The first time I met Angela Dimayuga, she had just become famous. Well, famous for a New York chef with fewer than 20,000 Instagram followers and no TV deal, cookbook, or restaurant of her own. It was this past May, and we were at a gala in Brooklyn for the arts nonprofit Creative Time, honoring Opening Ceremony founders Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Dimayuga’s close friends. After serving platters of activated-charcoal-and-salt-crusted fish garnished with delicate purple flowers to hundreds of guests, the chef, dressed in a glittering midnight-blue dress, reflected on her newfound fame. “At first it was kind of nerve-wracking because my phone was blowing up,” she said. “At this point I have nothing to lose.”
Notoriety had caught her by surprise: In April, when Dimayuga was 31 and had been at Mission Chinese Food in New York for over five years, she was invited by a writer for IvankaTrump.com to be interviewed about her role as a female entrepreneur. The writer explained that the resulting profile would feature on a “non-political platform of empowerment for modern working women.”
Dimayuga posted a screenshot of the invitation on Instagram, her preferred social medium, along with a response, which read in part: “I don’t believe that IvankaTrump.com is truly a ‘non-political platform of empowerment for [women],’” she wrote. “So long as the name Trump is involved, it is political and frankly, an option for the IvankaTrump.com business to make profit. I don’t see anything empowering about defunding Planned Parenthood, barring asylum [for] women refugees, rolling back safeguards for equal pay, and treating POC/LGBT and the communities that support these groups like second class citizens.” She concluded by stating that, as a queer woman of color with immigrant parents, contributing to the Trump brand would go against everything she stood for. The note promptly went viral, and within days, the exchange had made it onto HuffPost, Elle, and the Daily Mail.
At the gala, Dimayuga told me that though her identity was no secret, she didn’t feel like she had to identify her sexuality or where she came from so emphatically. Besides, she said at the time, she really only used Instagram as a way to deliver life updates to her friends. But the overwhelming response was a reminder that she did have a platform, however comparatively small. “I’m able to move around in a way that feels more purposeful now,” she said, as a crowd of fashion- and art-world notables mingled around us, holding bathtub-themed cocktails. “When I vocalize my ideals, people who are paying attention know what I stand for.”
When the first Mission Chinese Food opened in 2010 as a pop-up inside San Francisco Chinese restaurant Lung Shan, it was an instant sensation. Danny Bowien, the spry chef who collaborated with Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint to morph their earlier pop-up, Mission Street Food, into Mission Chinese, became the subject of every restaurant writer’s dreams. With a gentle hipster aesthetic, he broke rules — kung pao pastrami, chicken wings made with Sichuan peppercorns that made you feel like your lips had been replaced with two furry caterpillars — and he had a compelling backstory (born in Korea, adopted by white parents, raised in Oklahoma). Bowien taught himself how to make Chinese food, combined it with his own distinctive taste, and became a star.
In 2012, Bowien brought his eclectic vision for Chinese-American cuisine to New York, opening the first East Coast iteration of Mission Chinese on Orchard Street. A keg of free beer waited for you at the entrance. The restaurant raked in praise, most notably from New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, who, without restraint, compared the operation to Led Zeppelin and named it his top restaurant of the year. Then, suddenly, it closed — it had a dubious legal right to occupy one part of the building, as well as a mouse problem — and Bowien opened a Mexican-ish restaurant, now closed, called Mission Cantina. Meanwhile, plans were laid to open a bigger, better, and all-around more legit version of Mission Chinese.
Dimayuga, who was hired by Bowien in 2012 to help open the original location of Mission Chinese NY, was there through all the ups and downs — but maybe you wouldn’t know that. “I had to say, ‘Danny, you're going to act as founder and owner. You don't need to know about any of my line cooks. This is my team. This is how I want it to start,’” she said of opening the second Mission location on East Broadway in 2015. “We could start compartmentalizing our roles.”
The longing for structure the second time around, especially given the new spot’s ambition — a pizza oven, a 50-item menu, an enormous banquet-style dining room, three large-format dinners — may be among the reasons why Dimayuga has been able to stay floating just barely beneath the mainstream radar for so long. In that time, she’s focused on spreading the wealth of her talents, delegating and making decisions as a leader, and forging collaborations across the art, fashion, food, nightlife, and academic worlds. Her mentors and friends all told me independently that she is an artist as much as a cook. Danielle Levitt, a professional photographer and director and friend of Dimayuga’s, said of the chef, “She wants to do everything all the time. She’s a proper maximalist.”
But this year, after the Ivanka Trump moment, and while working on a range of projects that she’s had to fit in between her day-to-day responsibilities as Mission Chinese’s executive chef, Dimayuga naturally started growing apart from the restaurant that she made her name in. In August, she told me, "I'm kind of unofficially more of a creative director now. But I will always be the chef here until I'm not the chef here."
During the last week of October, six months after our first conversation, and three weeks after Bowien announced that a new Mission was going to open in Bushwick in 2018, Dimayuga publicly resigned. She broke the news on Instagram, giving measured thanks to Bowien and the restaurant. “Everything that has come for us — taking on the good and bad (that spectrum is soo wide) has taught me so much.” Neither Mission Chinese nor Danny Bowien has acknowledged Dimayuga’s departure publicly; the other week, Bowien posted a call for a line cook and an executive chef to his Instagram, with no mention of the person they’d presumably be replacing.
Leaving means walking away from what Dimayuga had worked to help build from the ground up, which has left some to speculate about what exactly could have happened. (Bowien did not return several requests for comment on this story.) To Dimayuga, any amount of speculation that isn’t focused on her future misses the point. “Mission Chinese feels like me,” she said one evening on the phone after her resignation had gone public. “But it's me doing the best version of what I thought Mission in San Francisco could become.”
Dimayuga’s eyes seem to channel every flickering proton of her enormous energy — she has a way of locking them on you without flinching, which makes you pray that you are saying something interesting. They are frequently lined with electric-blue eyeliner; like other members of the Mission Chinese Food staff, Dimayuga doesn’t conform to one expected fashion standard — some days we met, she was wearing Kappa tearaway track pants split open to the thigh on either side; on others, brushed-cotton turtleneck crop tops with necklaces and chains, always one as heavy as a bike chain, clasped with a silver lock. Her belly button is pierced with a safety pin and her hair is bobbed, often slicked back, shorn shaggy on its ends, and dyed blue, or sometimes green. To the James Beard Award ceremony in 2016 — at which Dimayuga was up for, and subsequently lost, the award for Rising Star Chef of the Year (an award Bowien won in 2013) — she was “excited to wear something to the black-tie event that would be weird.” She said she settled on an all-silver outfit with a miniskirt. Dimayuga’s fashion sense would appear to have had an impact on Bowien, too: Over the years, he’s morphed from a puffy hipster to a lean, sharply angled, currently neon-green-haired SoulCycle fanatic, with a downtown fashion-forward style featuring crop tops of his own and occasional layers of nail polish.
Dimayuga is the fifth of six children, four girls and two boys. Her parents immigrated to America from the Philippines in the 1970s, settling in the Bay Area and raising their children in San Jose, California. There, her father was a manager at a McDonald’s — he came up with the idea that became the Extra Value Meal — where Dimayuga learned to appreciate fast food and all-American flavors, an appreciation that is one of the many things that she says she and Bowien have in common. When Dimayuga was young, her preferred Saturday morning TV was Jacques Pépin and Julia Child on PBS, and at age 10, she had an intense vision of herself zooming around a city in a car, on the way to “do a chef errand,” which cemented her life’s path. For college, she decided to sidestep culinary school to study hotel and restaurant management, but ended up getting her BA in Humanities instead. After graduating, she moved to New York to figure out what in the hell she was supposed to do next.
Jean Adamson, chef and owner of Vinegar Hill House and Vinegar Hill House Foods, was introduced to Dimayuga just as she was starting out. “I don’t think we talked much about food that day,” Adamson said of the first time they met. “We talked about music and design and things that we were interested in.” At that point, Dimayuga’s plan was to stay in New York for a year, then move to Japan to teach English. But she ended up working the line at Vinegar Hill for three years — “We called her Toots,” Adamson said, though she couldn’t remember why, exactly — went to what Dimayuga called “weird parties” after shifts, then left for a six-month sabbatical, part of which she spent bicycling through Vietnam. When she got back to New York over the holidays in 2011, she was itching to find a new job.
One afternoon outside of Dimes, the painfully cool California-lite cafe on the Lower East Side a couple of blocks from Mission Chinese, Dimayuga recounted the first time she met Bowien. “I had a big-ass backpack full of ingredients because I was going to make mini-corn dogs for my friend's birthday,” she said. “I was on my bike when Danny Bowien called me. When I first met him, I'd never had Sichuan peppercorns before.” According to Dimayuga, he had heard of her from a friend, and they met and talked about opening the first Mission Chinese in New York. Four days later, Dimayuga was in Atlanta, cooking alongside Bowien for a pop-up. “I barely knew him and I was very confused about the whole thing but I was like, ‘Fuck it, worst case scenario is I don't get this job,’” she said. “The even worse-case scenario is that he's psycho.” The next step, Dimayuga said Bowien explained, was to come to San Francisco to trail him to see if she was right for the job. Dimayuga learned that Bowien had booked her flight to San Francisco before she had even made it down to Atlanta. “That’s Danny,” she said.
For six weeks, Dimayuga trailed Bowien in the San Francisco restaurant. “I was living with him. He was waking me up in his underwear,” she said. “It was really early on that I could tell that Danny trusted me. It felt premature. In my mind, I was like, ‘I don't really know you, but okay.’” Back in New York, Bowien and Dimayuga got to work to get the first New York Mission off the ground. When Naomi Pomeroy, chef and owner of Beast in Portland, Oregon, and now a close friend of Dimayuga’s, ran into Bowien at an Eater event that year, she met Dimayuga for the first time. “I was like, ‘Oh, cool, he’s got a lady sidekick now. This is awesome.’”
While Bowien’s many selves were the face of the Mission Chinese Food brand, by the end of 2014, Dimayuga was busy building the restaurant now at 171 East Broadway largely, she claims, in her own image. “We knew we were doing something that was really weird and different,” she told me. “We're not a fine dining restaurant. We're not a casual restaurant. We had to be somewhere in between.” Dimayuga decided to take it upon herself to give the new spot the structure she wanted. “It became really important to me to think about work-life balance because of how badly we'd done it in the past,” she said, describing the experience of opening the Mission Chinese on Orchard and working 16-hour days, back to back to back. “I had to tell Danny, ‘We are literally killing our cooks. They don't want to work here anymore.’ We started paying people hourly. I think it's important for a chef to have interests outside of just the restaurant. When we opened on East Broadway, I told my chefs, ‘You're assigned two days off a week. Take the two days off.’”
In an interview with Sight Unseen in May, Dimayuga explained how much of the vibe of the East Broadway Mission Chinese was her brainchild, too: “For our menus, pens, and matchbooks, I collaborated with Eric Wrenn, who’s the design director at Artforum. I’ve also known him for 15 years. It was fun because I got to work with friends who could add something, and do it cheaply, too. … Those initial collaborations helped me to consider the longevity of what we include in the space, and they also helped me figure out what I like. I’m just a cook, you know?” At dinner at the restaurant in July, Dimayuga looked around. “Everything visual that you see, I selected,” she told me.
When Mission Chinese reopened on East Broadway in 2015, Dimayuga had seemingly gotten what she wanted: a trendy instant-institution with a more organized and traditional restaurant structure — specifically, she said, a.m./p.m. shifts, more carefully considered pricing, and those mandated days off. The business transitioned from a smelly rebel teenager to a RISD grad student in a noise band. One of Dimayuga’s flagship dishes, Josefina’s House Special Chicken, stuffed with chorizo, egg, butter, and raisins and served on a silver platter, became one of the restaurant’s most popular plates. (Devotees trying to order it now will be disappointed: Dimayuga confirmed that following her resignation, it was taken off the menu.) Dimayuga also said she had reworked recipes from the San Francisco location — like Bowien’s famous Chongqing chicken wings, mapo tofu, and kung pao pastrami — into the versions that’ve been on the menu for the “past three years,” and developed recipes herself for many of the restaurant’s 50-plus dishes, including the koji fried chicken, green tea noodles, black kale with umeboshi, tapioca egg dumplings, and the now-famous bread service.
Along with Bowien’s vision of an old-school Chinese banquet, there was merch and art installations and a luscious-meets-sexy-meets-wacky vibe that Dimayuga says was all her own — pink and jade place settings, a grand piano, and a Twin Peaks-themed bathroom. “People might think that what we do at Mission is tongue-in-cheek. They might think it's funny and wacky and goofy. But it's definitely not ironic.” (One of the few things Dimayuga admits to hating is irony.)
Mission Chinese is one of the rare restaurants where seriousness and cheekiness not only coexist, but couldn’t survive without the other. Dimayuga’s food is idiosyncratic and playful but deep, like Bowien’s, which helps explain why the pair have been able to work together for so long. For a Halloween party at Mission last October, Dimayuga devised a giant shrimp cocktail, which a chef with a conventionally wired brain might envision as shrimp cocktail flayed around an enormous sherbet glass with a vat of cocktail sauce on the side. To Dimayuga, this meant a free-standing sculpture that looked like a shrimp — made entirely out of shrimp. The crustacean sculpture wore a frill on its tail and was pleasingly grotesque to behold. This website described the meta monster simply as “what surely is one of the world’s largest shrimp cocktails.”
“I imagine her world is a kind of a nouveau-chef world,” Dimayuga’s friend Levitt, the photographer and director, said. “It’s like how uniquely Danny approaches cheffing. He doesn’t look like anybody else, he doesn’t make food like anybody else, he’s occupied spaces where he was decidedly unwanted. She has that same deal.” The difference for Dimayuga, she added, is that Dimayuga has been more public about her politics. “She’s a contemporary food person who takes this localized cool thing and positions it in pride for what she does, pride for her sexuality, pride for her queerness, pride for her race.”
“That platform doesn’t exist without Danny’s trust,” Pomeroy said about Dimayuga and Bowien’s working relationship. “There are always going to be figureheads, and they have people behind them doing the actual work. Angela has been that person for a long time.”
The Ivanka Trump incident happened at a time in Dimayuga’s life when she felt, like she had before, that everything was changing. Six weeks later, she decided to organize a lesbian-centered girl party with lawyer and curator Pati Hertling that was more to her taste than the current other girl party offerings. “I knew that I wanted to throw a girl party,” she said. “I knew that I wanted it to be intersectional. I knew that I wanted it to be interdisciplinary, where all the hosts would be non-nightlife-driven people.” Initially she had conceived of it as a Blasian party, until she realized people she admires in a collective called BUFU, a community of black and East-Asian organizers and activists, had that base covered. Instead, Dimayuga and Hertling called it GUSH — an intersectional lesbian party that spanned across disciplines.
Dimayuga and Hertling priced admission on a reverse economic scale. “Since women get paid less than men, it will cost $5 for women,” she told me the night before the party. “Men pay $10 but you have to be gay. If you're straight, it will cost you $75 because this space isn't for you. It's not to exclude them — they can come! But I'm trying to control the straight male gaze.”
At the party, which they held in late July in the musty basement bar of La Caverna on the Lower East Side, the scene was a melange of notable members of the queer scene. While we observed JD Samson flirting with a person by the bar, a friend I had come with pointed out women from “lesbian Instagram” who she obsessively followed and crushed on. The party hosts came from a variety of different disciplines: DJ and event producer Christine McCharen-Tran, New York Times Magazine writer Jenna Wortham, artist Sable Elyse Smith, curator and activist Kimberly Drew. While the trans rapper Quay Dash performed, and others DJed, Dimayuga had infused her own vodka and made special shisha for hookahs. It was so successful that she and Hertling were asked to throw a version of the party at MoMA PS1. It was themed back-to-school gay-straight alliance night, and there were branded pencils.
“I’ve talked about queer theory as an approach to running a restaurant,” she explained at dinner the week of the first GUSH party while a plate of Mongolian long beans was being set on the table. “Say a food runner came up to my friends at a table and said, 'What can I do for you ladies?' I'd have to talk to the manager and explain that you can't just assume that we're all ladies even though we might be wearing lipstick.” The successful ecology of the restaurant, she said, is dependent on creating a place representative of how we’d like to see the world reflected outside the dining room doors, which means if a manager is training staff to pour wine first for women, or a server refers to a table as “ladies,” this behavior gets interrogated.
This ideal flies in the face of everything that has been conventionally accepted in restaurant culture — that it’s masculine, inflexible, and rampant with abuses, both big and small. One wonders if restaurant owners across America are ready for a reckoning as swift and monumental as the kind that came down upon John Besh, whose restaurant group was hit with allegations by 25 women last month that it fostered and even encouraged a culture of sexual harassment. “It seems that in these male-dominated environments, women are at the same time victimized, asked to speak up, and asked to take action. It's taxing and emotional to deal with on such a personal level,” Dimayuga said in an email. While being in a position of leadership would make dealing with sexual harassment in the kitchen “very difficult to navigate objectively,” she said she was disappointed that so few men in the industry have chosen to speak out publicly.
At Mission Chinese, Dimayuga insisted that hiring management who shared her “core values” was one step toward combating the issues that plague most restaurants. “The owner of this restaurant is not queer,” she said of Bowien, “but I'm queer. My general manager is queer. This is a queer restaurant. … If people who work here know that the person who runs this place is queer, they're going to have to think about the words that they use more. I think it makes them a little bit more sharp. If you're confused about something, you just ask.”
Shortly after Dimayuga resigned, I asked what would happen to the restaurant’s queerness when she would no longer be there to nourish it. “I feel like it has the capacity to remain queer because of the infrastructure that's in place,” she said, noting that the general manager — a queer woman of color — was still in charge. “And also because of Danny being Danny. I'm not turning my back on something that will just crumble. I've seen that happen. It will feel different, but the queerness has the capacity to still be there.”
Even if the restaurant culture she built endures, it wasn’t made without disappointments along the way. There were plenty of starts and stops while working with Bowien, like having to help open three restaurants and close one in under six years, and the opportunity to open her own restaurant, like Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar under Momofuku’s umbrella, never coming to pass. “It was always on the table that I would become partner or own part of the restaurant,” she said. “It just never worked out on a timeline that I was happy with.”
Over the course of a two-hour dinner in the front room of Mission Chinese Food this past July — while we slurped Hokkaido uni ramen, kabocha squash broth, and broccoli beef brisket — Dimayuga was approached by different groups of friends and acquaintances no fewer than six times.
One was the co-founder of the queer bathhouse Shui (“The queerness doesn't come from sexuality, really. It's more sensorial and intersectional,” Dimayuga explained). One woman, who formerly worked as Dimayuga’s line cook, was dressed in a marshmallow-y pink getup and glasses — “She has two kids and she used to own her own restaurant,” Dimayuga said. “She's a hot mom.” Three women with short haircuts and an intimidatingly utilitarian manner of dressing — think loose-fitting Orwellian jumpsuits — greeted Dimayuga warmly. With every new guest stopping by, she grew more and more delighted.
Dimayuga introduced me to each visitor as she sat on a diagonal talking to them, gesturing broadly as she chit-chatted, which served as a signal to her current dining companion that everyone was welcome to contribute. Over that two-hour dinner, Dimayuga dropped the word “collaboration” some 20 times, which averages out to about once every six minutes. She ruminated over one with a woman in France with whom she shared a mutual appreciation for French pastry chef Pierre Hermé; the curated menu for that gala celebrating Opening Ceremony’s Leon and Lim; and a green tea noodle collaboration with a ramen maker in New Jersey. To Dimayuga, being interdisciplinary has always been paramount. Cooking, for her, isn’t solitary — it’s a way to get at something bigger.
Dimayuga’s most immediate project after leaving Mission Chinese is perhaps surprisingly conventional: a cookbook. But, as in all things Dimayuga, she plans on using it as a platform for something she considers under-covered and personally meaningful. “I'm going to talk a lot about how Filipinos have been this hidden ethnic background,” she said over the phone. “I was born in America and I know a lot of Filipino-Americans in my generation who are trying to seek what that means for us.” Holding the executive chef role, being present in the restaurant, and trying to collaborate in all the ways she has, would likely have made devoting time to a cookbook of this kind impossible, she says.
Vinegar Hill House’s Adamson, who Dimayuga pinpoints as one of her most influential mentors, is extremely hopeful for this new chapter for the young chef. “I don’t think she’s going down the traditional route,” Adamson said, “whereas right now, I’m peeling cucumbers. She’s still a chef. Her fucking food is delicious. She’s creative. And she’s on the way to becoming a celebrity.”
On that point, Dimayuga might demur. “I don’t aspire to be one of these chef gods,” she said of her future. “There's a community that I want to build and I want to seek out bettering this industry in my own way.” One of those community-building collaborations is with Arielle Johnson, a visiting scientist and director’s fellow at MIT Media Lab, on changing the New York Department of Health’s policy around fermentation. Another collaboration will be with the immigrant-led culinary organization the League of Kitchens; yet another will find Dimayuga spending more time at the Lower Eastside Girls Club. “When I left,” she said, “I was like, ‘Whoa, I can actually do these things now that are going to change what restaurants in New York can do.’”
Maybe someday she’ll open a restaurant of her own, she says — but certainly not now, and only if she can do it in a way that suits her. “As a kid, I didn't ever say, ‘I want to be a James Beard Award-winning chef.’ I’m definitely from a new generation. These empire builders who have these globally expansive brands, who are always building, building, building, I didn't really relate to any of that,” Dimayuga told me. “For me, there has to be an internal community-based aspect to all of this.”
“I don’t need her to announce that she’s opening a restaurant,” Pomeroy said of Dimayuga’s future. “That path is fucking boring.”
Dayna Evans is a writer in New York.
Elle Pérez is an artist from the Bronx, NY, who works primarily in photography.
Fact checked by Jenny Hendrix
Copy edited by Rachel Kreiter
Thanks to Brittany Holloway-Brown, Serena Dai, and Sonia Chopra