Today we hear from Ariella Yendler – cook, dancer, and architect extraordinaire. I could proceed with a generic introduction, but I'd like to tell you that this is the girl whom I texted at 4:30 on a cold, rainy afternoon asking if she'd run into the ocean in a dress at 7:00pm "for art" and she agreed without (audible) hesitation. She later told me she's not even very good at swimming.
Now that you have a sense of her devotion as a friend (or as she would phrase it, "Nope, just an attention whore and a fan of your work") and her passion for the creative process, read on:
1. Tell me about yourself.
I'm a student at University of California, Santa Barbara at the moment, and looking to be a grad student in architecture or urban design. I really, really enjoy cooking; I try to have a brunch roughly once a month for my friends called "Dobre Dom" where I structure a menu around a theme. In addition to cooking, I love to read when I have time, and I have a fondness for food in books. I think the best thing to eat when reading is apples like Jo March. As much as I like cooking, I don't see myself becoming a professional chef in the future. The work is too repetitious and not very creative unless you're the head chef, and I thrive off of intensity and pressure. I love architecture for the same reasons I hate it: there are no right answers, and it is a bunch of high-pressure deadlines. Oh! I also dance a style called "blues-fusion." I started out in ballroom dancing but quit after two years. Now I'm the facilities manager for a social dance group at UCSB and DJ for them.
2. Where did you grow up? Would you say your work (cooking, dance, architecture, etc.) is influenced by that area?
I grew up in Bay Area which I remember someone once said, "You shouldn't stay there too long or you'll become soft." Yes, that is absolutely true. I grew up absolutely spoiled when it came to education and culture. A lot of that is because of the area – while the state of California has one of the lowest rankings in public education, the Bay Area has one of the highest in the country – but it's also because of my parents. They're from the former Soviet Union, and they brought me up to be "an intellectual aristocrat," which is to say having an appreciation for ballet, classical literature, art, philosophy, and gourmet food. They taught me to live as high quality as I could, and that indulgence can happen without spending money. All in all, a very European upbringing.
This definitely has made me a snob. I kind of expect to always shoot for the finer things in life, and that what most people consider 'bourgeoisie' to be normal. Things like doing my shopping at the farmer's market for fresh vegetables, trying to buy "pieces" of art. I really think refinement and graces are something that can always be applicable, which makes me willing to be a little more...luxurious? in my work. But the goal is never to be pretentious about it. I'm just a giant hedonist and I really advocate for indulging yourself.
3. What does food (its creation, presentation, etc.) mean to you?
Since I grew up in a household where the second sentence to a guest is, "Are you hungry?" food means a lot to me in an emotional sense. Food has a very – maybe primarily – emotional component for me. It's how my family shows hospitality and love and care. We eat dinner together every night, my mother makes me scones and meat and bread to take with me to college. Making something well, choosing it for quality and taste, that is about showing care in multiple ways: you want your eater to have a good experience, you want to take pride in your work, you want to show proper appreciation for the quality of the ingredients that you have.
I am notorious (and you had to deal with this, too) for neglecting or dismissing aesthetic when it comes to food. This isn't because I don't think it matters but because I'm reacting to the current trend of Pinterest/visual food culture that focuses almost solely on how the food looks. There are, first off, loads of dishes that look terrible but are delicious, like curries and borscht and cutlets. Secondly, that Pinterest/food blog aesthetic completely and willfully ignores the mess and violence of food. Pinterest styling and so on chooses to ignore how food is a very complicated relationship to blood and shit and hunger. You can't cook without it and it's disingenuous to do so or pretend you can. I visit slaughter houses and I will not turn up my nose at dealing with offal or blood or compost. That stuff is part of cooking. The food blogging usually cuts it out or ignores it because it's not pretty, and that is a deceptive way to approach food. You don't have to kill your meat yourself but you should never forget that your chicken leg comes from an animal with liver and kidneys that are just as good to eat even if it's uglier.
I focus a LOT on quality. I want the best ingredients, I want it to be prepared well, I want my guests and I to sink into an appreciation of the food and what we're tasting. I also think ingredients should speak for themselves. One of my favorite desserts is fruit tart because the ingredients are the decoration. Sliced peaches are beautiful in and of themselves. They are their own advertisement – you can see if they are ripe or not by the color, the visual texture. There's an appeal to being able to identify what you're eating by sight that has to do with familiarity and that extends into comfort. But then that also provides an opportunity for surprise, because you can subvert the expectations of what it will taste like – like glazing that peach tart with a pepper jam, for example.
4. What's your favorite dish to cook? To eat?
Believe it or not, my favorite dish to make is salad. It's a specific format that I copy from my mother and I love it because it can turn out so many different ways even if you follow the rules, which are: 1) green leaves of some kind, 2) sliced fruit, 3)cheese, 4)nuts, & 5) vinaigrette with any kind of vinegar. That's it, and you can always skip parts or whatever. But it is so simple and always turns out great. I love it.
My favorite to eat is probably – and this is where I remind you how big of a snob I am – super fresh foie gras with bread. It's heavenly. Though, to be honest: I love eating bread. I think bread is probably my favorite food ever.
5. Where do you look for inspiration?
For me, food is an exercise in postmodernism and semiotics. A dish is the collection of my memories and tastes and associations combined for something new. It's a game of references, either cultural or personal, added together to create something new.
6. What's your favorite band?
I don't know if I have one! I guess it would be Florence + the Machine if I had to pick. (I liked her before she was famous, blah blah blah)
7. Top spot on your travel list?
South America. I've gone around most of the US and Europe but never further south than the Caribbean. I want to live in the Amazon for, like, two months and have an Indiana Jones adventure.
8. If you were a building, what would you look like?
I'd probably be a house or a pavilion of some kind because I'm definitely a nester and I'm also obsessed with the "programming" of residence. I wouldn't be a house with a living room and kitchen and bedroom, but instead mixed up and multi-purpose. I'd like to be posh and tell you that I'm all clean lines and modernist, but I love decoration. I love taking modernist decoration and acting like a Baroque person and crowding every inch of the walls. There'd also be a lot of indoor/outdoor playing in the building-as-me, like a tree and an open air skylight in the living room and a vertical herb garden in the kitchen. I like to start with the familiar and quietly pull the rug out from underneath.
In this session, Ariella cooked blini and a chocolate orange tarte - both of which were delicious.