After completing her journey at Northwestern this past year, Judy Wu embarked on a new one — “an anthropological journey of Chicago through food” — documenting her experiences at her blog, The Hungry Learner, along the way. Wu explores the city of Chicago, getting to know awesome people (usually while sharing delicious meals) and then relays what she has learned to her readers. “What I’m ultimately trying to do is learn about a particular person, organization, cause or idea. And I realized that early on, food is a common element between all these things,” Wu says. “For some, food is a source of community — for others, it’s a religious ritual. For some, food is a luxury or bragging right — for others, it’s an art. But because food is that important, it became an essential part of my blog.” We sat down with Wu to ask her a few questions about her story and why her love of food has led her to where and who she is today.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Judy, and I’m a recent grad. I love eating food, making food, growing/foraging for food and watching others eat my food and wonder what the hell they ate. I’m incredibly passionate about social causes, and that’s why I started this blog — to get some Kickstarter support!
Kickstarter is a company that funds independent creative projects by building a community of both backers and creators. With the funds from Kickstarter, Judy hopes to raise enough money to give back to local Chicago charities.
Can you trace back your love of food to its beginnings? If so, tell me about where it all started.
Sure! So I grew up in an Asian household where food was the symbol of love and everything fantastic about life. Truth be told, I’d never eaten a frozen dinner or packaged meal until college. My mom cooked every day, and we always ate dinner as a family together. So I’d always loved eating food, and after moving to college, I began to enjoy cooking and watching TV-related food shows.
I like (and share) your idea about food as art. Tell me more.
That’s exactly it. Food is art in that it’s a form of self-expression. So for instance, interviewing with Jake from Sous Rising and Alvin Yu from Fyusion Dining made me realize that food is a canvas to them. I mean, these guys ate hamburgers and fries normally, but then they would make fancy risotto and some dehydrated corn soup. For some people, it’s music, for others (like me), it’s writing. Food is just another creative medium.
Where do you find these amazing people you talk with, like Alvin Yu, the personal chef, or the creators of 5411 Empanada truck? How do you go about getting them to agree to a conversation and exploration of what they do?
Hustling. I swear to God, I feel like a sales rep sometimes, pitching my idea. It definitely takes a lot of time researching the person, planning my interview and executing it properly, but it’s worth it because I truly learn a lot, and I really want other people to learn what I’ve learned as well.
Why is it important, in your opinion, to embark on a journey such as this (and educate people about it)?
Because people love hiding within their shells and sticking to what they know. As a result, we can become apathetic and ignorant (and mean), which is never a good thing. I like being mentally uncomfortable — I like having my stereotypes and misconceptions challenged. I like learning about stuff I’ve never heard about before. Knowledge isn’t only humbling, it makes you a more empathetic person. To approach someone and be genuinely interested in what he or she has to say is actually a pretty hard thing because the moment you meet someone, you already have 15 judgments about them. To let those go and really learn is truly a skill.
Any favorite restaurants in the city?
I like beat-down, authentic places where they serve honest food that isn’t on some porcelain plate (although that’s fine too!). There’s this Mexican place in Little Village where you can get the best $3 burrito of your life.
For some, exploring the food culture of Chicago may seem like a daunting task since there is just so much out there. Any advice for the curious on where to begin and how to go about starting one’s own personal “journey of Chicago through food”?
I would say — it doesn’t have to deal with food even. Just talk to the person sitting next to you on the El or strike up a conversation with a stranger wherever you go. You will find that people love to talk about themselves and that people have amazing stories. Maybe I’m the only person who feels this way, but I’m a very curious person who loves learning about absolutely everything and anything.
What is the weirdest thing you’ve eaten on your journey so far?
I ate carob foam and trout roe at Sous Rising — it was like eating beads of salt water with chocolate mousse.