Womyn Powered Food: Diane Chang

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Diane Chang went from being a food writer to the owner of a successful catering business called Po-Po’s, which honors her late grandmother. Here’s how the California-born chef turned her love of cooking from a passion project to a popular Brooklyn favorite without anyone’s permission.

 

Diane Chang likes to describe herself as a “seat of my pants type person,” so it’s fitting that Po-Po’s, her catering business, was born out of happenstance.

“It was actually very accidental,” she said. “I made this bread for a friend who couldn’t eat gluten…[and] everyone thought it was so good – even people who weren’t gluten-intolerant. They were like, ‘This is something you need to sell. We wish we could buy this at a café near our house,’ and I was like, ‘Well why not just bring a sample to a café and see what they think?’”

Her banana turmeric bread became such a hit that it captured adoration from major celebrities like Karlie Kloss. For Chang, who came to professional cooking later in her career, it offered a subtle reassurance that she was on the right track.

“When I made this particular product, I was just like, ‘Oh, this is not bad. I would eat this all the time,’” she said. “When it started taking off, a part of me – as stupid as this sounds – was like, ‘Oh, I’m really glad that someone else recognizes it too.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so shocked.’”

While Po-Po’s started organically, the inspiration behind it came from Chang’s Sichauanese grandmother, who, ironically enough, never taught her specifically how to cook a single thing. She didn’t share any recipes, but Chang gained a level of respect and admiration for her grandmother through the amount of love she put into each meal she cooked.

“My grandmother was just a very hard-worker, and she was just so humble and never took anything for granted, [and] big part of it is a result of [what] you go through; if you’re a refugee or if you go through something tragic [like losing] most of your family, which is what happened to her, I think for a lot of people it puts them in a dark place, but I think for my grandmother, she’s just someone who saw hardship as just a hunt,” Chang said. “Her level of grit was very inspiring, and that’s something that I have always looked to as, ‘Hey you know what? If times are tough, this isn’t that tough. This is a cake walk compared to everything else that other people have to go through.’”

After her grandmother passed away in 2015, Po-Po’s became a source of strength for Chang – a way to honor her grandmother’s memory while also exploring her own identity as a first-generation Chinese-American. Now and then, she’ll even try to recreate her grandmother’s dishes, remembering her through the food she so lovingly made.

“Culturally there’s an openness about American culture that Chinese culture didn’t really have back then, so we didn’t talk about feelings all the time, but I could really get a sense of her through the dishes she made,” Chang said. “I think that’s actually now a big part of trying to recreate her food. Since I don’t have recipes that she’s made it’s been like trial and error making her food, and it’s that feeling where you’re like, ‘Is this like what grandma made?’”

While she tailors her menus for each of her customers’ catering needs, Chang loves to incorporate her family’s traditions into food for her clients. Using herbs and ingredients popular in Chinese cuisine like goji berry and, of course, turmeric, is always a favorite.

It took a decade of working in the food industry, first on the editorial side at Bon Appetit, for Chang to feel comfortable, and even with that experience, she still saw herself as an outlier at times.

“I think I always felt like I didn’t have permission to cross over into a field where I didn’t feel like I belong because I didn’t go to culinary school,” she said. “I had like three jobs last year while I was trying to get food off the ground….I got a lot of people [who were] like, ‘No I don’t think you should quit your job. You shouldn’t do this.’ In my head I’m just like, ‘I got one life.’”

Now that she’s chased her dream, she’s also become an inspiration to others, and with her success she wants to help foster a community that helps support other women of color and immigrants in the food industry

“We don’t want to be part of this patriarchal kitchen. We don’t want to have to do things the way that [they] previously [had] always been done – you know, the same aesthetic, the same food, the same approach [or] cooking just for rich folks. All these peoples I’ve worked with share that, and it feels very communal,” she said.

“I’m not sure if I have any particular set business standard of how I want to change the business. I think it’s more just by doing what I’m doing I hope that more women like me or people like me in general feel like they can do it too.”


Interviewed and edited by Ngozi Ekeledo. Photography by Sana Javeri Kadri.

Sana Javeri Kadri