Name: Alaina Chou
Hometown: Brooklyn, N.Y.
Major: Fine arts, minor in English
34th Street Magazine: How did you get into cooking and baking?
My family always loved food growing up. Even though my parents were both working full time, we would definitely try to set aside time for family dinners. So food was a big part of my life. But I think my interest in it really started when I was around 13. I started baking a ton in any free time I had after school or on weekends. It was actually my parents' idea to try to funnel all of that into something semi–productive. So they told me I should start a food blog. This was around 2013, 2012—right when food blogs were starting to get big. I started this blog called Crumbs & Nibbles, and I would take iPhone photos of what I was making and write them up.
At the start, it was pretty much all other people's recipes that I was just testing out and trying, and I would upload photos, write up a little post, and post it to this blog. I kept that up all through the rest of middle school and through high school. I still post on it—definitely more rarely nowadays, but I do try to post on it once every few months just to keep it going. So that was kind of my entry into the food space.
At the start, it was very much just a hobby, and at that age, I never really saw myself wanting to go into food as a career. At that time, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. But that food blog kind of taught me the ropes of recipe development. Eventually, I started developing my own recipes. I practiced my baking skills and techniques a lot through it. It taught me food writing and styling and photography, and I got really into photography largely through that blog—and through my dad, who is a photography hobbyist. I loved being able to have my hand in all these various parts of the food media space—being able to be the writer, the recipe developer, the photographer, the stylist, and then also the person doing the marketing and social media. I liked being able to do all those things.
Why do you think that food is a passion that has stuck with you for so long?
I think I started that blog just because I loved the baking aspect of it, and it was something I was doing with my free time. But I realized that I liked so many different aspects of what that blog was allowing me to do beyond just the baking of the food. There were all these other pieces to it that were important to me, and I think that it was something that allowed me to learn and grow. I feel like there's always something new to learn.
Now I'm a senior in college and starting to ask myself, “What are the things that I genuinely love doing that could potentially turn into something I do with my life?” When I was little, I thought that if you wanted to work in food, you had to be a chef. And I always kind of knew that I didn't see myself working in restaurants. But as food media—these past five years or so—has become such a big industry, I realized that that might be something that I could do. That I might be able to turn this love of what I thought was a hobby into a career.
Was there anything specific that you were involved in that changed food from a hobby into a career?
I came to Penn and immediately joined Penn Appétit, which I knew about coming in—my college counselor was actually familiar with the magazine and had told me about it when I was coming to tour. It was cool for me to see the workings of a mini magazine. And, that was my first time really working on something like that with other people. I’d been doing this blog that was just me.
Then I started to work a few jobs that were vaguely related to the food space. I did some social content for some brands and people. And then I started Gourmand with Maggie Tang (W '22). I think that really proved to me that this was the space I wanted to be in. It started as a podcast. We started around April of 2020 when we were home for the pandemic. Through that, I’ve interviewed so many amazing people—some people who were my longtime heroes in the industry, and some people who I hadn't heard of but had these amazing stories. Just hearing their stories, how they got to where they are, their career paths, and their love of food and hospitality and all that it stands for, I realized that I shared that love. I think that solidified for me that this was something I was really interested in, beyond it just being a hobby.
Gourmand is working on a new project with New York restaurants. Can you tell us a little more about that?
We're working on a card deck that features 52 hand–drawn illustrations of 52 different New York City restaurants. The illustrations were done by Amy Yang (W '22). It was me doing all of the layout and design of the cards, the card backs, and the box, Amy doing all the illustrations, and Maggie doing all the outreach. They're going on sale, and a portion of the proceeds are going to be donated directly to ROAR, which is a restaurant relief organization for New York City restaurants. It's a project we've been working on for probably about a year now. It's been a long time coming, and the cards are finally in production. They're set to launch either late October or early November. That's a project that's been a labor of love, and we're really excited about it.
What is your favorite food?
That's the hardest question you've asked so far. I'm probably going have to give a few answers. I think I will forever have a soft spot for the foods of my childhood. I'm half Chinese. My dad is Chinese. Both his parents are from China, but he was born and raised in New York. So his cooking, I love. It’s inherited from his dad and his mom, and it sort of riffs on Chinese classics that he grew up with. His clay pot pork that he makes is insane, and his Chinese chicken noodle soup is amazing. He uses udon noodles and all of these different kinds of tofu in the broth, and it's so comforting. And then on my mom's side, I'm also half Jewish, so there's all of the foods that we make for Jewish holidays. My mom and my grandmother's brisket and their potato kugel are also two favorites. On the sweet side, I love fruit desserts. Anything that's got something carby, plus fresh fruit, plus some sort of creamy thing is my favorite category.
What are you passionate about outside of food?
I'm an art student, so I love visual art in general. That's been an ongoing passion of mine, and it’s another thing that I never thought I was going to do. Growing up, I never thought I was going to be an art major in college, just as I never thought I was going to work in food.
I'm very close to my family. I have a younger brother. Family relationships are something that are definitely important to me, and friendships are really important to me too. I try to prioritize being able to spend time with them in everything I'm doing. I also have a real love of New York City, and I'm a staunch Brooklyn advocate. I’m so thankful to have grown up there.
What’s next for you after Penn?
That's a big question. But weirdly, it doesn't stress me out that much because I think I know I want to be in the food space in some way. Even though that's very vague, I think having some sense of the industry and world that I want to be in has made me feel excited. Obviously, I'm sad to graduate, but I also think that I feel very lucky to feel excited about what's next and not scared by it.
The industry that I want to go into and a lot of creative industries, I think, are just on completely different sorts of hiring cycles and timelines than the consulting [or] finance tracks that so many people are on. I think I had to learn early on that it was just going to be different for me. And so that's part of why I'm more so excited than stressed out at not knowing exactly what's going to happen.
Ideally, I see myself working somewhere in the food space. I don't know what kind of role exactly, but I just want to find something that I'm excited to do, that I’m learning from, and that I have a connection to.
Last meal you cooked?
I made turkey chili last night.
What’s something people wouldn’t guess about you?
I can wiggle my ears.
If you were a dining hall, which one would you be and why?
Lauder College House. I remember they did those gourmet dinners that you could go to. I think I'd be that because it's a little bit of a trek, but it’s worth it if you go for one of those dinners that’s a little above average. I'm a firm believer in making the extra effort for that kind of thing.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
I would like to fly.
There are two types of people at Penn …
There are people who work in libraries, and there are people who just don’t.
Which are you?
I’ve kind of turned into someone who mostly doesn’t.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.