Interview: How Art and Activism Inspire Change in Hotels and Restaurants

On Monday, September 24, Skift Table hosted its first ever Skift Restaurants Forum.

The day-long event featured interviews with restaurateurs, technology leaders, operators, and chefs, as well as an audience of over 300 people from across the restaurant industry.

As the creative director of food and culture for Standard International, the company behind Standard Hotels and Bunkhouse Hotels, accomplished chef Angela Dimayuga is charting new territory.

In her new role, the James Beard-nominated chef who made her name as the executive chef of Mission Chinese Food isn’t just overseeing what’s coming out of the kitchens at the various Standard hotels around the world — she’s also been tasked with transforming the hotels’ cultural programming. And to do so, Dimayuga is drawing heavily on food, music, art, and activism.

Dimayuga was interviewed by Deanna Ting, Senior Hospitality Editor for Skift.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

Skift Table: There are some people out there, who strongly believe that food, and politics should never mix. I know one of your mentors, Anthony Bourdain, often said that there’s nothing more political than food. I think it’s very clear that you feel the same way. What is it that you hope to do with this connection between food, art, and politics, to really spearhead activism in your new role?

Angela Dimayuga: Thinking about politics with food is a very personal journey for me. I think that when I was working as an executive chef at Mission Chinese, I was building my name, building signature dishes, and building a following.

I realized, along the way, when I started to speak about who I am, there was larger interest on why I’m making this food. Then, I personally had more interest in speaking about my own personal-identity politics, what it feels like in the chef world, or to be cooking like the person I am, because I wanted to be a chef, ever since I was a kid, and never really saw chefs like me, growing up.

I think that what I realized was that personal connection, and speaking about who I am made the work a lot more meaningful, and purposeful for me, individually. I can’t really speak to how other people could do it, but for me, that’s when it became a lot more meaningful, just speaking about being Filipino-American, or the child of immigrants. Also, my sexual identity, identifying as queer, and …

All of that just made me feel like I could do a lot more, because then, I didn’t have to speak about basic bio information about myself. I can move from feeling like I was … I always felt different, and marginalized, within the chef industry, but then, I felt like I could just move more purposefully in it.

A lot of the food from my chef friends that are my peers that I think is really interesting does discuss their own personal-identity politics. That’s what I find interesting. I think the food has an authentic-ness to who they are, and then, they can be really expressive, themselves.

The way that, for me, I’ve been linking food, art, and politics within the Standard world is thinking about outreaching to chefs that care about activism in their own way. I never present myself as an activist, because that’s not what I am, but I am a chef, and food systems have so much to do with culture, and biodiversity that we have a responsibility.

Because that’s our way of expressing ourselves, we’ve banded together with a bunch of really great names to start a series called Chef Stands Up. It’s continued from programming that we did last year, and then, we’re building it so that it’s in three cities, this time around; in LA, Miami, and New York City.

The way that we’re linking food, art, and activism is that we are working with the ACLU, specifically for the immigration rights project. Because the hospitality industry works so much with immigrants, and they often make up the backbone of the industry, we really wanna celebrate their cultures.

For example, our first chef, DeVonn Francis is cooking tomorrow, in Miami, and he is Jamaican-American, and he wants to celebrate Caribbean cuisine, so he made a zine, showcasing the staff that we have at the Standard, who are Caribbean, and then, we’re gonna be making food, celebrating their cultures.

There’s ongoing work, where they will also serve the food in the hotel rooms, as room service, so that there’s a connection from the guest experience … Who is it that makes up your bed, when you leave? Say you took a nap, and you left, and somebody made up your bed. Who is it that makes up your bed?

There’s a self-awareness around it, and then, continue to celebrate them, and then, continue to support the ACLU with those food items remaining on the menu.

That was more of a specific example of how we’re doing it at the Standard, because this is work that, yeah, I’ve just been really excited about. It’s one of the biggest initiatives that we’re doing, since … I’ve only been with the company for about four months, so that’s something that I’m super-super-excited about.

Skift Table: I can’t wait to see it continue to unfold. Just prior to your joining the Standard, in this new role, what was your own relationship, or perspective of hotels, and hotel restaurants? What did you think of them? Did you frequent them often? Did you ever just imagine yourself working for a hotel company?

Dimayuga: No. When I was younger, and … I said I wanted to be a chef, ever since I was a kid. I was always very curious about hotels, because I think there’s that other level of hospitality, where you can really reach a customer.

For me, as a young line cook, when I was 20-21, I would save all my line-cook earnings, which wasn’t very much, and go on staycations, cuz I couldn’t really leave New York very much. I would maybe just book a hotel room, somewhere random, in Queens, or … Just feel like I could celebrate a certain occasion, and just take a little break.

That was always really fun for me, even as a young cook. I think I’ve always liked how hotels can be a space for gatherings. Then, specifically, with the Standard, I became acquainted with the Standard, mostly through our High Line location, and I really had a connection with the property, because when the Whitney opened up, nearby, there would be a lot of really fun gatherings there; parties at the top of the Standard, or at Le Bain, and I’d frequent, because of the proximity.

I always thought the company, or the hotel group was just really fun, and expressive. Eventually, we started working together, but I was always intrigued by hotels, in general, and then, intrigued with the food offerings, or just the experience, and design around the Standard, specifically.

I ended up working with the Standard, because I did the closing of the [Standard’s] Chefs Stand Up series last year, at the Miami Art Basel event, where we got to cook a dinner that was inspired by all the tropical ingredients. It was my first time doing a pop-up outside of Mission Chinese, after I left my job there. I just had a really good time.

It was benefiting the ACLU. A bunch of designers donated designs to the ACLU, and they had a merch line, so we were celebrating the merch line. They had sweatshirts that are the design of the USA Dream Team, but it would say DACA on it. It was just a really fun event. From that experience, I ended up meeting Amar Lalvani, our CEO, and really liking … We really hit it off.

Skift Table: That’s great. I was also thinking, specifically, about the Standard brand. What is it that you eventually, or ultimately want people to associate with that brand, in particular? What do you want people to think of, when … In terms of what it stands for; in terms of inclusiveness? I think, historically, the brand has been marketed as a brand that’s maybe not necessarily for everyone. How are you approaching that?

Dimayuga: I think that another element that I really like about hotels is that element of surprise, and delight. Those are all things that I really enjoy doing; working on design, and food, and just general concepting at Mission Chinese.

To apply all of my interests with a bigger platform, on a different scale, I think is really interesting. Having the resources, and working with designers, or bringing in artists that I’m interested in, into the fold, that’s really amazing for me.

What work do I want to apply to the brand, and what do we want to accomplish? What I’m excited about is a lot of my work, because it’s sort of a vague term, creative director of food and culture, what the hell does that mean? A lot of my work is thinking about concepting for new locations, and then, places that we will be renovating. Then, thinking about that holistically, and what that looks like in a site-specific way, per city.

Then, also, a lot of my daily work is this programming that I really care about. Chefs Stand Up is a really great example of that, but also, sharing that space in an inclusive way with other people that I really admire in the industry.

For example, we’re going to be hosting Julia Turshen’s online archival website, which is called EAT, which is Equity at the Table. It’s an online archival website, so that women in the industry can submit profiles of their work, or, if you’re tangential to the food industry … Maybe you’re a food stylist, or a photographer.

It resolves that problem of, “Oh, I didn’t get to work with a female chef, cuz I don’t any female chefs.” You can look at that website, and look at what type of jobs people do, cuz a lot of people have hyphenated work.

We’re hosting people, like EAT, at the Standard, and that’s how I wanna bring in a lot of like minded people, as well; through the food, but also through our programming.

Skift Table: Sounds great. How do your experiences of working as a chef play into your role here? What lessons from the kitchen are you bringing?

Dimayuga: It comes up a lot. That’s why, specifically, they hired me; that, on this level, speaking on the executive team, they haven’t had a chef who’s dogged out in the kitchen for 16 hours a day; what that feels like, or how you can maybe create a dish by volume, or what that experience is like, as a diner.

Everyone that I work with is definitely a foodie, and so, they’re very excited about this next chapter. I think that the goals are that you take that experience as a chef, and then, apply that creatively. You think about innovation. You think about partners that you want to work with.

For me, what I offer all the time is, “Oh, I really love this kombucha company. They make this really great kombucha that’s barrel-aged.” I get really nerdy about it. All the things that I’m nerdy about are craft-oriented, that, then, we can bring to the brand. Have a beer platform for those purveyors, as well.

It’s really taking restaurants, within hotels, to the next level, where I don’t want the restaurants to just be a restaurant that … It’s a restaurant that happens to be at a hotel. That’s the idea that, instead of it being a hotel restaurant, it’s like, “This is a great restaurant; it also is in a hotel.”

You can integrate the community; you can integrate the local community, through programming, but then, also have something really interesting for the hotel guests.

Skift Table: What are some interesting programming things that you have lined up that you can divulge with us?

Dimayuga: I think what would be a good example, too, is think about just things that I’ve done recently. We hosted this Asian collective that’s a nightlife collective, recently, at Le Bain. They had never thrown a party at this size, before. We ended up hosting them during Pride, and they’re a gay-Asian-nightlife group, called Bubble_T. They’re amazing. They throw the most amazing parties. Every detail is perfect. I ended up doing food with them for the event.

For Pride, they threw a party at Le Bain, which has a hot tub in the club. I worked with them to create ideas around what could this hot tub be? We turned the hot tub into … We called it a Hot Pot. They made decorations for the hot tub that looked like a hot pot.

They had drag queens performing, and then, the drag queens jumped into the Hot Pot. We served what we were calling a Spa Water Cup O’Noodles with ingredients that looked like the floaties that we put into it, upstairs on the rooftop, so there was a reason to have a Cup O’Noodles at a party.

I think it’s that attention to detail is super-fun, and I think that’s how the hotel spaces can be engaging, in a food way. We had this party, but then, there’s a fun food element. We made CBD Jello shots that had Hojicha whipped cream on it. It was just a fun little thing.

We can take things really seriously, and think about activism, but then, we can also just have fun options for food, specific for an activation.

Skift Table: I know you mentioned innovation, and looking at ways to reinvent our perceptions of a restaurant that’s in a hotel. You actually have a really long … A deep family history of innovation, in dining, in your family.

I don’t know if you guys know this, but her dad actually invented the McDonald’s Extra Value Meal.

Dimayuga: Yeah.

Skift Table: Your family’s also behind Red Ribbon Bakery, which I used to go to all the time, when I was a kid-

Dimayuga: Oh, you did? Amazing.

Skift Table: What are some of your plans for future innovations?

Dimayuga: Whoa, yeah, you really pumped me up. I’m definitely not inventing an Extra Value Meal. My dad worked for McDonald’s for 17 years, and, in the ’90s, developed the set meals that eventually became … That, actually right away, became the Extra Value Meal.

Then, my family … My grandmother’s family owns a Filipino bakery, called Red Ribbon, which got sold to Jollibee, which is The Philippines … It’s like the Filipino version of McDonald’s. They sell sweet spaghetti, and fried chicken.

Skift Table: What are some other future things you have up your sleeve?

Dimayuga: I’m always interested in thinking about innovation, and how we can think about future food systems. A partner of mine, who’s a frequent collaborator that I’ve been working with for the past few years is Dr. Arielle Johnson, and she’s a food chemist.

I met her because she’s one of the founders of the Noma Fermentation Lab. I got to work with her, because we took over Noma, and I participated in the MAD Symposium, which is a huge chef conference they throw every year.

We have a lot of ideas on what we can do together. We’re gonna continue our collaborative work together. We actually … TBA, I can’t really announce what it is, but we worked together, talking about the future of food, in a panel talk, at the MAD Symposium.

Who have we been told is the future of food, and what have we been told is the future of food … Maybe that’s AI, or like Soylent, but we can actually approach the future of food as more interdisciplinary. It doesn’t have to be the people funding it always have to be venture capitalists. It could be people that view their work in an interdisciplinary way, which is how I approach my chef work.

For her, as a food scientist, she also is definitely an interdisciplinary worker, where, for example, when I found out from her that her dad is a performance artist in the Basque region of Spain, I was like, “Okay, that’s why we …” This is why this connection makes sense to me, because we just got along so well, and she’s somebody that I wanna continue to work with. She will be a collaborator of ours at the Standard.

I’ve also worked with this food/agriculture business called Small Hold Farms. They’re based out of Brooklyn, and they create temperature-, and humidity-controlled boxes, where you can grow mushrooms out of recycled substrate. You use … They basically create recipes for mushrooms. I think when we’ve seen this … When I’ve seen people doing this, they often make oyster mushrooms, cuz those are the easiest to grow.

What they’ve done is to develop recipes, using specific types of wood that is saw dust from a mill, just basically waste material, rice hulls. They add spores to the mix, and then, they will deliver mushroom spores in bags, and then, you can grow mushrooms on site. I worked with them, building the first mushroom farm, at Mission Chinese, and we have future plans together.

Those are all things that get me really excited, and they are very specific, but they all make sense to all the collaborative work that I’ve done with chefs, and other creatives in the past.

Skift Table: That sounds like amazing stuff.  Let’s take some questions from the audience. Let’s see …  How does your creative process vary between creating food, and experiences for a hotel, versus a standalone restaurant?

Dimayuga: I think the one big, and beautiful thing about how the food experiences at a hotel, versus a standalone restaurant, is we can do more. I would often do, at restaurants, piecemeal events, like we would … I’ve done an event, where we turned Mission into … Which is a Chinese restaurant/Asian restaurant … We turned it into a steakhouse-themed restaurant for Halloween, and that was our costume. All the waiters wore tuxedos, and then, I made a giant shrimp sculpture for cocktail hour. It was really fun. Everyone dressed up that we invited, in Halloween costumes.

I think what’s really great about the hotels is we can do site-specific events like that, but then, we can, then, also have bigger initiatives that people can experience nationally, just like Chef Stands Up. I think that’s what I’m really excited about, cuz it’s basically on a different level, so that’s very new for me, and very difficult to juggle, but fun.

Skift Table: What can the restaurant industry do to make lesser-represented chefs feel more welcome?

Dimayuga: I think that one great thing about … Thinking about hotels as … That the entire property, as one living, breathing space, is that there’s opportunities to … They’re multi-outlets, or there’s different ways that you could serve food. I think that if you’re thinking about making the space in a really dynamic way, each outlet should be very different from each other, so there’s a reason why people go to each outlet.

In that respect, I think that you can offer really diverse foods, global foods. I think I throw that around a lot, within the Standard; how do we think about food more globally? What types of ethnic cuisine can we serve? Also, thinking about …

We threw a Fashion Week dinner party last … A couple weeks ago. What’s really great about my position now is we could celebrate these … It was a Women in Fashion Dinner, and we celebrated women that have done distinguished work in the fashion industry, but a lot of them were people that I’ve been around for a while, making work, maybe, for 10-15 years.

I thought that what would be really important to make this space a lot more dynamic is think about younger generations of designers, or people that are maybe not at that level, but invite them, too; that maybe they’re working their way up to be a fashion photographer, or they’re writers, and they care about fashion. Really diversifying the spaces, and thinking about diversity, not just ethnically, but inter-generationally, and just really trying to approach it in the most intersectional way that we can.

Skift Table: Sounds good. Well, thank you so much, Angela. We really appreciate you being here.

Dimayuga: Thank you.

Read More Recaps and Interview Transcripts From Skift Restaurants Forum

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