“It’s really not that deep. I like to cook,” Annie Cheng, ES ’20, told me when I asked about the multi-course dinners she regularly hosts out of her Dwight Street apartment. Last week, for Valentine’s Day, Cheng prepared eight private seating dinners over the course of four days. The meal opened with a French charcuterie board including a thick slice of brie drizzled in honey, three types of meat, walnuts, fig jam, and a bread basket. My younger sister smiled across from me at the candlelit table, the pink flush of her cheeks receding in the warm room. Her words moved as quick as her hand to the bread, trying each of the toppings as she meandered through stories of her first semester at college.
We sat at a two-top table in Cheng’s living room, the walls collaged with artwork and jazz music playing lightly in the background. The ambiance was as comfortable as this easy conversation between sisters. Dining experience is a high priority for Cheng. “I’m less interested in amazing food than I am in amazing restaurant spaces. I’d love to create a community-oriented space where organizers would come,” she said. Throughout our conversation, Cheng reiterated this interest in activism as well as in ethical food consumption and production. She is particularly interested in fair pay for workers and minding the humanity behind every level of food production. “Organic food means more than just ‘organic food.’ It means no pesticides are harming the farmers working with it or the people who are picking it. It’s a system that cycles down to the workers.”
As a double major in ER&M and Political Science with a concentration in food and the environment, Cheng cares deeply about all aspects of food, from growing it to serving it. Similarly, cooking without waste is a top priority. She uses all parts of her ingredients. “I used to have worms, too, but they died in the winter squall.” Simply put, her mentality is “head-to-tail, fin-to-scale, root-to-fruit,” as she notes in the bio of her cooking-related Instagram @achg.kitchen.
Another Valentine’s Day diner, Elisabeth Siegel, MY ’20, gushed about the evening. “[Annie is] just really amazing at putting the food together and combining everything into a cohesive menu,” she said. “The food was so, so good. Literally she made these whole shrimp that were the best shrimp [my boyfriend] and I had ever had.”
The shrimp (grilled in curry jus) were served alongside seared scallops in a blood orange XO sauce. The two dishes together made up one of four courses served after our charcuterie board. This first course was named “first sight” in honor of Valentines Day. On deciding to host dinners for the holiday, Cheng replies: “I love love.” The second course, “in like,” included a roasted beet and burrata salad with citrus vinaigrette, as well as truffle fries and a pot of garlic aioli for dipping.
Every dish—down to the sauce—is made from scratch, designed by Cheng, who draws on her familiarity with food to craft dishes rather than from explicit recipes. She has worked in restaurants since she was fifteen years old. In addition to line-prepping at fast casual restaurants when she was younger, she now works at Tarry Lodge in New Haven and receives mentorship from the chef. After graduating, she will work front-of-house at Blue Hill Farm, a fine-dining restaurant in Tarrytown, New York.
The third course of the meal—named “in love,” naturally—consisted of a lamb ragu pappardelle with tomato chili oil. The lamb was slow cooked for 16 hours, only one element of laborious preparations that typically require weeks of foresight. Cheng crafts the menus herself, taking care to pair flavors within and across dishes for a unique meal over multiple courses. After designing a menu, she shops for her ingredients, being mindful of their source. For Italian food ingredients in particular, she loves to shop at Ferraro’s Market, a family owned grocery in New Haven. Once she has the ingredients, she often has to prep certain items ahead of time so she can work quicker during the event as she completes all the cooking alone.
Recently, Cheng teamed up with Lauren Lee, PC ’21, who provides signature cocktails pairings to match Cheng’s meal design. Lee’s interest in drink design and bartending began with the TIPS course offered through Yale her first year, the same year she met Cheng. The two became friends, but not on the grounds of their food-industry interests.
After the certification course, Lee continued exploring recipes on her own, jotting down her original creations whenever inspiration struck. Like Cheng, Lee’s education was largely self-directed. She watched YouTube videos on craft cocktail making, and read books and articles on the subject. On her own, she bought ingredients and tested out flavor combinations. In addition to self-study, Lee spent a year away from Yale living in Seoul, South Korea, where she worked in the bar. Her original recipe book is now going on 80 pages long—combined with online archives, her cocktail list includes nearly 4,000 different drinks.
The drinks (which can be perused on her Instagram @barphenomenology) bear names as delicious as their taste. Her recipes are detailed and interlace long lists of ingredients. To give a feel for their intricacy, her original drink “A Gentleman or a Lady” is made with hibiscus-infused tequila, blood orange liqueur, lemon and lime juice, cranberry kombucha and agave syrup topped with a maraschino cherry and a dehydrated lime wheel as garnish. Lee is a self-proclaimed “maximalist,” saying she uses her concoctions as a way to find “comfort with complexity.” Other drinks she’s designed feature trendy and romantic names like “VSCO Girl” (a matcha and absinthe-based drink with toasted marshmallow garnish), “Saint Cecilia” (a fruity symphony in honor of the patron saint of musicians), and “The Poet’s Answer” (a brandy-based citrus cocktail with orange wheel garnish).
Both Lee and Cheng said they initially spent time at Yale exploring various other interests, but were ultimately pulled back to cocktails and restaurants, respectively. Elaborate drinks and delicate recipes can seem glamorous and indulgent, in the way many creative endeavors glisten in their presentation. Cheng is quick to acknowledge this misconception, saying, “I don’t want to romanticize this. Kitchen work is grueling. It’s hard work; it’s hard on your body.” Many Yale students spend their time on campus with books and laptops, sitting down to crunch numbers or analyze texts. The idea of flitting around a kitchen, tasting and concocting delicious meals can seem like a dream to those unfamiliar with the realities of the work.
As I spoke to Cheng before my meal, she was finishing preparations in the kitchen: lifting lids, wiping knives clean. She referenced a cookbook and pulled it from her shelf, summarizing the concept of “lateral food pairings,” which refers to recognizing and becoming familiar with broad flavors like “umami,” “sweet,” “sour,” “salty,” and “bitter.” By knowing which ingredients create these flavors, one can learn how to substitute or combine them to make a dish into something new. “If you’re able to use those flavors together or replace them with each other, you’re able to get a different profile,” Cheng described. “For example, where Chinese cooks might use rice vinegar, a Spanish cook might use sherry. Understanding ingredients rather than reading recipes has been integral to my cooking.”
The meal ended with a course called “in light,” a dessert selection of two dishes: a citrus olive oil cake with dark chocolate glaze and a yogurt mousse with basil drizzle and fresh berries. The flavors and textures layered delicately: sweet, bitter, tart. “Food brings people together. It’s really not that deep.”