Allison Chen is a Duke junior, content creator, and head of Stage at Swift, a student-led restaurant serving seven course meals to Duke undergraduates. She has more than 200 thousand followers, 250 million views and 7.5 million likes on TikTok alone.
Recess staff writer Arnav Jindal recently chatted with Allison to discuss her journey to content creation, Stage at Swift and life at Duke. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Chronicle: How would you introduce yourself to someone at a party?
Allison Chen: When I'm at a party, I just say, like, "Hi, I'm Allison." I feel like I go through like the basic Duke round of like, this is my major, this is what I'm doing. This is how I ended up here.
TC: So, do you tell anyone that you went to pastry school in France? Do you mention the 100,000+ Instagram followers and the 200,000+ plus followers on Tiktok?
AC: No, I don't start with that ever. I think my friends make fun of me and like, insert that in the conversation. I don't start with that. I don't know. It's a cool thing I do, but I also don't need it to be my whole personality.
TC: How's it like balancing being a content creator and the Duke student? Both quite demanding!
AC: I honestly think it's really difficult right now, just because of how my two platforms work. I really only need to think about making content for TikTok and I've been doing a really awful job at like staying consistent. The problem with content creation is you have to set your own deadlines, and that's really challenging to do when you actually have hard deadlines at school. If I have to bend and change [a deadline for either school or TikTok], it's going to be content creation. It's really hard, and I don't think I'm really good at it.
TC: How did you come up with a series on TikTok? You decided to do pastry school in France? Was that like a study abroad or is that something you came across on your own?
AC: Well, I actually took a gap semester, because I think I wanted to change of pace from university, and I just wanted to step back and do something different with my time for a little bit. And I've always really liked baking, so I decided, like, why not? This seems like the perfect opportunity to do something really cool. Without much like obligation. So yeah, I decided to leave the country for eight months and live in France. And then I decided to like document every single day of it. Because as I was telling people about it, they were like, "Oh my God, that's really cool. You have to send us photos and updates all the time." And I thought it would just be easier if I sent everyone the same link.
TC: Has this experience motivated you to like change anything at Duke and what you're planning on doing after college?
AC: I think that’s twofold. So first, I think if you need to take time away from school, you definitely should. Because I think just living abroad or living somewhere different has definitely changed me and made me grown as a person to where I feel like I can more comfortably handle the challenges at Duke. And then secondly, I think career wise, if I wasn't confused before, I think a little bit more confused. I always have content creation looming in the back of my head. So yeah, I'm definitely not sure about that one still, but definitely going to keep it around for the meantime.
TC: I notice that you are involved in Stage at Swift. How is it starting a restaurant with your friends inside your apartment?
AC: While I was still away, Herbert Wang and Brian Young reached out to me because they wanted to start something because they also did culinary internships and worked in the culinary field over the summer. I was also interested in starting something so that way I could still showcase my baking, share that with people and practice my own skills and creativity. So, we all came together and we're just like, we're going to make a really fancy tasting menu in our apartment. It has been the biggest learning experience in many ways that I've had [last] semester because it requires an immense amount of like planning and effort and communication and all three of us must always be on the same page. And there are just like so many moving parts to the whole thing, even though it's like just one dinner for eight people every week. But yeah, it's a seven course tasting menu in [Herbert and Brain's] little Swift apartment!
TC: What's the creative process like? How do you decide what you're going to make?
AC: Honestly, none of us have the experience to really know how actual chef r&d is. But what we do is we first go on Instagram for inspiration. We just look at how like other chefs, like Michelin star restaurants, how they plate, how they serve their dishes and what's on their menu. Especially for me, because pastry is very visual, a lot of the times that's how I get a lot of plating ideas. And then from there, we try and go off what's in season. So right now, in terms of fruits, it's like pineapples, citrus, things like that. Because we change our menu all the time, we got to keep things like seasonal and fresh.
TC: What are your thoughts on the culinary scene in Durham? There are loads of small local restaurants popping up all the time.
AC: Um, honestly, I don't like eat out a lot anymore. I live in Swift, so I have the opportunity to cook. If I want to eat something, if I'm sick of WU, I think my first instinct is to go home and cook something. But I think the food scene in Durham is pretty cool and special. There's so many choices, and you really could find something like different every time you go out. The diversity of cuisine here is really special too. There are a lot of immigrants that have opened up their own businesses and are in entrepreneurship restaurant scene here. I think that's also really cool.
TC: Do you get recognized on campus?
AC: Honestly, I don’t think people like will flat out say it because it doesn't come up that much. I think that's fine though because [Duke and my Instagram] are two separate worlds. I think most people actually will comment Stage at Swift rather than like, my Instagram.
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