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Getting to know Anja Dunk
Anja Dunk is a polymath – a Renaissance woman. She is a writer, a cook, an artist, a photographer. She has written books on preserving and on German food, her fluid pen and ink drawings of fruit and vegetables and her bold linocuts are sought after, her pop up restaurant events sell out. If you ask her to describe what she does however, she answers ‘I am a Mother’. It somehow feels radical. It doesn’t, however, feel surprising. The books she has written, the art she creates, the cooking that she does for events, the way that she talks about life - all are rooted in the family home, in instinct, in memory and sentiment, in the importance of gathering around a table. In the simple things that matter. She writes in the introduction to Strudel, Noodles & Dumplings:
“There is a wonderful German word, gemütlich, which when translated into English loosely means ‘cosy’, although in actual fact it means much more but is hard to put into words - to me it really means feeling at home. So wherever we are in the world, I try to make it gemütlich”
I first met Anja in the carpark of The Good Life Experience in Wales last September – shuttling back and forward from our tents, packing up bedding and camping equipment, clothes and provisions. We were both on a high after a few days of cooking and eating and being amongst interesting people. We met again in January this year for coffee and delicious cakes at Honey and Co in London. Anja grew up mainly in Wales, her Dad is Welsh, her Mum is German and the family lived a nomadic kind of life. They lived for periods aboard in Cameroon, Indonesia and Malaysia, where her dad worked on agricultural projects, holidays were spent with family in Germany and they always returned to Wales in between. Home and continuity meant the family unit, the kitchen table, her Mum’s cooking, her grandmother’s bottled fruit and preserves. After studying Mandarin, working in art galleries and for a fashion company, Anja fell into making food for people – working at a delicatessen restaurant in Wales, then cooking for weddings at Fforest in West Wales – scaling up her family food style to large events.
Children followed – at one point three children under three – along with books, more events and periods living in the Netherlands and America. Food, cooking, the kitchen table remained the moveable heart of her life. In 2018 she published her book on modern German Cookery, Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings – a book which firmly points out that German cookery is about a lot more than bratwurst and sauerkraut. It is a recipe book rooted in seasonality, full of the flavours of caraway and dill, with a comforting and welcoming atmosphere. The recipes are mainly frugal, simple and adaptable. Perhaps because, although there are many recipes containing meat in the book, Anja and her family eat a vegetarian diet at home there is that feeling that things can be swapped about, added to, ingredients can be left out if not available – that food is not something that has to be a certain way.
“The best way to approach any kind of cooking – whether it is for family or for 200 people – is to be relaxed about it all.”
Strudel, Noodles and Dumplings was written over the course of a year. The recipes are ones cooked for family – the photographs are those taken by Anja (often balanced on a ladder over the table) of the meals that were actually eaten. They are wonderful photos but they are not perfectly styled, they do not have that clinical feel of the studio shot, little hands hover with forks, the food is there to be eaten.
And somehow, in a world where food is so often shown as perfect, glossed up and complicated, this homeliness feels radical. Running alongside all of this is Anja’s art – linocuts and pen and ink drawings of ingredients. She sees art, especially drawing, as an important part of everyday life – in exactly the same way as cooking and eating and gathering around a table.
The process of creating, the making of marks on paper, the creativity, the concentration and flow are as important as what she ends up with. Drawing becomes part of the rhythm of daily life. Anja doesn’t take commissions for her paintings, as she finds they make her tense up and freeze, but sells in various galleries and online.
We talked a lot over our coffees about access to food and art – about how communities could gather together more over nutritious, affordable, seasonal food; about how drawing could be integrated more into schools and the NHS; about how the simple things in life are often the most important to people’s wellbeing. As she left to meet a friend and his new
baby who were waiting outside, she said “I want to use the next half of my life doing what I want to do.” It felt radical.
You can find out more about Anja and her current projects on Instagram @cocoinmykitchen where she shares photos of her daily life, well stocked pantry, delicious food and allotment.