NYC x SIN: Do good work to eat good food
Posted on June 18, 2015
Jenny Acosta and Benjamin Koh have never met in real life. Jenny works as a freelance food illustrator in Brooklyn, New York while Benjamin works as a freelance graphic designer in Bukit Batok, Singapore. Benjamin has never visited New York City while Jenny has lots of relatives living in Singapore because her mother is of Hainanese Chinese descent.
Jenny exudes a bubbly charm whenever she talks about her work.
How has being a FOOD illustrator changed your life?
J: Making food a focus in my work has really made me want to look closer into all things edible beyond just eating. It has helped me appreciate the detailed process of making food; made me curious about the origins and pioneers of the past and future in food, and has allowed me to find new ways to link the role of the chef to the role of the artist and designer. I’ve been able to enjoy food and food communities in really fun ways by expressing my gratitude or passion for (a certain) flavour through illustration.
What inspires you to keep drawing FOOD?
J: Seeing friends, family, and strangers get as excited about my art in food as they do about a new restaurant or dish they tried inspires me to keep bringing out a new “course” and pushes me to not just draw food as still life, but tell its story in a fresh yet familiar way. I grew up cooking with my grandparents a lot as a child, so when I can connect with them through showing them my artwork about food and they can understand and enjoy it, that is one of my biggest motivations to keep communicating this way. Of course good food inspires me to keep drawing food, because I’m tasting these amazing things that remind me that the food world is important, exciting, and always changing. I want to be part of that movement of exciting food culture through my art.
Benjamin was slightly more soft-spoken and gave very thoughtful answers about his project.
What inspired you to start a #FOOD zine?
B: Initially, it was a desire to hone my illustration skills. As a food enthusiast, it was a subject matter I felt was close enough to my heart to challenge me to push my limits.
What’s the most enjoyable aspect of the zine project? Any challenges?
B: I really enjoyed broadening my skill set in illustration through this exercise. The initial going was tough because I imagined abstract scenes and compositions of food that were way beyond what I was capable of. It took quite some time to pare down all the overly-ambitious ideas into something feasible.
As we moved on to the subject of each respective city’s food culture, both cities seem to share one thing in common: diversity.
J: I feel like NYC has something for everyone; there is really a taste of places from all over the world here, and I think some of the best food I’ve had in NYC can be found in the “cheap eats” places. It’s easy to find amazing food for under $10, or even under $5, that will fill you up!
- Hampton Chutney Co. has really delicious dosas, one of the cheapest things to eat in SoHo.
Soy is a tiny shop with a Japanese mom and her friendly little son who also live there, making amazing bowls of homemade heartwarming Japanese meals.
- Korilla BBQ is like Chipotle, but Korean style. Really fresh and well-loved ingredients to make an Asian-style burrito or taco.
- Lady M has a Green Tea Mille Crepe Cake that is fluffy, airy, and layered with crepes like 3-4 inches high with matcha cream in between each.
- Ramen Lab has amazing handmade ramen by sun noodle, and they change their chef every month to showcase different regional styles of ramen around the world.
- Mighty Quinns has really delicious brisket, if you want some American BBQ.
- I haven’t been here yet, but Peter Pan Donuts is a famous Brooklyn donut shop that I hear is the type of donut that will give you a big hug and just soothe your tastebuds. I want to go there real soon.
B: There’s a dish that’s really emblematic of it: rojak.
Singapore is a melting pot of many different cultures and the wide variety of our cuisine truly reflects that. As long as something tastes good, it will be adopted and enter our local food taxonomy.
There’s a general stigma to dining at Newton Food Centre, due to the high number of tourists who get charged ridiculous prices by the seafood stalls there. However, locals patronise Newton for anything but seafood. [So, my advice is] Try the other stuff when dining there next time!
What’s your must-have for food/snack? Where can we find it in your city?
J: I’ve been having lots of just fresh fruit from my neighborhood (in Brooklyn), BUT I’m a major supporter of the snack world.
For some of my top snacks, I’m just going to list a bunch here:
- Taro bubble tea or a Kumquat Lemon Slush from vivi’s in Chinatown
- Dried California Apricots from Sahadi’s in Brooklyn Heights
- Calbee Shrimp Chips, White Rabbit Candy, Those little Asian cookie cracker things that melt in your mouth, all of these I get at Hong Kong Supermarket in Chinatown
B: I can’t live without fried carrot cake (not the Western pastry), although it’s the white version that I prefer. The black one tends to overpower the taste of good handmade carrot cake. There’s always at least one stall selling it in every neighbourhood, so I’m lucky to be able to satisfy my craving rather easily. Plus a cup of ice-cold soya bean milk every morning really gets me going.
J: Yes we have soya bean milk too! I usually only buy Vitasoy milk packs though.
They had so much to share. Out of curiosity, I probed further.
What food do you crave for the most in the middle of the night?
J: Sometimes I really crave for some solid chicken wings. Silky, snappy skin glistening in my hands, marinaded in a really great savoury sauce. And it’s so satisfying to tackle all the meat off the bone.
Right now, I’m having a serious craving for Hong Kong egg waffle cakes.
Benjamin paused for a moment before asking, “What does growing up in a family with 2 different food cultures mean to you, Jenny?”
J: Growing up with my mom’s Singaporean/Hainanese family and having my dad’s Puerto Rican and Irish side close by has of course made me think a lot about where I fit in. Being part of multiple food cultures has made me more curious to learn about other cultures beyond my own, and I’ve felt really grateful to feel like I’m part of lots of different variations of pride. I don’t feel 100% of anything though, and sometimes I feel I only have a toe in the door of a certain identity.
B: I guess we can all appreciate a McDonald’s Oreo McFlurry now.
Talking about food made us all hungry. I was keen to learn about the creative community in both cities.
J: The creative community is really huge and inventive in NYC. I just recently moved back to NYC after graduating from Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore though, so I feel like I’m just starting to meet more people in the creative community in my home city. Some of the culture feels off limits or exclusive to certain types of creatives, but I think there’s a lot of collaborating and mixing of industries here, and when you find creatives that aren’t just about making money, those are the really special welcoming ones
I think for an artist living in a big city has its pros and cons. Some cons are small work spaces or the high cost of making work, but the diversity and unique resources NYC has all over enables creatives to thrive. I learn something new about NYC everyday even though I’ve lived here my whole life. I think growing up in a city has made me the type of creative that would like to soak up skills in all different areas, be well-rounded and flexible in order to keep moving in all directions. I think being away from the city for a bit of time is really important though. Travelling for holiday, work, or just to get some fresh air has helped me appreciate the city culture more and see it in a new way. If i just stayed in NYC all the time I wouldn’t be able to compare and contrast and observe.
B: The local scene has really exploded in the past few years, but Singapore is really still in its cultural infancy. It’s challenging being a creative and having to tackle the general reception of the population towards design. But it also helps that almost everyone knows each other in the community and this fosters a sort of camaraderie, which keeps the spirit going. The awareness of good design has gone up by many notches too, probably because Singaporeans are so well-travelled and generally well-read. These sort of things take time to evolve organically.
Individually, what is your earliest memory of the moment where you knew you were going to be a creative professional?
J: There have always been moments in middle school and elementary school where I enjoyed art, but I always feel odd being THAT person who says “I was doing [fill in occupation/craft here] since I was two!” or “I knew I was an artist the second I knew how to hold a pencil!”
I think I truly felt that I was going to thrive as a creative when I was preparing for my Senior Art Show at Fiorello H. LaGuardia Arts High School. A select group of senior students get graduation art shows, and I made a series of oil paintings and drawings about ramen. Aside from the art-making part, being part of that event and seeing all of my family and friend who supported me that night was an amazing feeling. I felt that feeling again a year ago when I had my commencement show as a new MICA graduate. My show was also a series inspired by food, silk scarves with textures and colours of food, plus small clay sculptures of everyday food objects like rice cookers and bok choy. From installing to helping out others on campus before the show and more, that was one of the best memories I’ve ever had so far in my creative career. This show was part of a huge exhibition with 400+ of my fellow schoolmates, and I was ridiculously inspired by each and every single one of my peers.
I kept thinking to myself things like, I am growing as a creative with all of these intelligent and hard-working people, I am so proud to be part of this new group of artists and designers and makers, and I can’t believe we all are so passionate and are able to just make work like this for a living and share it with the world.
We get to speak our minds in such odd but intriguing ways. We’ve become professionals at looking and seeing, and we get to show the world how we see? It’s such a great opportunity. Being around all of that during that day was reassurance that I should be continuing this path for real, it’s really an amazing feeling.
B: That’s nostalgic. It made me recall when I did my first decently designed website back in Junior College (Pre-University). That “aha” moment when everything comes together is unforgettable.
They continued on to share about their individual daily habits and beliefs.
What are some of the things you do on a daily basis that keeps you happy?
J: I love to discretely draw people on the subway everyday during my commute to pass time. When they’re sleeping or reading usually, so I don’t get caught as easily.
Every Friday, my boyfriend Sami and I make a home-cooked meal together and tag team in the kitchen. We mostly work on our medium rare steak skills, but love to learn new recipes and go grocery shopping together. Grocery shopping with Sami definitely keeps me happy.
B: A good night’s sleep!
What’s the first thing that gets you excited in the morning when you wake up?
J: Lately I’ve gotten excited every morning about my food pun illustrations! I get a full nights rest and can chug through some drawings and get ready to share it or print it.
B: Thinking about what to have for breakfast? Haha.
What’s your dream project as a creative (if you could work with anyone or do anything with an unlimited budget!)?
J: Oh wow, that’s a tough question. The first thing I could think of is how I’ve been wanting to do an interactive dining experience for a while now. I’d love to work with notable chefs and collaborate with my other artist/designer friends to create a multi-course meal that is similar to a fashion show. The courses come out like a different clothing line and each course is performative, informed by the artist/designer’s style and practice, and they collaborate with a chef to create a unique dining experience that is beyond just tasting.
B: To be able to design useful products, market them under a brand and for everything to be as enduring as what Dieter Rams did for both Braun and Vitsoe.
Have you been involved in any collaborations as a creative that you are proud of so far?
J: Last fall I worked with Sir Kensington’s (A delicious and well-designed all-natural condiment company) and Mother New York to curate “Fries of New York,” an exhibit presenting the cultural impact of the French Fry. We worked with restaurants and chefs from all over New York City to bring food education and food entertainment together in one gallery, and I’m proud to have been able to celebrate such an everyday food in such a creative and inquisitive way.
B: Definitely! I’m proud of what our six-person team in a small branding bureau in Shanghai managed for Nike in late 2013. It was a mad rush, but we did it! And also my collaborators for all three issues of Terroir Magazine.
Name one male creative and one female creative that you look up to. Why?
J: Wesley Verhoeve is one of the nicest creatives I’ve ever known. He’s so encouraging and welcoming, and works hard to share stories about others who work hard all over the country to make sure they don’t get overlooked. He’s just so positive and keeps on moving and creating, his happiness for others really rubs off on you and makes you want to do better and feel excited for others too.
Christina Lu was a senior in my high school when I was a freshman, and I always looked up to her as a female creative because she was so talented and quirky, and has stayed true to herself all the way to today. She was the all-star job-getter to me when I was in school with dreams of getting a great job: she had some great internships and freelance gigs and is a superstar full-time designer. I always looked up to her for getting all these jobs and trying somewhere new if she wanted to develop more as a creative or more something more impactful. I just started freelancing but I admire how Christina’s personal work and “work work” are really not that different. She’s able to bring her perspective and creative juices to her “9 to 5”, and create things she loves, not just make something for a client that is so different from her style.
B: Dieter Rams. I really admire his rational and reductive approach to design. He designed things that were meant to last, unlike the throw away culture of today.
Kendra Wan. She was my creative director in Shanghai and she taught me a lot about letting go. I would like to imagine myself being less rigid towards design now after having been influenced by her.
Towards the end, I couldn’t help but ask both of them, “What’s on your plate next?”
J: I’m working on opening a web shop to sell some of my food illustrations! Trying to take some business classes to add that basic knowledge to my toolbelt. Also I want to try and make some sculptural work related to food, to get away from the computer and back to working with my hands.
B: Going independent.
Their answers left me with a sense of wonder. After the interview, I texted both of them seperately to ask for their personal mantra as a creative. Jenny quoted Maya Angelou,
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and them do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
Benjamin replied much later with, “Do good work to eat good food; eat good food to do good work.”
Edited by Chiara Maria De Castro.