We asked 27-year-old food lover Diane Chang to photograph everything she ate for a month. Click the PDF above to see selected dishes.
Illustrations by Gluekit. Photographs courtesy of Diane Chang.
On the Tuesday before we meet, Diane Chang sends me a list of places where she wants to eat in the coming week. Here it is, in alphabetical order: ABC Kitchen, Abistro, Bhojan, Bianca, Cafe Katja, Char No. 4, Coppelia, Cotan, Diner, Eisenberg’s, Han Joo Chik BBQ, Henan Feng Wei, Marlow & Sons, Schnitzi, St. Anselm, Sun in Bloom, Tanoreen, Upstate Craft Beer & Oyster Bar, Vinegar Hill House, and Wondee Siam. For our dinner, she eventually settles on Wondee Siam II, on Ninth and 54th (but emphatically not the original Wondee Siam, on Ninth and 53rd).
Chang arrives at the tiny Thai place with her friends Jasmine, a stylist, and Marcos, a graphic designer. They, too, have their food bona fides: Marcos snaps quick photos of each dish as it is placed on the table; Jasmine’s phone holds carefully curated favorite-restaurant lists for New York and L.A. Both are a little older—30-plus to Chang’s 27—but Chang is clearly the group’s leader. She has picked the place, orders for everyone (shrimp salad, deep-fried catfish, and crispy pork off the restaurant’s “secret menu”), and generally steers the conversation toward the plates in front of us.
Petite and stylish, with a self-consciously goofy smile, Chang works in online and social-media marketing. She is, in culinary parlance, a civilian—her job has nothing to do with New York’s sprawling food industry or with the chattering class that’s gathered around it. Her leisure time and modest discretionary income, however, are devoted almost entirely to food and restaurants.
“I’m not a foodie, I just like what I like,” she says. “Yes, I know, it’s just like hipsters saying, ‘I’m not a hipster.’ ” (The cliché cracks her up.) “But it’s like when my boss says, ‘Oh, you’re such a foodie.’ I’m like, Oh God. When I hear the word foodie, I think of Yelp. I don’t want to be lumped in with Yelp.” Just then, her iPhone goes off, and I glimpse her screen saver. It’s a close-up photo of a pile of gnarly, gristly pig’s feet, skin singed and torn, half-rendered fat and pearlescent cartilage beaming back the flash. The dish is from a tiny food stall in Taipei, she tells me. “It’s braised in a soy-based sauce, and they serve it on rice with pickled mustard greens.”
There have, of course, always been people in this town for whom food is a serious cultural pursuit. Traditionally, they have been older, white, and affluent. Knowing the newest and finest restaurants to frequent and where to find the very best things to eat have long been essential New York status markers. One of the main hallmarks of twentysomething life, on the other hand, has typically been to not give a shit what and where you eat. As recently as the late nineties, a steady diet of burritos and takeout Chinese, with an ironic-but-not-really TV dinner thrown in now and then, was part of the Generation X ethic. An abiding interest in food was something for old people or snobs, like golf or opera. The notion of idolizing chefs, filling notebooks with restaurant “life lists,” or talking about candied foie gras on a date was out-and-out bizarre.
Lately, however, food has become a defining obsession among a wide swath of the young and urbane. It is not golf or opera. It’s more like indie rock. Just like the music of, say, Drag City bands on a nineties campus, food is now viewed as a legitimate option for a hobby, a topic of endless discussion, a playground for one-upmanship, and a measuring stick of cool. “It’s a badge of honor,” says Chang. “Bragging rights.” She says she disliked M.Wells, last year’s consensus “It” restaurant, partly because of “the fact that everybody loves it, and I just don’t want to believe the hype.” The quest for ever greater obscurity, a central principle of the movement, reaches a kind of event horizon in Chang’s friend James Casey, the publisher of an idiosyncratic annual food magazine called Swallow. Lately, Casey has been championing the theory that mediocre food is better than good, the equivalent of a jaded indie kid extolling the virtues of Barry Manilow.
Food’s transformation from a fusty hobby to a youth-culture phenomenon has happened remarkably fast. The simultaneous rise of social networks and camera phones deserves part of the credit (eating, like sex, is among the most easily chronicled of pursuits), but none of this would have happened without the grassroots revolution in fine dining. “You can now eat just as quality food with a great environment without the fuss and the feeling of sitting at the grown-up table,” says Chang’s friend Amy, who is, incidentally, a cook at the very grown-up Jean Georges.