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.
The timeline looks roughly like this: In 1998, Mario Batali gutted the space that was once home to the stodgy Coach House and replaced it with the loud and brilliant Babbo. The Times later cited Babbo’s “Led Zeppelin soundtrack” as “one of the dividing lines between a restaurant with three stars, which it unequivocally deserves, and one with the highest rating of four.” That missed the point. The whole idea was to fuse fine dining and rock and roll. Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 Kitchen Confidential destroyed the archetype of the foofy French chef in a toque and replaced it with an image of cooks as young tattooed badasses. Then, in 2004, a young neurotic chef named David Chang (no relation to Diane) opened Momofuku Noodle Bar, serving what Bourdain has called the kind of food that chefs themselves like to eat after-hours—that is, simple, ingredient-driven food, often global, that is unfailingly delicious but not necessarily expensive or stuffy. Somewhere along the line, young people even began to view cooking as a form of artistic expression. The idea of eating well wasn’t just democratized. It was now, improbably enough, edgy.
Diane Chang is a prime specimen of the new breed of restaurant-goer. The species is obsessive and omnivorous. Although they lean toward cheap ethnic food and revile pretension, they do not ultimately discriminate by price point or cuisine. They might hit a vegan joint like Sun in Bloom one day, its neighbor Bark Hot Dogs the next, then subsist on ramen for a week before blowing a paycheck on a sixteen-course lunch at Ko. They are not especially concerned with locavorism or sustainability or foraging. Sometimes nirvana simply takes the form of an authentic, ice-cold Mexican Coke. They abhor restaurant clichés (Carnegie Deli, Peter Luger) and studiously avoid chains (Olive Garden, McDonald’s) but are not above the occasional ironic trip to either. They consume food media—blogs, books, Top Chef and other “quality” TV shows but definitely not Food Network—like so many veal sweetbreads. Lucky Peach, Chang’s quarterly journal, is required reading. They talk about food and restaurants incessantly, and their social lives are organized around them. Some are serious home cooks who seek to duplicate the feats of their chef-heroes in their own kitchens; others barely use a stove. Above all, they are avowed culinary agnostics whose central motivation is simply to hunt down and enjoy the next most delicious meal, all the better if no one else has yet heard of it. Dish snapshots and social-network check-ins are a given.
As Chang and her friends plow through the menu at Wondee Siam, I feel no need to raise the subject of food. Discounting Marcos’s recent singlehood, which quickly turns into a discussion of his “Single Man diet,” the topic is virtually the only one on the table. A conversational pattern recurs: a restaurant name-drop, a quick Zagat-style assessment, next topic. The amazing Chinese New Year dinner at a Vietnamese place on Orchard (“You have to know the chef”). Lone Star barbecue (“So. Delicious”). A server at Roberta’s (“stuck-up”). Red Rooster (“My girlfriend is really good friends with the chef,” but “it’s just a scene”). This leads to a sidebar on “scene” restaurants—Miss Lily’s, La Esquina, the Smile—with the conclusion that the food is always disappointing.
At one point, Chang turns to me. “So what’s your favorite restaurant in New York?” she asks. Without thinking, I give my standby answer, which hasn’t changed in the past four years or so: Eleven Madison Park. I feel the air whoosh out of the room. “Ah.” There falls a pause while I savor, perhaps for the first time, at age 35, the full extent of feeling old and out of touch. It’s not that the group doesn’t respect chef Daniel Humm. It’s that my answer is so pathetically predictable. I should have said Torrisi, I think. No, Parm. They are probably way over Torrisi already. On the food-as-indie-rock matrix, I have just accidentally confessed to loving the Dave Matthews Band. Chang gives me a forgiving look and reaches for more crispy pork.
Diane Chang was born in a predominantly Chinese community in San Gabriel Valley, near Los Angeles. Her early life was steeped in the tastes and aromas of Sichuan cuisine. Chang’s China-born grandmother, “an amazing, amazing cook,” taught her traditional dishes. As for the local options, “We had Sizzler,” she deadpans. She hadn’t tried American food until grade school, when the one-two punch of sugar and salt predictably floored her. “Like, Lunchables? So much better than the fish my grandmother just spent two hours on,” she says, laughing. “Then you get older and you wise up.” But not before gaining fifteen pounds on UCLA cafeteria food. At the dorm, Chang had an all-day unlimited cafeteria pass, “like a MetroCard for food,” so she ended up popping in for a snack every couple of hours. Trying to right her ways, she developed an eating disorder, and gave up carbs. “Bread is her greatest frenemy,” says her friend Katherine, a former food-magazine staffer. “Who is she kidding? She loves food too much to deny herself anything.”
In 2006, after moving out of the dorm, Chang grew more serious about food as a hobby. She cycled through several identities, from going vegetarian to joining a group called the Burger Club, which was exactly what it sounds like—friends and strangers comparison-eating their way through the L.A. hamburger scene. She began to hit progressively more-obscure places, spurred on by blogs and trying to one-up friends. Chang’s college years coincided with the first explosion of websites like Chowhound—“The ones that were super bare-bones,” she says, “just people talking about food. The food blogs are still big, but they really had their moment in the early aughts. And I think that’s why food became such a thing.” She ate at obscure L.A. haunts, and began frequenting a nameless pop-up Burmese restaurant that operated on weekends out of someone’s garage. After one visit, she got food poisoning. She later reasoned that by Sunday evening, when she had eaten it, the chicken was no longer fresh. So she stopped going—on Sundays.
This was also the time where her trips to New York began, for job interviews and, of course, food. On one such sojourn, Chang managed to get into Momofuku Ko in the first months of its existence, despite the furious loading and reloading of the restaurant’s website at precisely 10 a.m. that landing a reservation requires. She impulsively booked a party of four—the maximum number Ko’s arcane rules allow—and then realized she had no idea whom to invite along. “I was just out of college at the time, so nobody had money,” she remembers. “I was super-poor. It’s like, which one of my friends will shell out 160 bucks for a lunch?” The impasse lasted until Chang’s then-boyfriend found a way to expense half of the outing as client entertainment. The lunch took up three hours, involved sixteen courses, and left Chang, the would-be un-foodie, unimpressed. “Remember when he just made burritos?” she asks, sighing, the culinary equivalent of claiming R.E.M. sold out after Chronic Town.
Besotted with New York, she landed a job and moved here in January 2010. “I was about to be paid close to nothing, but I decided that the pay cut was worth it to live in one of the most exhilarating cities in the world.” She bunked with an old friend in an apartment on the corner of Allen and Broome. It was a perfect young food lover’s destination: one foot in Chinatown, one on the LES. The first thing she did on her first day as a New Yorker was get coffee from 88 Orchard, then banana bread from Babycakes, dumplings from Vanessa’s, and finally a litchi martini at Congee Village. Her first real New York restaurant experience, however, was Blue Hill, with the same ex-boyfriend who footed the bill for Ko. “Since food was a major part of our relationship, we knew we had to pick somewhere delicious for dinner,” Chang remembers. “I was a big fan of Dan Barber.” She had acorn-squash pasta that she didn’t like: too stringy. “Honestly, I don’t remember too much about the meal,” she says, a statement directly contradicted by the previous one, “but the whole experience resonates to this day because I felt kind of out of place among a lot of older, more affluent people. But, oddly enough, wondering how the cost of the meal will affect my budget made me feel more of a New Yorker.”
Chang earns about $70,000 a year; her rent in Park Slope, where she lives now (“the worst food destination ever”), runs $1,100 a month. As for the rest, “I spend it all on food,” she says flatly. During the one week I asked Chang to keep tabs on her restaurant-going and market purchases, she ate at fourteen restaurants, pizza joints, and cafés, and spent $350. The largest single bill she racked up was $58, although Han Joo, a Korean barbecue spot in Flushing famous for its slanted grills that pour rendered pork fat onto kimchee, required a $38 cab ride. Chang also made a few dishes at home, including potatoes with crème frâiche and smoked paprika (a re-creation of a brunch favorite from Vinegar Hill House), pozole, chile verde, a red-lentil soup with pistou, and a fennel salad, the last two from New York Times recipes. When it comes to grocery shopping, Chang hits the nearby Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market every Saturday and buys the rest of her provisions in precision-targeted outings: meat at the Park Slope outpost of the cult upstate butcher Fleisher’s, spices at Sahadi’s. During the week she recorded her purchases, there was only one backslide into the mainstream. After the $20 organic chicken she saw at the farmers’ market proved a little too expensive, she grabbed a couple of shrink-wrapped chicken breasts at Key Food.
About two months after we first meet, I am having dinner with Chang at Williamsburg’s St. Anselm, one of the few places she has yet to cross off her original list. We order butcher’s steak, grilled artichoke hearts (“Don’t you always feel so humbled eating an artichoke?”), a patty melt, and a couple of other dishes I strain to remember two days later; Chang will probably be able to recall them, in succession, two years from now. She photographs each, and shares them on Instagram. Chang keeps a blog, of course. It’s called Beets N’ Jamz (she pairs meals she’s eaten recently, i.e., a breakfast taco from Brooklyn Taco, with songs, i.e., Fleetwood Mac’s “Hypnotized,” and refers to herself as D.J. Panko). It replaces her two previous bread-focused blogs called Lotta Loaf and Baguettaboutit. But these days Chang is much more interested in throwing real-life parties. “Diane is very good about bringing people together,” says her friend Katherine, “and it will always involve food.” Her first year in New York, Chang organized an Oktoberfest picnic for a dozen people in Brooklyn Bridge Park. She made pretzels, pigs in a blanket, and curried ketchup, all from scratch. Chang’s birthdays are equally elaborate culinary group outings: In 2010, she went to Spicy & Tasty, a cult Sichuan eatery in Flushing. Last year, she considered Tanoreen, a Middle Eastern restaurant in Bay Ridge, but decided instead on Tulcingo del Valle, an unassuming Mexican place in Hell’s Kitchen. She also tried to start a Barbecue Club on the model of her Burger Club in L.A., but found the scene too limited. “You’ve got Fatty ’Cue, Fette Sau, Rub, you have Hill Country, Dinosaur … but then it’s like, where are you going to go, Dallas BBQ? Burgers are so much easier in New York. I’m kind of sick of burgers a little bit, though.” Which doesn’t prevent her from sampling my patty melt.
Aside from Robert Sietsema and Jonathan Gold, with their tight focus on rustic and ethnic food, Chang doesn’t trust food critics. She used to simply go on friends’ recommendations, but the blogs changed the game. Now the choice of a place for dinner turns into an oft-tortuous multistep process. When someone recommends a place, Chang goes online. Despite her distrust of Yelp and sites like it, she still reads them compulsively, at least to look at the photos. “It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad,” she says. “I just want to know.” Last night, she had three options, she tells me. “And I was just stressing out and stressing out about it. The reason I ended up choosing Neptune was, like, ‘Okay, I mean, that’s the one from way out of left field, no one ever talks about it, maybe I’ll stumble across a gem.’ But it’s like, I also realize, there’s not a single restaurant no one has ever talked about any more.”
Sometimes, of course, this approach misfires. Neptune, an obscure Polish restaurant on First Avenue, proved the biggest disappointment of the fourteen places where Chang ate that week. The idea belonged to Chang’s then-boyfriend, another card-carrying food fanatic. (For the couple’s first date, they had gone to a festival called “Egg Rolls and Egg Creams.”) Telling me about the Neptune debacle, Chang sounds depressed, apologetic even. “We happened to be in Union Square, which always throws us off in our food choices,” she says. She had suggested ABC Kitchen for her favorite cumin-carrot salad and a glass of wine. Maybe Cotan for Japanese? Or Zabb Elee for Thai? But no, the boyfriend insisted on Neptune. He felt really bad, she says. “It was the first time he’s ever struck out picking a restaurant.” They broke up not long afterward.