A Conversation With Chef Annabelle Choi

Photos of Annabelle both by Leah Villalobos

Over the years local chef Annabelle Choi has earned herself a cult-like following for her innovative plant-based approach to food, not to mention a rep for always showing genuine warmth as a human being.

Annabelle’s past endeavours and collaborations have included a couple of behind the scenes gigs in the kitchens at Matchstick and Joe’s Pizza; leading sourdough workshops under her own Annabelle Choi Studio brand; and as one-half of the Companion Breads pastry pop-up. What’s next for her? Read on to find out…

As a kid, what was your relationship with food like? Growing up I was the ultimate picky eater. You know the stories our moms love to tell friends and potential partners that end up embarrassing us in the process? Yeah, mine are all about how I wouldn’t eat vegetables til the age of 16. No green onions in my miso soup, and a routine diet of all things white and ranges of brown: rice, chicken nuggets, bagels (that eventually become Costco pizza bagels). At some point seaweed and peas became staples too, but that was about it!

What is your current relationship with food and how has it changed over the years? You could say I’ve done a complete 180 with what I like to eat nowadays. From not eating basically anything that wasn’t a spectrum of white or brown, I slowly became curious of cultures and the different ways other communities and families approached their meals I always had Korean dishes around that were affiliated with church barbecues and family gatherings, that to this day invoke a sense of family and comfort, but once my tastebuds started to become less aggravated due to foreign flavours, it was like multiple universes opened up to me. My diet now is basically one big kaleidoscope of flavours and meals.

How has food shaped you, as a person? Food has been the vehicle that has brought me to and through all my major transformations in life. It shaped my identity from being a stubborn, painfully shy kid, who knew her comfort zone and was deathly afraid of pushing boundaries, to a multifaceted gateway into all things new, challenging, and exciting. It got me through the grief of losing the most creatively inspiring and free person I had in me life (my father and artist Kwiam Choi), to finding my own creative voice after my time at Emily Carr as an industrial designer. As someone who always thought of herself as a natural introvert, food and the hospitality industry taught me my extroverted side that happens to love being around people and listening to their life stories, a lot of that being through food.

What ingredients, methods and/or applications are getting you excited right now? The Japanese are masters at so many crafts, but especially when it comes to fermentation and execution, and I always in awe of their devotion to mastering simple things. There’s been a few ingredients, methods, and applications that have been really inspiring me since my trip to Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo earlier this year, as well as some slow food practises from my Tuscany trip that have really been inspiring me in the kitchen and in life. The idea of doing some pop-ups have been in the back of mind, so you may see how those practices come together!

Besides the obvious paycheque, what contributions have your day jobs made towards your personal aspirations? I have been very privileged and have worked at jobs where it was never just for the money. I have made all my connections and communities thanks to my many jobs in the hospitality industry, mostly due to small business owners who understood the importance of investing in staff culture and creating spaces that allowed their employees to connect with customers beyond what they were selling. When it comes to my food education, I attribute that to traveling and staying curious, which is never a job.

You’ve had your hands in a lot of different doughs in kitchens around Vancouver…What’s the list, so far? My list is actually quite short for Vancouver! Matchstick, Olive and Ruby, and Joe’s Pizza being the main ones. I’ve actually worked a lot more in and out of San Francisco: Craftsman and Wolves, Tartine, Mr.Holmes Bakehouse, Jane the Bakery, and The Midwife and the Baker, just to name a few.

What was your first proud bread-making experience? Funny enough, it wasn’t even a traditional loaf. I sucked at making sourdough, and I never enjoyed the taste of quick bread (bread machine, white dry bread). Pizza dough was the first time I worked with a bread dough, that really empowered me and felt like I was witnessing magic.

You’ve also gained a lot of attention for your personal sourdough workshops which makes me think that you’re a natural teacher. What have these classes and sourdough taught you? I do love teaching! My sourdough workshops have really taught me my love and appreciation for different learning styles, and how to engage and relate with all types of people. Sourdough is a patient craft, something that I don’t think I innately am good at, so to practice and teach the process is very close to sharing a meditation practice.

What is the key to being a good teacher, in your opinion? Compassion, understanding, curiosity, and a deep well of patience!

What are you most interested in learning yourself? Different ways and approaches to celebrating food and culture. The learning is endless, which is why I love food! Also how to live a more self-sustaining life, and learning more practices that show us the cycles of growth, use, and death of our food.

People can be pretty passionate about bread. What has been your overall experience with the baking community? The baking community is awesome where for the most part, you have a lot of sharing and caring. Due to the fact that there isn’t really a right way to make bread, just preferences, it’s a pretty open and passionate bunch of grain nerds. I’ve found the folks I tend to resonate with the most have very little room for ego, because they are too busy learning and staying curious!

Is there any sense of competition? I think because I’m a bit ambiguous as a cook/baker/creative, I don’t really have any obvious competition (or see anyone as competition), but at the same time I lack any real peers either. I go to many different people to feed various curiosities and parts of my process, but as a whole I have yet to find others who approach food with similar methods. It ends up being a pro and con, but ultimately it’s a bit fun as I feel like I can support and celebrate everyones business and passion!

Baking is traditionally known as “women’s work”, which is replete with all sorts of connotations. From my observations of Vancouver, strong, talented women seem to predominate the bakery kitchens. What sort of gender balance or imbalance have you observed? Do bakers get the same respect in the kitchen, from your experience? It’s interesting, as the home cook or baker has always been seen as a women’s role, but when you step into the professional fields, it’s dominated by men in both bread and cooking. Pastry is one area professionally that I have seen more women dominate, whereas bread and viennoiserie has been predominately male driven. From what I’ve experienced, Vancouver has been the exception in its bakeries where it has almost more leading lady bread and pastry bakers, which is something I believe is worth celebrating. I think bakers get respect in the kitchens because it’s a completely different area of skills, but if you are a culinary person like me who likes to both cook and bake, it’s hard to be seen by both sides of the kitchen as most will think you can only truly excel in one area. I understand the perception, but I definitely don’t adhere or play into it.

Is there even such a thing as “too much bread”? Only if its the only thing you’re consuming! Diversity is always key, in all aspects of life.

“I can’t think of a single moment, but all the points of my life where I went through something hard…are my proudest moments. I think looking back and knowing I’ve not just survived low points, but have thrived due to them, makes me really proud of where and who I am now.”

What’s keeping you busy these days? To be perfectly honest, this is the first time in my life where I have chosen to not be busy! I’ve actively chosen to pause and am letting things be a bit unknown and uncomfortable, as I am the worst at staying still and turning inwards. I am the ultimate do-er, where if you ask me what my comfort zone is, it’s pushing all boundaries and stirring all the spoons in all the different projects. After moving on from Companion Bread, I’ve been spending time with friends, family, and myself. I think it’s a little too easy to stay busy, so I’m trying find the balance where I remember how and why I love being of service, and find my love of cooking and baking again. That being said, I’m just starting an Artist in Residence position with HCMA as their first food based creative. What that looks like, you’ll have to follow my social media to know as it’s a new concept to me as well!

Tell me about your upcoming residency. How did it come together? My close friend Rinat De Picciotto, a graphic designer at HCMA, mentioned their AIR (Artist in Residence) program, which is apart of their TILT Curiousity Lab program. One of the reasons I am so excited to work with this firm is because of their dedication to “actively seek out opportunities to learn about the human condition because it makes us better architects, better designers, and better people.” One of their Directors, Johnathon Strebly, also happens to be an inspiring person in my life who acted as my creative mentor during my years at Emily Carr University as an Industrial Designer.

You mentioned that you’re AIR’s first food based resident. Why do you think that is? And why you? I think it’s a natural progression of what we are seeing in the creative industries. I have always counted the food industry as a creative one, and I think others are slowly seeing the possibilities of what approaching food as a medium can look like. I’m not sure why I am their first choice, as there are many other cooks and chefs who are far more skilled than me, but if I had to take a guess it would because of my hyphenated identities and openness to approaching food with design-focused method. It’s like I can speak dual languages and have a perspective in each cultures approach to creativity.

What shift in mentality and/or the application process has occurred to fit food into the residency’s parameters? Trying not to think in terms of traditional parameters has been a key shift. In design we’re use to trying to identify a problem or creative opportunity; in food we start with asking what story or narrative are we trying to communicate, or what the restrictions are. Instead of coming up with a solution, I’m trying to figure out what the questions are that relate to both creative practices, and how they both comment on the human condition and our environments.

What are the unique challenges and advantages of having this new platform? Not having a path already trotted is one of the challenges, and peers to bounce off of, but it’s also an advantage as there isn’t anyone to tell me it’s been done! It’s like when you are asked to make art and are given no restrictions but your imagination. It’s both liberating and intimidating.

What sort of impact do you hope to make during your time at HCMA? What do you want to gain from the experience and what can this experience, in particular, offer you in return? I have the opportunity to gain a completely new way of asking questions and offering solutions, the freedom to play, but also restrictions that are set due to budget and collaborators involved. I don’t have any particular expectations that this experience needs to fulfill, but rather see it as a sea of possibilities that offers me a chance to meet new people in diverse creative fields, and hopefully shine the light on a few other businesses and people who I think could benefit.

What issues are you most interested in addressing? The theme I am working with is “Surviving and Living Through Food”. It’s in the baby stages of ideation, but from addiction to immigration, food identity and memory, there are many strong concepts to pull from.

What Vancouver business or person would you most like to work with in the future? I’m pretty lucky right now where I have the opportunity to work with a very progressive and innovative Design and Architecture firm with HCMA, but besides them, I would love to work and collaborate with David Gunawan and his Ubuntu team, alongside Pilgrimme’s Jesse McCleery (who I’ve already had the pleasure of collaborating with and adore!), and Melanie Witt from Savio Volpe would be rad. I think a series of talks and eats from that group could be incredibly fun and adventurous! I would also like to create a forum and events dedicated to lady chefs and bakers, as I don’t get to work in traditional kitchens anymore and learning from other lady bosses would be rad!

Do you have any brick and mortar aspirations? What are your long term goals? No traditional brick and mortar space as a bakery for me! My long term goals are to open a self-sustaining permaculture farm, with a small-scale bakery program that caters more as an institution than a cafe. I want to build a place that services my community in a way that encourages self-sustaining practices, not consumerism. I believe in the art of living slower lives, creating more of our craft and sharing it with our loved ones.

How does Vancouver factor into your ambitions for the future? Vancouver has been a steady rock in making me feel safe and secure enough to try out new ideas and endeavours, and the communities I have been apart of here are ones that make me strive for more. I don’t plan on building my school in Vancouver, but I can see a chapter here that would bring the city folk a taste and reflection of how slow food and life works.

What has been your proudest moment to date? I can’t think of a single moment, but all the points of my life where I went through something hard (losing my dad, feeling isolated and depressed in London UK, leaving everything and starting anew in San Francisco, creating Matchstick Coffee’s bread and pastry program, creating and letting go of Companion Bread), are my proudest moments. I think looking back and knowing I’ve not just survived low points, but have thrived due to them, makes me really proud of where and who I am now.

You’re so young and have already done so much and made such an impression…Some final words of encouragement or empowerment? Never let your past experiences or age dictate your potential. Staying humble and curious will teach and gift you tenfolds more knowledge, meaningful connections, and profound experiences than striving to just be the best, as everyone you come across has a story to tell and a lesson to teach you, the difference being whether or not you pause long enough to open up and actively listen and embrace those opportunities.

There is 1 comment

  1. Still waiting for the Annabelle Choi x Brassneck Sourdough Beer collab.

    PLEASE MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

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