Po-Po’s chef, Diane Chang, honors age-old traditions in brand-new ways
“I think something that gets lost when we cook is the storytelling part,” Diane Chang says. It took the Brooklyn-based self-taught chef, who hosts pop-up dinners and caters under the name Po-Po’s, a number of years to realize that, though. “Po-Po” means “grandma” in Chinese, and Chang named her venture in honor of the family matriarch who helped inspire her love of cooking—a skill she did not always appreciate growing up in Southern California in the ’80s and early ’90s. “My parents are immigrants, and when they got here, fast food was considered a ‘healthy,’ cheap option. We were definitely not well off, so it was that or my grandmother’s cooking, this duality of eating crazy-bad-for-you fast food and also really good homemade, high-quality Taiwanese-Chinese food,” she says. “When I was in high school and college, I preferred fast food because I would see my grandma in the kitchen for days.” Her family’s love of restaurants like Denny’s and Sizzler also had as much (if not more) to do with acclimation than taste. “I think that in an immigrant family, you put anything that’s American on a pedestal; we’re trying so hard to blend in,” she says.
It wasn’t until Chang’s third year in college at UCLA that her interest in food spiked. She started seeking out farmers’ markets and new restaurants. Then one weekend she decided to make dinner for the guy she was dating, and after working her way through butternut squash ravioli and a veal recipe from an “Easy Italian” cookbook, she was hooked. “I just fell in love with the process, but mostly I fell in love with the feeling of feeding him. That’s what has kept me wanting to cook for people, that feeling of sharing,” she says. “I think that ties back to the way my grandmother was, forcing me to eat all the time. I realized later that that’s how she expressed her love and care.” So Chang began spending time in the kitchen with her grandmother, soaking up her knowledge and writing down her recipes. “She was so frustrated because she’d be like, ‘a pinch of this,’ and I’d stop her and I’d make her put the pinch in a teaspoon [to measure it],” Chang says with a laugh.
After an editorial stint at Bon Appétit, Chang decided to flex her cooking skills in New York. First she served her take on one of her grandma’s dishes at a bar in Bushwick; then she perfected a gluten-free banana bread and sold it at Lower East Side eatery Dimes (model Karlie Kloss ate it up and praised it on Tumblr); and then she began hosting pop-up dinners showcasing her spin on Sichuan-Taiwanese home cooking at unexpected locations, like a deserted diner in Greenpoint and a fancy Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. These days her dinners hold the opportunity for more than just flavorful experimentation. “In recent years I’ve been really committed to talking about multiculturalism in a different way,” she says. “It’s a blended, globalized world—at some point you’re going to have fusion. But it’s considered appropriation when you just do it and you don’t honor the past, you don’t honor the history, and you don’t educate.” One of her recurring dinner themes honors the ancient Chinese tradition of eating by color for health: every monochromatic course features a different hue, each with its own set of purported benefits. Chang explains these benefits to diners as they dig in to, for instance, chicken stew with crispy noodles (yellow) and hoji-cha pudding with black sesame brittle for dessert—an experience as visual as it is delicious.
Now Chang is ready to take Po-Po’s international. She’ll soon be heading to London to help a friend open a bakery, and collaborate with a Burmese chef to host a dinner demonstrating both the evolution of Burmese and Chinese cultures and what they have in common (the similarity of their mother sauces, for one).
Ultimately, Chang discovered that cooking is an effective way for her to communicate, as her grandmother did. It’s the feeling of the whole that she considers more crucial than the sum of its parts, the courses of a meal. “I always try to promote the idea of community and food, of how food is a really great window into cultures and also to people’s intentions and personalities,” she says. “Sharing food, it’s so intimate. You realize everyone is connected.”
According to traditional Chinese medicine, there is a relationship between five of the body’s internal organs and five different colors.
When it comes to food, each color benefits a specific organ. Green and blue foods—such as spinach, broccoli, and blueberries—nourish the liver.
Red, as in strawberries, tomatoes, or peppers, nourishes the heart.
For the spleen and stomach, yellow foods, like corn, egg yolks, and barley, are best.
Lotus root, cauliflower, and rice are just some of the white foods that benefit the lungs.
And black beans, black sesame, and anything else black are nourishing for the kidneys.
A meal that incorporates them all lends itself to a healthy system.
Stylist Laura Pritchard, Props Amy Elise Wilson, Hair Ashley Rubell At Bernstein & Andriulli Using Bumble & Bumble, Makeup Stephanie Peterson At Art Department Using Marc Jacobs Beaut, Producer Charlii Cruse, Talent Diane Chang, Daria Gwaltney, Trinity Mouzon Wofford, Jenny Tondera, Diego Hadis, JoJo Li, Kapono Chung, Combo Office, Eda Midori, Anna Levenson, Michael Waxer