Austa Somvichian-Clausen can't escape her love for food. Now, she's giving us a glimpse into her curiosity with a new digital series.
This piece originally appeared in Issue #4. Subscribe to get our monthly newsletter!
- Amina and Lincoln
Austa Somvichian-Clausen grew up with a unique relationship with food. As a young girl, Austa and her family lived in her grandparents' garage space until kindergarten. Every night, her Thai grandpa and Filipino grandma would prepare dishes like chicken adobo and spare rib soup with bittermelon for family meals. At Christmas, her Icelandic family would send "hanging meat" (traditional smoky pork). This is all to say that Austa wasn't bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or chicken nuggets for school lunch. Being surrounded by ingredients and family recipes from all over the world sealed Austa's passion for exploring the food on our tables, how it got there, and why certain dishes and ingredients are so attached to a person's identity.
Even though she's no longer surrounded every day by her grandparents' cooking, Austa can't get away from food. "Food is a way to connect with cultures of all types—even if you're a thousand miles away from that place," she said. After writing about food for publications like Thrillist and The Washington Post, Austa knew she had to dig deeper into the vibrant food community in DC. She teamed up with fellow creatives, including co-producer Mateo Melendy, to create At the Table with Austa, a YouTube-based series exploring the Washington culinary scene. “As a Salvadoran I felt it was imperative to bring minority and female chefs to the forefront, visually showcasing their hard work, creativity, and skill,” said Melendy. With new episodes every Sunday, the digital series chronicles people sharing their unique experiences and creativity through food.
As the project was being developed, Austa and her team knew they wanted to shine a light on the people who were most often excluded from leadership positions in the food industry. It's essential to have representation and equity through all levels of the food industry, but women and people of color often seem to be boxed into junior roles in the kitchen, or service roles outside of the kitchen. According to Mckinsey, only 23% of women hold c-suite positions, or top senior staffing positions, in food, and only 3% are women of color.
This disparity was made abundantly clear as Austa was selecting people to interview for the YouTube-based series. "I found it difficult to find restaurants that were owned solely by women, and especially women of color," she said. "Many of the restaurants are co-owned by a woman and a man, such as Himitsu by Carlie Steiner and Kevin Tien or Supra by husband and wife duo Jonathan and Laura Nelms. I think the only restaurant we featured that is solely owned by a woman is Pizzeria Paradiso by Ruth Gresser (who was just nominated for a James Beard award for Outstanding Restaurateur)." She believes the statistic will shift, thanks to positive coverage and women-targeted entrepreneurship programs by prestigious institutions.
At The Table With Austa provides a behind-the-scenes look at the emotion, intentionality, and challenges that form the delicious end results on our plates at our favorite restaurants. Often times, we’re only experiencing menus without the context of how they came to be, or what structural and logistical barriers that almost kept that same menu from seeing the light of day. From the design aesthetic to how chefs found their passion for cooking, each episode takes you to a different corner of the restaurant business, from owner to beverage director.
Austa’s desire to create outside of a structured 9-5 is what makes the video series so intimate and welcoming. "It honestly just feels good to make something for yourself that you don't need leadership approval for," she said. "It's extremely fulfilling about dreaming something up in your head and then seeing it materialize before your eyes because of your hard work." Austa’s genuine curiosity with food seeps through her interviews and ultimately shapes the identity of the series.
Although "At the Table with Austa" is in its first season, the team hopes to have the opportunity to cover food in a different city for season 2. As for Austa, her short term goal is making her way through "The New Filipino Kitchen" cookbook to connect with her grandmother's heritage. On the most basic level, food to Austa is "...a way to show your love, by creating something for your loved ones to eat." Whether we realize it or not, many of us are cooking for that exact reason: to show love.