Have you ever wanted to try a new delicious-looking recipe, but, after seeing the pages of instructions and thought, “How do I do this?!” “What am I suppose to do?” “Am I doing this right?” Or, you found an amazing dish, but the recipe is in another language, and well, Google translate doesn’t help.
That’s what chef and architect (Chefitect!) not turned User Experience (UX) Designer, Lillian Yang experienced in Japan. Inspired by her challenges in understanding Japanese recipes and her passion for sharing food, she started her food blog, The Chef Charette. Lillian shares beautiful creations along with simple, easy-to-follow diagrams! Any novice cook or new English reader can easily follow her recipes and create something wonderful.
We spoke with Lillian on how she went from architect in Tokyo to a Chefitect designing delicious, accessible recipes, and the joys of food.
Lillian, your blog, The Chef Charette, is both beautifully designed and full of delicious recipes. How did your blog start?
I think it fundamentally started from my childhood and growing up with my Dad. I always had an interest in making comforting food for people. I would make extra sandwiches to bring to school for my classmates who didn’t have lunches. I’d find a lot of delight in making cookies and shipping them out to friends abroad or even delivering a plate to my neighbors across the street. I found a lot of joy in sharing food throughout my whole childhood.
When I studied at USC School of Architecture, I saw fellow students pulling nonstop all-nighters, tearing themselves apart from the competition, and feeling homesick being away from their families. There were people from all around the world, but they don’t always have that comforting sense of Thanksgiving.
It sounds super cheesy, but you can always find time to give care and comfort to others. I love how food always brings people together. It doesn’t necessarily matter what kind of food. There’s a commonality, especially for sweets or biscuits, that brings people together. Seeing how delighted and emotional they were made me want to do it more.
I spent a handful of my time, even in lectures, focused on drawing diagrams of what I want to make next. I wasn’t a horrible student, but I would get in the moment, fantasizing about what I could create. I was heavily inspired by IKEA diagrams and lego diagrams as good models and examples for instructions. Architecture school heavily inspired me to simplify things into black and white, simple numbers, and refrain from using unfamiliar terminology.
When I talked with my friends about baking and cooking, they would sometimes shy away from these obviously very extravagant, pretty recipes, like in Julia Child’s book. There are a bazillion steps for a beef bourguignon. By the time I get to step 1 or 2, I want to give up because there are too many words, and there isn’t a visual sense of direction in these cookbooks. I felt that something was missing, and that’s when I started thinking more about it.
A week after graduating, I moved to Tokyo, and that’s when I started to really see it as a foreigner. I was like, “Oh my gah, I can’t even function my microwave!” I studied four years of Japanese, and I can’t understand how to toast my bread! In this new environment, I started thinking about novice cooks, kids, or older people who struggle with a lot of text or would find this difficult.
I very much value accessibility. Good architects shouldn’t just create a pretty staircase, but also think about creating an amazing experience in terms of wayfinding. I don’t want to use the terminology for a more intermediate or expert cook. I want to create something someone can share with their friends, have fun, and feel creative in their interpretation of the recipes.
I love baking, and that’s always been my element. I find so much intimacy in it- whisking together the butter, eggs, and sugar. In Tokyo, I was fascinated by the 20 different kinds of flour and at least 4 kinds of heavy cream that I never thought existed in the stores. I was blown away but also intimated by cooking in Japan - they’re phenomenal cooks, and their culinary sense is just way out the door. I felt like there was so much to learn.
I remember I had a big crush on my Japanese coworker at the time. His birthday was coming up, and I was like, "I’m going to make him a cake." But, I didn’t understand how to make this cake. Because at the time, Google translate didn’t really exist where you can now scan a recipe, and it’ll just translate it for you- plus translations get mixed up along the way. I remember struggling a lot but being super determined. I need to get it done by his birthday. I tested cakes by going to the store, picking up 5 bags of flour, and experimenting because I didn’t know what I was doing. I remember making it at the end and thinking, “Wow, I just had so much fun with that.”
At the same time, I had been diagraming again in my sketchbook. I thought this was very interesting to me, personally as an architect and as a foreigner. It was a way of sharing these stories with my friends back in the US. I thought, in terms of story building, this could be a fun blog.
That’s how it began, and I started to do it almost every week. Every weekend, I was trying to come up with something fun to cook or bake.
Doodling and diagraming was something that you’ve been doing the whole time. Then you connected the dots, and thought, “Hey this can actually be really useful!” How have people responded to the diagrams?
People were super excited about it. They were like, “This is so you,” “This is one of kind,” “You should do more of this.”
I remember getting carried away doing it at work. Instead of drawing a floor plan, I would draw a baguette. It was so embarrassing. They were like, “Baguetto-o kaiteimaeuka?” (“is that a baguette you’re drawing?”) I was like, “No, it’s not! That’s like the floor plan of something.”
Instead of going out with my friends on a gorgeous day Saturday, I would bake, cook, and take pictures because of the great lighting. Seeing my sacrifice and motivation to take great photographs and create recipes showed my friends my passion for the blog.
Now, you’re no longer an architect. Did that journey of creating the blog lead you to become a UX designer?
Very much so!
When I was working on my blog, I started to think more deeply about content, writing execution, and scalability of the blog and recipe. It took me at most a few days, or a week, to create recipes that I could just share a link with someone across the world, and they could just open it up. Compared to spending years on a project that maybe gets built in a couple of years down the line. The feeling of immediacy and being able to get something out the door so quickly was drastically different. I realized I just want to see things out the door.
Working on the blog and UX design was much more fulfilling to me as a person.
It sounds like it goes back to how you started, you wanted to share and show appreciation, and now you can do it digitally!
Digitally as well, yes.
But, I’m also one of those people who like cafes. I always imagined having my own café and my cookbook at the café as a table read. I don’t need an extensive cookbook that’s 200 pages, but a small 5 x 8, tiny cookbook of diagrams.
That would be so cool! What’s next for you?
I want to do a cookbook for sure. I think this maybe goes into writer’s block, but I’m just so scared of doing it the wrong way. When I first launch it, I want to make sure that I do it right.
Before I even think of publishing, I want to thoroughly test the recipes to make sure that I publish the best ones. Getting feedback from people who test my recipes, I think is very critical.
So that’s what I’m planning to do, especially now that we moved into a bigger home with a bigger kitchen.
What is the story that you want to tell through your blog, through your food, and your future cookbook?
It’s such a mouthful of a huge question!
Food should be appealing from a visual standpoint but also bring back a sense of nostalgia. It doesn’t have to take someone to their grandma’s home but has a sense that it's homemade and comforting. It could remind you of working abroad, studying abroad, or remind you of someone or something that you love. That’s what’s important to me, whether it’s a pastry or something more savory.
I also want people to not be intimated about cooking. There are so many things that you can try rather than shy away from. It takes courage. I want to make sure that cooking is something that people understand or are inspired by. I want them to have a positive sense that they're going to get this done and supported by me.
Also, I want people to enjoy using their imagination when it comes to building recipes. Yes, some recipes have a precision element, but I really want people to have fun with it. They don’t necessarily have to follow the recipe down to leveling every single thing, but they can come up with different flavors, mixtures, and combinations of things.
Lillian Yang is the blogger and Chefitect behind The Chef Charette, a blog filled with beautiful delicious recipes and simple diagrams to guide you each step of the way. You can keep up to date with Lillian @thechefcharette on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.
All food photography and diagrams are by Lillian Yang.