Betsy Ding’s creativity can’t be contained. Her Instagram account, paintpencilpastries, showcases lush floral arrangements, glossy ceramic pieces, and food sumptuously arranged into veritable works of art, all formed by her hands on campus just this semester.
Now in her last year at Pomona, Ding considered attending culinary school at several points. In her teens, she had already amassed 30,000 followers on her TikTok cooking channel, published a recipe in Taste of Home magazine and formed paid partnerships with brands.
Her passion for food began as a child while watching her grandparents cook and developed through travels abroad with her family. As her palate expanded, she experimented with following recipes as well as creating her own, documenting her culinary adventures through prose and photography on her blog.
After arriving at Pomona, Ding decided to major in cognitive science and minor in studio art, while also taking classes in engineering, computer science, and philosophy, among other disciplines, at the various Claremont Colleges. She laid to rest the idea of pursuing food professionally (thinking her temperament was better suited to other careers).
But food continued to play a considerable role in her life: as an outlet for stress, as a way to bring friends together and as a vehicle for satisfying her cravings. She found ways to cook in dorm kitchens, with limited equipment and access to grocery stores, hitching rides to Trader Joe’s with friends whenever she could.
Courses such as Food and the Environment in Asia, Anthropology of Food, and Foundations of 2D Design contributed to her development as a chef and consumer.
“Food is something that everyone cares about and loves, but it’s often not seen through the lens of history, environmentalism, culture and cultural exchange, and economics,” says Ding.
“In my classes I’ve learned about industrialization, chefs’ roles in creating cultural cuisines, as well as agriculture and the role of food in the environment. Being exposed to these different perspectives encourages people to be more thoughtful about their consumption.”
Earlier this semester, Ding applied for a Student Creativity Grant through The Hive to design and prepare a nine-course tasting menu dinner. For Ding, the dinner was in many ways a culmination of her time at Pomona during which she took advantage of the many resources Pomona has to offer.
Sustainability was top of mind for Ding for the event. She borrowed much of the cooking equipment from the Sustainability Office, which offers a check-out program for pots, utensils and other supplies. Many of her ingredients were gathered from the Pomona College Organic Farm, the Pitzer Student Garden and the Claremont Farmers Market.
“I wanted to promote the idea of knowing where your food comes from and engaging with food more intentionally,” she says.
When designing the menu, Ding drew from her heritage as a person of Asian descent, which is “just the food I’m most familiar with,” she says, and as a California resident, incorporating a variety of fresh local produce.
The day before the event, she spent the entire day in her dorm kitchen doing prep work, with significant help from a friend who was visiting from out of town and a friend from Pitzer College. On the day of the dinner, she and her friends put in another five hours preparing sauces and doughs.
When it came time to eat, eight fellow students and two staff members from The Hive took their seats in the Dialynas Hall living room, located adjacent to the kitchen. The table was set with plateware carefully curated to enhance the dining experience and paired with paper menus that Ding designed.
Ding also included an information sheet with the stories behind each course: why she chose certain ingredients, how the food spoke to her own upbringing, and her relationship to the dish.
For the next two hours, guests were treated to a feast for the eyes and taste buds. Pops of yellow contrasted with greenish-black hues in the first course of crispy seaweed with tofu cream. A punch-colored glaze was painted onto plates for the main course of miso and plum syrup glazed cabbage with sesame puree. Fresh flowers appeared effortlessly strewn atop the delicate hojicha and matcha tiramisu.
Ding credits the visual presentation of her food to her art classes at Pomona, which taught her “how to consider composition, color and design.”
As she prepares to graduate from Pomona, Ding reflects on how Pomona has shaped her and others to be “independent thinkers.” Taking classes in so many disciplines has broadened her mind, and food has been just one area in which she has been able to express her creativity and resourcefulness.
“When people think of creativity they think about media like film, painting, sculpture, more traditional mediums,” says Ding. “With food, you’re working with a lot of different constraints like technical feasibility, what diners want, and your financial limitations, and making something that is interesting and good.”