Just like noodles and dumplings, creating pretty things has always been a part of life for me. I’ve always loved to paint and draw pictures. There’s proof of it hung up all over my parents house. In our bedroom hallway you’ll find a minimal pencil sketch of a beehive I drew when I was 4 or 5 (Mom, please confirm). On our fireplace mantel there’s a colorful oil painting of my grandparents, me, and the alphabet that I painted when I was… old enough to know the alphabet but not old enough to understand scale. My grandma is like 5 feet taller than my grandpa and me in this painting. I was far from a child art prodigy, believe me. But I was never not making something.
Unlike many people who decided to study architecture, I did not enjoy playing with Legos. Sure, I had them, but I much preferred crayons and pencils. I would like to note that over Christmas I stole my younger cousin’s Harry Potter lego set and had an excellent time putting that together. Why did I study architecture though? I’m not entirely sure... I wrote in my elementary school graduation pamphlet how I wanted to be a chef one day. Should have listened to 10 year old me! Sometime between 4th grade and 9th grade, I picked up a bad habit of playing Sims for endless hours and focused too much on designing their mansions. I loved creating their homes so much that I decided that Architecture was going to be it for me. What I liked about architecture was that it was a seemingly well respected profession that included my artistic passions. Even as a high schooler, I felt like I needed to do something respectable with my life so I could pay back all the hard work my family put into making my life as comfortable and full of opportunity as possible. I wasn’t smart enough to be a doctor, my brother got all the smarty-pants genes. Not that my parents ever forced us to be doctors or lawyers. They weren’t anything close to the stereotypical strict Asian parents. They’re so chill. Except for the occasional “that place is dangerous!” statement from my cautious ex-police officer father. They have always just let my brother and I be who we wanted to be. They still ended up with one kid who wants to be a brain surgeon though… so lucky them! I’m incredibly grateful for that freedom now, because I think that freedom of individuality has allowed my creativity to flourish. That and the fact that my mom is also a super creative and multi-talented person.
While I’m often complaining about the professional practice of architecture. I do think that architecture school and the few years I’ve been working professionally have helped me hone in on my own creative process, whether it’s in regards to design, art, or food. I bet you were wondering when I was going to start talking about that, weren’t ya? I’m getting there...
Architecture school was a great time! I got to hang out with my best friends all day and build things. I truly did love it, despite the lack of sleep and the time I cut my finger pretty badly with an x-acto blade sophomore year. It was full of experimentation, research, concept generation, and so much Thai food. Ugh, I miss Thai Express. I quickly learned that in order to have a successful project and to defend your design you needed a strong reason and concept. You can’t ever say you did something or placed a column there because you thought it was cool. I learned that the hard way. Design moves should be made thoughtfully and with intention. This thought process causes you to move a little slower sometimes, which I think is absolutely fine! Better actually. Unless you just want to be a cool content generating machine… then you do you. But I just can’t operate that way.
Architectural practice is similar to school but definitely different. All the fun creative aspects of design get muddled a bit with practical things like budget, timelines, client relations, and brand standards. All important things though. Even art has to go through these real life constraints, but if you think about them in a more positive way they can greatly benefit your work. Thankfully, at my current design firm we try to develop strong concepts and narratives that help guide us throughout the entire creative process. This narrative is our guiding light. It’s constant in the back of our heads as we select the tile we want on our walls or what sequence of spaces we want the user to experience.
So how does all of this impact me as a food blogger?
I’m definitely still trying to figure this out and by no means consider myself an expert food blogger. But in the last 2 years that I’ve been blogging consistently, I’ve noticed a shift in the way I approach recipes and styling and it’s definitely resulted in more engaging content and more delicious recipes. In the last few months, I’ve thought more carefully about the type of recipes I want to develop for Eat Cho Food and not just create recipes that will get a whole bunch of likes on Instagram.
When I get a recipe idea I ask myself these questions:
How does this recipe relate to my narrative and my identity?
What is the story I’m trying to share?
Does this recipe already exist? If so, what about this recipe separates it from all the noise on the internet?
Will my audience connect with this recipe?
Will it look good?
If you’re working with a brand sponsor, you’ll also want to ask yourself if the recipe relates to that brand’s message and check if there are any specific requirements outlined by them. Again, you can use these to your advantage!
In a sense, I treat most recipes like a design project. I want it to relate to my story, I want it to look beautiful, I want it to taste great, and I want it to be something new and inventive. I totally understand that not every recipe is going to have some deep narrative or change the food world, but at least I’m trying. One of the biggest takeaways from my design job is to challenge the way you would typically approach a problem and that being a little uncomfortable is a good thing.
This cake that I made for work is a pretty good example of my creative process. My office had an open call to all our employees and asked us to submit a creative art project that’s inspired by the designs for the McDonald’s HQ project we recently completed. The concept for that project is Geometries of Play: deconstructing the patterns, textures, and shapes of McDonald’s Play Place structures to create an elevated and nostalgic environment. I wanted to submit a project and knew immediately that I wanted my medium to be CAKE. I love making and decorating cakes so much because there is just so much flexibility and techniques for transforming food into a work of art. Buttercream and marzipan are magical that way.
So I asked myself the 5 questions again…
How does this recipe relate to my narrative and my identity? Manipulating a 2 dimensional graphic into a 3 dimensional edible medium combines both my loves for design and experimenting with food.
What is the story I’m trying to share? Cake is a symbol of celebration and fun. It also invokes the same childhood spirit as the McDonald Play Places. Using cake, which is an edible medium, to manifest the designs inspired by McDonalds is an interesting play of food inspired by food. The act of decorating and testing vertical cake layers as a form of pattern making is an act of play!
Does this recipe already exist? If so, what about this recipe separates it from all the noise on the internet? I’ve definitely never seen a cake that looks like this before.
Will my audience connect with this recipe? I think so. It’s something new and different.
Will it look good? Absolutely!
I submitted my project proposal and I got selected! Then very quickly, I was requested to design, bake, decorate, and photograph this cake in a matter of 2 days. That’s a very quick turn around, but I used the time constraint as a way to organize and prioritize what tasks I needed to accomplish a great cake! I listed all the materials I needed, focused on the details of the pattern I wanted to create, sketched out my vision, and got baking.
The cake is a fairly simple chocolate cake with vanilla buttercream. I originally wanted to do a weird flavor like vanilla soft serve and french fries, because I would dip my fries in their soft serve ALL THE TIME, but I had zero time to experiment with flavors with the timeline they gave me. So I just went for a classic chocolate cake, which actually played up the linear pattern very nicely when assembled to have vertical cake layers. If you’re interested in trying out this method yourself I used this tutorial! I just used a chocolate sponge cake recipe instead. Once the cake layers were assembled and crumb coated (that took one whole day), I got decorating. Honestly, this was the hardest part. I had sketched out a general plan for how I wanted to decorate it, but it’s always nerve-wracking when you start placing down blobs of buttercream. IT’S JUST CAKE, KRISTINA! For the decorations, I used a mixture of buttercream, colored marzipan, sesame seeds, sprinkles, and pocky sticks! The mixture of mediums added some nice textures and forms that I was very happy with. At one point I was trying to comb grey lines with buttercream but it looked like butt, so I just smoothed it over and it looked fine. It’s okay to not completely stick with your plan!
After 2 very labor intensive days the cake was done. I carefully transported it to the office. I’m going to write a memoir one day called “Riding in Ubers with Cake on your Lap” - the art of hustling and juggling many passions lolol. Maybe. Anyways, the cake got a positive response! I ended up cutting up the whole cake and took a bunch of artsy photos of the cake slices, with the encouragement of my principal. That felt outside of my comfort zone but ended up actually looking really cool. Again, it’s good to be a little uncomfortable. The cake should be making its way into publication soon and I can’t wait to see it! I’ll share soon.
If you have read this far, I just want to say “THANK YOU. YOU ROCK!” For real though. The fact that you read this far and cared about my creative process means a lot to me. You might not be a food blogger or work in a creative field, but there are still endless opportunities for you to develop a more creative thought process. I realize that I didn’t get into the post recipe development process of styling, photograph, and photo editing… but I’m pretty tired of writing this and I bet you’re tired of reading haha. I’ll save that for another post if you’re interested in more of these thought pieces! Not that I’m ever a really bitter person, but after writing this, I’m feeling all sorts of thankful for my on and off again relationship with architecture and design. I like to think it has made me a better cook, baker, and food blogger : ) no matter where my professional path will take me, I’ll always be a designer!