking the milk at the end, like a bowl of cereal.
AD: I called it Wheat Germ. I don’t want people to know what it is. I want them to think, Oh what’s this crunchy wheat thing? I don’t want them to be nostalgic for Grape-Nuts.
BLVR: Is there a working title? Or does the title always come after? There’s a joy you have in saying it.
AD: The food follows the language, and some dishes evolve into other dishes. It’s all about how the parameters change and dealing with how people have preconceived notions of what they’ve already had. I did a special dinner where I served little pieces of ground beef that were seasoned with fish sauce and black pepper. I rolled that into grape leaf–sized shiso leaves, and quickly seared that in a wood oven. It was juicy and so rare in the middle. It’s still pretty rich, so I served it with beautiful pickles and herbs on ice. I had noticed at a Japanese restaurant I like that their menu always had a spelling error. They spelled chili, as in hot chili, as c-h-i-l-l-y. I loved the idea of calling something “chili” “chilly,” so I decided to call them Chilly Pickles. It’s pickles on ice. BLVR: It’s sort of a Borscht Belt–like zinger. Is food a schtick?
AD: I know that it’s entertaining and funny and I know that it’s a little gimmicky. But it’s definitely not ironic. I don’t have to fuck with someone that sits in my restaurant.
BLVR: Let’s go back to this dessert. It seems like you intuitively build out the contours of the rules.
AD: We used Grape-Nuts right away, because of an experience I had eating ice cream at a hot pot restaurant. I love this hot pot. It felt like the suburbs, but it was over on Eldridge [in New York City’s Chinatown]. My friend took me. It was all-you-can-eat hot pot for twenty-seven dollars. You could order anything—so many different types of noodles, blue crab, really nice beef—and have a really good hot pot experience. They also had a drink fountain with unlimited drinks. I was super inspired. It wasn’t trying to be anything but a really good deal. They had some interesting Chinese soft drinks like winter melon and plum juice on tap too. They also had an ice cream case where you could serve yourself sundaes or an ice cream cone. It was out in the open—I don’t even think it was DOH [Deptartment of Health] safe. All the flavors were normal—rainbow sherbet, strawberry, chocolate—and then Grape-Nut ice cream. I was really into the flavor of it, but I didn’t like the texture of the Grape-Nuts being soggy. I was the type of person growing up that didn’t like sweet cereals—Froot Loops or anything. I liked Rice Krispies. The idea was always a dish that was cooling after you’ve had a bunch of spicy food. When I went to Hawaii when I was eleven, the upgrade from the basic snow cone was to add a ball of ice cream in the middle of your shaved ice, then choose your syrup. Anyway, I only came up with this version of Shave Ice in December 2016. There has always been ice cream inside of it, but I wanted to have two things in the shaved ice now. The ice was always a whole fruit puree—no juicing or concentrate. The first version I made—it was winter citrus season—I made a blood orange ice. It was a “creamsicle” idea and I did cottage cheese ice cream for the first time. I had gone to Montreal and ate at Au Pied de Cochon. It’s a fatty, French-style restaurant. You eat tons of foie. They make all these ice creams that taste like you beat cream until it almost separates into butter. It had fattier bits that were buttery and harder than the rest of the ice cream.
BLVR: I grew up in Buffalo and any time my family went to the beaches on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, we’d always get ice cream that was like that. Maybe it’s a Canadian thing.
AD: I loved the custardy, frozen, small lumps of butter. I love cottage cheese. I got into it as an adult, as a chef, in a really funny way. I broke my leg and I wanted a really bone-healthy diet. So I got into cottage cheese and papaya. Cottage cheese was originally really personal, but I said, “Fuck it, I’m going to make it into an ice cream.” The way we do it, the cottage cheese keeps its texture. You still get the curds. You’re chewing on it. Papaya had always been a little too funky for me, but when I started traveling to tropical places, I became obsessed with it.
BLVR: It’s so pungent. It’s so sexy.
AD: Really sexy. I have eaten it with people before—we’re both eating it—and it’s hot. And it’s so big. You can’t get a little one. You have to share it. Otherwise it’s not as good.