Interview with JBF Award Nominee Angela Dimayuga of Mission Chinese Food
Anna MowryAnna Mowry
April 27, 2016
At Danny Bowien's second incarnation of Mission Chinese Food, executive chef Angela Dimayuga presides over one of New York City's most ambitious and idiosyncratic menus. (Where else can you find both caviar service and "hot cheese pizza" on offer?) But the 2016 Rising Star Chef nominee and her team's throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach goes beyond the kitchen: Dimayuga is also an advocate for work-life balance and effective management, and she's willing to think creatively in her pursuit for a better workplace culture. Below, find her tips for fostering a healthy and productive kitchen staff, her recommendations for ordering off the current MCF menu, and her highlights from a recent trip to South Korea.
JBF: We read your piece on Grub Street about how you strive to foster work-life balance for your team. How did that become so important to you? Was it instilled at a past gig?
AD: When I was working as a line cook at Vinegar Hill House, chef/owner Jean Adamson would let us take one or two days off while she worked seven days a week. I admired her determination, but I wanted to see her take some time for herself, so I often asked for more responsibility. I would notice that she was happier and could create more, which is necessary for a chef. They had a real family there, and we took care of each other.
When I started working for Danny Bowien, I knew nothing about Chinese food, opening a restaurant, or operating a business. We worked 16-hour days, seven days a week, and soon knew it wasn't sustainable. When you're an ambitious chef, you’re used to saying, "Yes, chef" to everything. Having the chance to do Mission Chinese Food another time around, with higher stakes, helped us understand this. We had a 130-seat restaurant and a larger staff, which forced us to say no to some opportunities and to make time for more important things, like charity events and taking some much-needed R&R.
JBF: In that same piece, you talked about a new idea that you were going to test during the first quarter of the year: you were going to have cooks push carts in the dining room so that they could earn tips and thus move toward closing the pay gap between front and back of house. How has this approach fared so far?
AD: We’re still in the beta stage. I'm excited to see the pay gap shrink for the employees that are participating. It also changes staff perspectives: a cook can see what it's like to deal with guest issues. By trying to resolve the pay issue, our front and back of house will have a wider scope on troubleshooting, and both sides can come up with creative ways to work together on projects that are unique to our restaurant. It should make our crew stronger and more well rounded.
JBF: Say there was a chef out there who really wanted to improve work-life balance in his or her kitchen. What are a few solutions that you recommend?
AD: Work-life balance should start from the top. It should be a management-wide effort, keeping tabs on and covering for one another. Let this leach into your employee pool. This allows for a lot more cross-training and flexibility with scheduling. Specific tasks can be done by more than one person. Prepare thorough prep lists in advance for projects that need to get done while you're away so that you can be at ease when you're gone. Write down all your recipe development.
JBF: OK, let’s talk food: what's a dish (or two!) on your menu that you're particularly excited about right now and why?
AD: I really like a new dish that we call Crab Fragrant Rice. It’s made by cooking onions slowly in butter, then mounting that into freshly cooked jasmine rice. We add texture and aroma with toasted and ground black Japanese breakfast tea, and we toss in lump blue crabmeat and lots of crushed black pepper, plus black sesame seeds for crunch.
We are currently working on our menu change and are producing some lovely vegetable dishes. I'm really excited about a dish I had been dreaming about for awhile. Artichokes are in season, and we are slow-poaching them in olive oil and lightly smoking them with hickory. The flavor is amazing and reminiscent of grilled globe artichokes, which is one of my favorite summertime treats.
JBF: Over the past year, you and the team have steered the MCF menu in some interesting directions, such as the focus on large-format dishes and the introduction of your dim-sum brunch on Christmas. Any cool new stuff on the way that you can tell us about?
AD: Lots of cool stuff on the way, but, unfortunately, lots of confidential things. The dim sum is constantly being manipulated as we've only been working on it for the last three months. We are working on a new menu, and it will definitely reflect some inspiration from traveling.
JBF: We read that you really wanted to go to Korea for your 30th birthday. Did you make it there?
AD: I just got back a few days ago. Seoul is really commercialized, and I loved the fact that food is still something people revere as something to enjoy with the family. We had some spectacular kimchi that was aged underground in the mountainous areas of the country. We had plenty of naengmyun, an icy beef broth and noodle dish, and an all-time favorite of mine. We had amazing variations of soft-serve: my favorites were brown rice flavor served in a roasted sweet potato "cone" and a soy milk flavor served affogato-style. I've been obsessed with natto and just started making it myself at home, so I had to try cheonggukjang, which is a soup make with doenjang (Korean miso paste) and lots of Korean-style fermented soybeans.
Learn more about the 2016 James Beard Awards.