What’s Inside the Carry-On Bag of a Food Designer?

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Amanda Huynh on the emerging discipline of food design, making bao with her grandmother and the tools she brings on far-flung design trips.

Ask Amanda Huynh what her job entails, and you’ll hear a good-natured laugh: the Lethbridge, Alberta-born creative is accustomed to the confusion. Her discipline is so new that when she earned her master’s degree in food design at Milan’s Scuola Politecnica di Design in 2016, she was in the program’s first graduating class. In short, her niche covers any aspect of design applied to anything food-related. She has conceptualized everything from recipes (her portfolio as one half of the Edible Projects creative studio includes “therapeutic” shortbread, and a candle/candy pairing where scent enhanced the tasting ritual) to restaurant interiors (a pop-up concept she once proposed to Italian-sweets spot Cioccolatitaliani called for walls made of chocolate slabs). But food is also so much more than that for Huynh, who splits her time between Brooklyn, where she teaches at the Pratt Institute, and Vancouver: It’s deeply connected to culture, our past and future, and a sense of place.

September 29, 2020

enRoute What interests you most about food in general?

Amanda Huynh I can talk about anything with you if we talk about food first. It’s this common link that everyone can relate to. You don’t have to be a chef to have an opinion about the food you’re eating.

ER What’s been one of your most memorable projects?

AH Last year I was on more airplanes than I’d ever been on in my life, and part of that was because I participated in a travelling exhibition, Edible Futures, put on by the Dutch Institute of Food & Design (DIFD). One of my long-time design heroes, DIFD founder Marije Vogelzang, who I met in grad school, reached out and said, “I’m really interested in what you think the future of food will be.” There were a number of artists and designers represented, but I was the only Canadian, and the show debuted in Ottawa. My project was Diasporic Dumplings, and in each city it exhibited, I used plants indigenous to that place – so there was a dumpling that was a bite of Ottawa or Vancouver or Toronto.

ER What kinds of innovations are happening in the food design world?

AH Quite a few designers are understanding the urgency of the climate crisis. That’s what I was trying to speak to as well with Diasporic Dumplings: How are we going to keep approximating the tastes that are familiar to our bodies when crops start disappearing or becoming less available? We know it’s beyond checking the nutrition boxes – we need something deeper. So, I think that’s an interesting space for design, looking into ancestral versions of foods and textures.

ER Do you have any formative food memories?

AH My parents are ethnically Chinese, but grew up in Vietnam. They were refugees, and that’s how they ended up in Canada. In our intergenerational home, my grandma was always growing vegetables in the backyard. We would only make huge quantities of things, so I have memories of the kitchen transforming into a mini-factory, where all of us had a role in making hundreds of bao. I think a lot about essential tools in my work, but with my maternal grandma, I only ever remember her using a giant meat cleaver.

ER How does travel inform your perspective on food or your work?

AH I make a point of doing two things whenever I visit a new city. First, I go to a grocery store and wander, just to see how food is presented and what kinds of things stand out as characteristic of that culture. The other thing I always do is go to the Chinatown. Each one is such a rich place for migration stories and understanding the Chinese diaspora, and how traditions are adapted to a place.

ER In your travels, what has been the most fascinating destination in terms of its food culture?

AH I think the most important trip I’ve ever taken was with my brothers and my dad to Vietnam. It was the first time my dad had been back, 30 years after he left Ho Chi Minh City. I could see the impact of colonialism on the food – every morning there was someone riding by on a bike, selling the baguettes that have become a part of banh mi. I also saw where different languages meet. We went to a Chinese market and I heard people speaking Teochew, a dialect I’ve never heard anyone outside my family speak.

ER Do you have a dream project?

AH I have a dream of doing a congee pop-up in the Chinatown in Vancouver. I adore the seniors there – I grew up basically only speaking Cantonese to my family, so anyone I can share the language with feels like family. Part of the congee dream is having a seniors’ menu and being able to subsidize culturally appropriate food and a space for the seniors in the community through the restaurant business.

ER What’s your packing style?

AH I need to know where everything is, so I’m a big fan of packing cubes and bag organizers.

ER Do you pack in-advance or last-minute?

AH Definitely in advance. I lay everything out on my bed, then roll and pack it all in.

ER Any travel hacks to share?

AH When my airplane meal arrives, I put the cold butter packet on the foil-wrapped main dish to make it warm and spreadable for my dinner roll.

What’s in Amanda’s bag?

Black Building Block iPhone Sling
  • Building Block iPhone Sling — I don’t go anywhere without this. It is perfect for travel, ensuring my phone and boarding pass never get misplaced in a pocket or bag, and it has card slots in the back for my ID.

A tin of Maldon Smoked Sea Salt Flakes
  • Maldon Smoked Sea Salt Flakes — Inflight meals are typically made more flavourful – saltier, sweeter – because air travel affects how we taste food, but I bring my own smoked salt anyway, just in case.

Black Muji Silicone Mini Spoon
  • Muji Silicone Mini Spoon — This is the only kitchen tool I use every day. It’s the best for mixing small quantities and scraping every last bit out of containers. “No food waste” was really ingrained in me when I was young.

Loose black tea leaves in a jar
  • Loose-leaf tea — One of my favourite teas is a lapsang souchong from Treasure Green in Vancouver. It’s intensely smoky, so it makes a good surprise ingredient – in the broth of a steamed white fish dish, for example.

A patterned pencil case with a measuring tape
  • Pencil case — This is always filled with writing tools, including a Tactile Turn click pen that my older brother gave me, and a small Penco measuring tape, which comes in handy for things like measuring food vessels when I’m on site for projects.

Bamboo serving chopsticks
  • Bamboo serving chopsticks — A gift from my creative partner Mandy, these are from Kyoto and have one-millimetre tips and flattened ends, making them ideal for precise food plating.

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