In the Spoon series Buttered Up, we interview content creators in the food space about what their job is like. This month, we chatted with Allison Chen (al.chenny), a college cook and baker who wears many hats: student, content creator, pop-restaurant owner, and pastry school grad. 

When Allison Chen (@al.chenny on Instagram) first left home to go to college, she quickly realized that there was something missing. Having grown up in a food-oriented household, always cooking and baking with her family, Chen longed to get back into the kitchen and to be surrounded by people with the same passion for food.

But if you look back at her college experience now, Chen, who is in her senior year, has done far more than just cooked a few meals in the kitchen. She spent a semester abroad in France at pastry school, operates a pop-up restaurant with her friends, and has over 300k followers on TikTok. She laughs about her ability to somehow manage it all, although she does so seemingly effortlessly.

But, these accomplishments didn’t happen overnight — as much as Chen is a go-getter, she also is a believer in the process. Whether it’s learning detailed baking methods in pastry school or figuring out how to work with limited kitchen equipment, Chen reminds us it’s not all about the finished product sometimes, but about what you picked up along the way.

Spoon University: You’re spread between being a college student, a pastry chef, an influencer, and content creator. How do you balance baking, schoolwork, and content creation? What does a typical day look like for you?

Allison Chen: To be honest, I don’t think I do a very good job of balancing anything. But, I think now, especially as I’ve come to the later years of college, I’ve just decided to prioritize what I think matters more to me, so in that case it’s baking and content creation. So, there is no typical day, because I just run around and do a thousand different things on every given day. But I normally spend, at this given time, thinking about baking and what I want to do post-grad than any of my schoolwork. I think my Comp-Sci grades reflect that.

SU: You went to pastry school in France for a semester. Was that a study abroad program kind of thing? 

AC: It actually wasn’t! I took a gap semester, then decided to go to pastry school. I was like, this basically counts as study abroad, except my classes are cooler and I get no credit. 

SU: Well, it obviously was a huge life change! Especially moving to a completely different country with a completely different culture…how did you decide that this is something you wanted to do, especially it being something not necessarily connected to school, and how did you feel that fear and just jump in anyway?

AC: I think at the time I was definitely looking for a change of pace, and I just wanted to explore what other things are out there in the world and what other things people do with their life. In school, I really had no idea what I wanted to study, and to be honest, didn’t find any of the academics or any of the subjects super interesting, but I knew I really loved baking. I just decided to Google pastry schools, and I was like, well why not? 

SU: Let’s talk a little bit about your pop-up restaurant. I know that’s something that’s been ongoing. So, how did that start, and what’s your vision with that?

AC: Yeah, honestly I should share more about that on social media, because I think a lot of people want to do something like that. But, I will say, you have to kind of be insane to do it. Basically, my friends and I all worked in restaurants or pastry shops over this summer, and we did this thing called a stage, which is basically an unpaid culinary internship. We all came back from our summers still wanting to continue our work in restaurants and in the food industry, while going to school. So, we created this pop-up restaurant concept where we would serve people a fancy eight-course tasting menu — something that they wouldn’t get to experience otherwise, especially in college. We did it once a week…for every single weekend of the semester. Now we are doing some pop-ups and local restaurants in Durham [North Carolina].

SU: Was that similar to going abroad in France?

AC: I definitely think you have to have the same mentality, because honestly, by the time Friday and Saturday roll around, we are like “oh no, we have to cook eight courses of food for these people because they paid for it.” Somehow, every weekend it comes together in the end. Which is crazy. But it does take an enormous amount of time. 

SU: When did you realize you loved working with food?

AC: I’m not really sure if I ever realized it, I sort of have just grown up around food a lot, and, my parents and I cook a lot…I think that’s the only time we ever spend a lot of time together as a family. I realized I missed food a lot when I came to college, and I just had no opportunities to bake and cook and talk about food with other people who also really liked it, and I felt like I lost that for a couple of years. Obviously, now that’s all I talk about, so…I think we’ve now circled back.

SU: This is super random, but you have a lot of videos in your bathroom, are you sitting in your tub? How did this start as a thing?

AC: Yeah, I try to keep my videos really playful. I think a lot of these tips you can find online and elsewhere. I started sitting in my bathtub as a practical thing, because I think my house is really ugly, and there aren’t many other places in my house with a nice, clean wall. Also, the acoustics are great in there. I genuinely think it was a really happy accident that this was the only place in my house that looked nice, and people were like, “this is weird, but I guess I like it.” 

SU: I feel like I’ve seen people comment on your stuff like, “why are you in your tub?” and other people are like “you must be new here!”

AC: Yeah, honestly, it only started like a couple months ago when I was living at home, and I had no choice but to sit in my bathtub.

SU: A lot of college students out there live in dorms, sorority housing, apartments. None of these situations are always ideal for getting into cooking or baking. What is your advice for someone who may not have as much access to those resources, but who’s trying to get into baking or cooking?

AC: I have a couple of friends who literally have stand mixers in their dorm room. So, space and the amount of tools you have are limiting factors, but there’s still so much you can do with the amount of tools and resources. Honestly, sometimes I think the limitations force you to be creative and force you to think about how to make things in a creative way. And ultimately, that’s more fun sometimes than the end product. Because, I don’t know, I’ve eaten many chocolate chip cookies in my life…I’ve eaten many cookies in my life, and it’s about how you ended up making it and how you got there.