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An interview with Annabelle Widyastuti - Entrepreneur/ Baker/ Performance Artist

July 8, 2019

Tell us about yourself in your own words

My name is Annabelle Widyastuti. I am Indonesian and - I say Australian because that’s how I was brought up and my passport is Australian and I was born in Australia - but my Dad is from New Zealand. White New Zealand via Scotland. I was born in Sydney and I moved to Jakarta, Indonesia when I was 6 years old and I moved back to Australia on my own when I was 18. This is now my 11th year in Sydney. I still don’t know what I’m doing. I am a self taught baker and an artist and actor by training. I did a Bachelor of Performance that I finished in 2010 and I have been running my own business My Little Panda Kitchen (MLPK) for 4 years now. When I started I was doing vegan Indonesian lunch boxes with very punny, often indie rock inspired names that I delivered by bicycle around Sydney. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was exhausting and I was doing it all myself. I started doing cakes because someone asked me if I could make a vegan cake and I had never really done much baking before. I think I’d been vegan for a year and I just kept teaching myself from that point on from Youtube and searching things online, seeing people whose work I really liked and just trying to bring that into cakes.


When someone asked you to make cakes did you find that you enjoyed it and kept doing it for that reason?

It was a combination of things. I did enjoy it, it would be amiss for me to say that I don’t enjoy what I do. I really do. It is exhausting and quite isolating a lot of the time and that was why I was a part of creating a shared space, but in the kitchen I’m working from now I’m working by myself and I don’t have staff any more. I often look back at the photo of the first cake I made as a humbling exercise of where I came from! It was not bad but it was very home made. When I started the business, it wasn’t even a business at first - I started a blog doing vegan Indonesian food because I’d become vegan. I was vegetarian for 10 years and when I became vegetarian our cook at home in Jakarta would make vegetarian versions of Indonesian meals for me. That was kind of my first inspiration point. When I moved back to Sydney I was trying to learn a whole lot of other survival skills first like how to do laundry which seems like a very privileged thing to say but growing up in Indonesia, household help is a very common thing. My Mum was very good about making sure we did some things ourselves but 6 of 7 days of the week we didn’t have to do much ourselves. I got to Sydney and I was 18 and I didn’t know anything. For a long time it was cooking for survival and being a uni student. I was very poor and I was bringing miso soup packets to the city with me. I had no family support when I got here and it took me ages to get onto Centrelink because of the process of getting forms sent to Indonesia. I was incredibly broke and had no money when I was a student especially. I’d bring miso soup packets to Maccas and ask for a cup of hot water and that would be lunch. When I had a bit more job security and financial security, I became vegan and that really inspired me to want to reconnect with Indonesian food and that extra challenge of ‘veganising’ it. When I realised early on that it was quite an easy thing to do I thought ‘I can run with this’. So I was doing the blog and I’ve always cycled so my hairdresser suggested I just bring the food to people. I thought about it for ages and then one day I was sitting at home and I was depressed as per usual and I decided to do something about it. I made a menu on Photoshop and just put it online to see what would happen. I did 5 of each lunch box and within 24 hours they were all spoken for. It just kept going from there and I started doing the cakes maybe 6 months in. I realised at that point from a business perspective there was a better profit margin on cakes and because of the style and what I was doing with them they were very self marketing. I would post a picture of one and then I’d get more enquiries straight away, whereas the lunch boxes were a bit of a harder push. They were quite novelty at the time because it was pre Ubereats and Deliveroo, but it was exhausting because I was coordinating delivery routes and coming up with menus and having to figure out my grocery list and cooking everything. At that point I was still working from home at my old house and my kitchen was very tiny. I had some people helping me with deliveries too but it was just a lot. The cakes are also a lot of work but a completely different sort of thing in terms of the kind of labour going into them. It made sense for me once I saw how popular the cakes were becoming to just streamline and not try and do everything. I’ve been that way my whole life - I was in every single club in school and I wanted to do music and do theatre and do sports and succeed in my marks and also - I have an Asian mum so that has a major influence on that. I think I’ve always wanted to do everything and I’m learning through my inability to follow through on everything that it’s not possible when you already have incapacitated, limited number of spoons per day. There is only so much that I can reasonably achieve if I want to succeed at all of the things. I realised I had to cut something, and so I cut the lunch boxes and then kept doing cakes. I’ve been doing cakes for 3 years or so now and I think that was a very good choice for me.


You started in your own kitchen - when did you go into the shared industrial space and how did that come about?

I was working from home for almost the first year. The first year I was still working retail when I started the business. I had ended up in retail management because I was trying to be an artist and do self devised multi disciplinary performance art. There’s no money in that. There’s no funding any more and the government doesn’t care. The Australian government just cuts the arts all the time and I’d chosen the wankiest direction I could possibly go so I knew it wasn’t going to work. Before that I’d worked in hospitality but I was sick of that so I was working retail and ended up doing retail management at Jack London and Gorman for ages. I got to this point where I was very isolated and feeling so miserable and I quit, started the blog around then and I jumped ship back to hospitality. It was about a year and a half in that MLPK became my sole income and it was around the 1 year mark that I moved to a shared kitchen space that Kate Jones was running in Marrickville. The space was her and another person and we were there for a while - 6 months to a year - and then we moved into the space that was Maker. We were there for 2 and a half years and now Maker has closed down and I knew couldn’t go back home unless I was to scale the business down in a big way which I didn’t want to do because it sustains me in a lot of ways. So I had to find another kitchen space. I’m in a space in Lilyfield now which is shared. It’s not all vegan which is a bit of a bummer but I just clean stuff a lot more, and it’s good.


Tell us about the workshops you’ve been doing.

So I’m teaching classes under MLPK branding. We partnered with Sydney Community College and they are really awesome people. I like what they do. Their classes are all on the pretty affordable end of things which I think is great. A lot of cake decorating classes are crazy expensive -  they tend to be a full day and they are around $700+ for some of the really amazing cake decorators. I’ve never been to another person’s class because I can’t afford that - even as someone who is a cake maker now. My classes are around the $200 mark. I just put them up to $220 which is good because I have to pay GST now too. Tax sucks. More liberal government sucks. So Sydney Community College have been awesome and I’m teaching one class a month this year at the moment. Maybe I will add in more but I’m doing a vegan baking and desserts class. I did my first one in the new space last month which was awesome and I’m also doing a vegan cake decorating class which is really fun because it’s so good to see people at a stage where I used to be at. I have the cake ready for them and I teach them to level them which is cutting them into the different layers and I teach them to stack them, fill them, and put in the dam so the filling doesn’t spill out the sides. I show them how to make a vegan butter-cream, stacking it up, crumb coat, the thicker coat of icing and chilling that and then the painting style on top of that. I also show them how to make a ganache drip and some composition details. It’s cool because when it comes to decorating there are classes that show you how to make a particular thing. My approach is: here are my colours go to town. Here are the techniques we will go for – a watercolour style and a drip – but here’s all my toppings, here’s the colours – you can pick what colour combos you want to do. People often choose really interesting things that I wouldn’t put together. People make really interesting things and use toppings in a way that I haven’t used them before. I don’t do very literal stuff with my cakes it tends to be more abstract. A long time ago I did a Robert Smith inspired caked. I did a modeling sugar splat style for his hair on top and very black and 80’s sort of vibe around the rest of it. That sort of thing is how I like to work but it means that I’ll often use different toppings and I’m constantly going through what candy at Coles I can buy that is accidentally vegan and scouring through ingredients. I find things like rainbow sour straps that are vegan and people will cut them in a way that I haven’t used them before and I think that’s interesting or cool. It’s a really weird medium that I have ended up in and I didn’t see myself here when I was doing performance work. I used a lot of projection and puppetry stuff and a lot of body and movement in space and I think there are still components that are very me in terms of colour usage. It’s just a very funny medium and I have to remember to not discredit myself. This is still an artistic medium even if I feel like I’m not being an artist anymore by not doing performance work. I get really bummed that I’m not doing performance work still but I just don’t have the time and energy, at least not right now when I’m also doing a lot of therapy alongside running a business. My ideal outcome one day would be to be able to do other creative projects as well. At the moment little things that can keep me going in that regard like learning bass is awesome. It’s a little thing that I can do 10 minutes of a day and it doesn’t feel as daunting as making a new solo show. I’d love to do that but it’s a lot of pressure to put on myself right now.


Did you move back to Sydney to study performance art?

I wanted to go to the USA really badly and I think part of that was the conditioning of going to an international school with a lot of Americans so a lot of people were going to the USA and that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to go to New York, of course, but my parents said only if I get a full scholarship could I go to NYU. I couldn’t do that so I moved to Australia because I had citizenship. It meant that university would be my cost and it would come later. I didn’t really see any point going anywhere but Sydney, at least at the time. I think I had some family in Brisbane, I have an Aunt that way but she is out from the city. I have one Aunt here but we’re not very close. The only other place I would have considered at the time would have been Melbourne but I think for me it was a coming home thing as well. The year before I moved back I came to visit. I was 17, I remember very vividly. I couldn’t go to many gigs in Jakarta because of terrorism warnings and people never come to Indonesia so I was super stoked to go to so many shows here. I had to go to all ages stuff and I remember I went and saw Dinosaur Jr at The Metro and I stood at the front and just got my ears blasted and they were ringing for 3 days. I felt like Sydney was where I had to go and it made sense from a financial perspective, and because I had citizenship and I didn’t really know what my options were. Maybe other kids at school were better at looking at those things but I was not doing very well coming to the end of school and I was bullied quite a lot in my last year so I kind of scraped my way over the line for graduation. I was keen to get out and go somewhere I vaguely knew. When I moved back to Sydney I went to The Hills where I was born because I didn’t know anywhere else. I lived in Castle Hill for a year and a half. It’s north west, Hillsong district. A good hour on the bus and I was coming into the city for uni every day. It was the only place that I knew and then I started to get to know the Inner West and so I moved to the Inner West and didn’t look back.


Did you have recipes that you were taught at home that you wanted to cook, or were you just attracted to cooking meals that were familiar to you?

I was never really taught much but we were always brought up to appreciate and like food. Mum didn’t want us to be picky so if we didn’t like something then we’d get more of it because - tough luck. I think that probably comes from her own scarcity mindset of being poor growing up herself. We weren’t really taught that much of how to cook but my brother and I both ended up being foodies. I think we were just taught to appreciate food and to enjoy food - to appreciate that it can be a scarcity and that if we can afford nice food to not feel bad about that sort of indulgence as well. When I started cooking Indonesian food I knew what it tasted like and I think I have a good ability to connect what I want something to be and then figure out the way to get there. I’m an extensive researcher. If I’m trying to figure out a recipe I will find everyone else’s recipe ever and then pull from those what I want. It seems to work out considering I do everything pretty much by the seat of my pants because I’m a procrastinator too.


How does the use of internet factor into your business?

The internet is so weird. I have a really love/hate relationship with Instagram at the moment especially because it’s pretty much where my whole business has existed and been built on. I was posting the menus on Instagram when I started and cross posting to Facebook but it’s always been from Instagram and to other platforms from there. So it’s been amazing and I guess what helped that build to begin with was that I used Twitter quite a lot when I first moved here. I was kind of an early adopter of that and had a little bit of community there. Even that was not my first instance of finding community through the internet. I was doing that since I was very young. Since I was using dial up. I’d put the pillow over the modem because I was trying to use the internet at night and I was using yahoo group chat , having conversations with people I definitely should not have been, but that was my first kind of foray into finding people and connecting online. I used LiveJournal obviously and that was huge for me I think especially because I felt very isolated for a lot of reasons growing up being in Indonesia and not really having access to a lot of the things I was craving around literature and music and just different kinds of people. I was a weirdo from a young age and so I think the internet just gave me places to find refuge but now there is a lot of weird voyeurism which I find quite hard to reconcile. It has been healing in a lot of ways for me that I can post my journey and people can follow along with that but on the other hand there is a voyeuristic quality now that I question am I doing it for my healing or for the sake of being watched? I don’t know what the answer is because I don’t think that just saying stop using the internet or turn off all your social media is an effective answer when that is where we are and it’s only going to continue. I have a lot of thoughts about regulation of the companies that own these platforms and I think Intagram’s days are numbered in the form that it takes now. There’s a lot of disenchantment and people are not keen on this hyper-capitalist, hyper-consumerist thing that it is and I find it hard to be a business inside that too. I’m still trying to sell my product but I want to engage with other things so I use my platform that I somehow have to talk about mental health stuff - but am I shooting myself in the foot from a business perspective for doing that or am I being more human and more relatable and therefore strengthening the audience that I do have? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer to it. Thinking about that at the beginning of this year was when I realised I wanted to start another project. I want to do a podcast and streamline my interests to cake world and talking about mental health stuff. Maybe bits of it can cross over but if they have their own streams it might make a bit more sense for me at least and make a bit more sense for my audiences. Not that I think that I should have to censor my mental health stuff from my business but the business world is different. We live in capitalism. A lot of people like Instagram because it’s palatable and consumable.


You definitely use Instagram as a platform to talk about mental health issues. Is that the kind of project you want to work on now?

I think so. I’m just trying to figure out the way to do it and also get out of my own way about the same sort of thing thinking I need to make a business plan for a podcast when maybe I should just record something on my phone and put it up and just see what happens. Go lo-fi as fuck and it’s fine. But I think I have a very perfectionist streak and I don’t want to put out products that aren’t perfect.


Is that perfectionist streak part of your mental illness?

Well definitely I think it’s a part. As I’m starting to understand more about having a dissociative disorder and how different parts come up that perfectionist part is someone who doesn’t want to look like a failure ever and so even the possibility of putting something out that is sub-par - that could be seen as having faults, that is a risk to the entire self. I have to use skills to sit down with that part and tell it it’s okay to put things out that are not perfect as an adult. I, myself can deal with that now but it gets me stuck a lot of the time where I don’t follow through on things because underneath a lot of these parts I’m discovering is this fear feeling that is just terrified of the world and terrified of doing anything because they will get hurt in some sort of way. Again, it’s the same thing of talking through that part and knowing if something happens and it doesn’t go well, I’ve got some skills to deal with it and I don’t have to shut down, or isolate, or self harm. There’s a whole bunch of different things I can try out and do if things don’t work out or if I do get hurt.


You have been very open about the different kinds of therapies you are working on. Can you talk us through that?

It’s all trauma really as I’m discovering, all these names for things and diagnoses are just different manifestations of trauma I think. That’s my own hypothesis at least for someone who is self taught on the healing journey. I have Borderline Personality Disorder and I’ve learned that I have a Dissociative Disorder as well and but really they’re just emotional vulnerabilities - or that is the kind of language practitioners are leaning towards. I got in this year to a 12 month DBT program – dialectical behaviour therapy – which is amazing. It’s skills based stuff and as I’ve learned about what it is I think it should be taught in schools because it’s not being taught in a lot of people’s homes. One of the modules is emotion regulation, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness. I’m lucky enough, privileged enough – I work my ass off so I have money and can afford to do a private program which has required private health insurance to get into and I’ve got a lot of feelings about the accessibility of these sorts of things. It’s a 12 month group program, they split into 3 modules rather than 4 but the mindfulness they put at the beginning of each module so you go back to it which is awesome. I’m going to St John of God in Burwood and it’s really excellent – I’d say 98% of it except for some of the language stuff is very gendered and they just don’t know. I’m okay with it because I’m resilient enough but I’m figuring out if and when I’ll pull them up on it – maybe it will be my parting gift, maybe not. I’ve just completed the first module, I’ve got another 5 to go, I’m in the beginning of the 2nd module now and I’ll run through the whole year so that’s one full day a week. I also do individual therapy and we do a bunch of different stuff. We do Internal Family Systems (IFS) which is quite a new thing and I think it is relatable to a lot of people, but it’s excellent for dissociative disorders. It’s like mapping out the different parts of that exist like your fire fighters - the ones when there is a crisis they try to get shit under control, protector parts - which when you feel a threat they step up and make sure shit is going to be okay. My anger part is a protector part and it comes up when underneath the fear part is actually triggered. So IFS helps to map all those things out and really understand who they are, where they are, where they sit in your body and doing internal work to talk through to them and actually build communication between your adult self and them. I think it’s effective even if you don’t have a dissociative disorder. I think people don’t even realise what dissociation means and how it can be in so many parts of your daily life even if it’s not a full other personality that comes up and you have black outs which is something I do experience. We do EMDR which is Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. It’s basically moving your eyes back and forth. You feel like a wanker but it is a bilateral stimulation thing and it helps you with processing traumatic memories in particular. It doesn’t change the memory but it changes how you feel about the memory it lowers the intensity through that process or you can strengthen bonds as well. We are doing some of that for me around certain drug usage like when I come home and I feel like I’ve gotta smoke a cone because I don’t know what else to do and so it’s coming up with other things I can do. I can come home and play the bass for 10 minutes or write in my journal or I can make a cup of tea or write an email and kind of strengthening that bond. We’ve also revisited past traumatic memories and chilled them out basically so that I can go back to them and actually think about them without being in a highly triggered state. The other thing that I’ve been doing has been ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics/ Dysfunctional families) which is a 12 step group meeting. It was born out of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) because there’s also people who may not be alcoholics themselves or that dysfunction happens in a number of different ways. My family were not alcoholic but deeply dysfunctional and there are a lot of similar impacts so you kind of pick up those traits because that’s inherited trauma. I love that the group is trauma focused. In DBT we don’t really go into our trauma stuff it’s more skills based. We might touch on situations that may be triggering but it’s really quite light on touch in that it really talks about the skills which is the behaviour. ACA is more that group setting of sitting in a room and everyone’s got some time to talk and you can talk about whatever has come up. There will be different themes to meetings on different days of the week but I like to go to one that is a traits meeting. You can talk around that but you’re also limited to 4 minutes of talking and then you have to listen to all these other people for an hour and a half and actually be present and listen and not just be thinking about yourself. I’m conscious more these days of listening skills and activating the compassionate empathy that actually goes offline very easily when I’m activated in other ways. When you’ve got to sit there and listen to people’s stories, sometimes judgements come up. I know it’s not my place to speak and that’s their experience and I’m not being very compassionate or empathetic when those judgements are coming up so I love that it gives me an opportunity to check myself. It means I’ve got to really sit and listen to other people and care about it. If I make a choice to sit there and not listen and not care I’m not going to get as much out of it. It’s a good opportunity for me to use staying present skills so I’m not just sitting there floating and not really listening for an hour and a half and just waiting for my turn to talk – it just really defeats the whole purpose of it. Those are kind of my main therapy modules that I’m doing at the moment - while also running my business.


What do you as a business owner and artist stand for?

The veganism is pretty obvious. I don’t talk about it that much these days because it’s an annoying buzzword. I think underneath that - compassion is integral to me. That has so many different ways that it has to extend to people as well. It’s a tricky one to navigate as well of course but compassion is such a cornerstone for me as a person and in terms of my business. Fairness and equality is very important to me. I think that covers not being discriminatory, supporting people who don’t have a voice, animals that don’t have a voice. I think it’s raising the profile or the voice itself or the awareness of things that are not so talked about or are more stigmatised. That’s very important to me. Ensuring that it’s not just this super cis white heteronormative playing field and that other beings on this planet get to be represented. I try to do that through being myself and through who I choose to employ or work with or collaborate with. It’s a very queer business because that is very important to me. Queerness of course to me is political and not just who I want to have sex with. Queerness is very political and I think that queerness and veganism for me are things that go hand in hand because it’s about pushing back on what’s expected of me - expected of everyone. It’s about trying something else and seeing how that goes – it may not be right but I think let’s give it a go because it’s just not fair on yourself or anyone else if you just don’t try things.


What is the biggest obstacle you face when running your business and expressing yourself creatively?

Being alone – but then it’s important for me to figure out how to do that personally and professionally. Isolation is something that I move to when I feel like I can’t deal with the world but also usually that’s been while clinging on tightly to someone else too because of codependency. I think that’s extended to business and extended to personal relationships. Working by myself sucks sometimes when I’ve got a full day and I’ve got tonnes to do and I just have to keep being self motivated but it’s meant that I’ve had to come up with ways to deal with that. I listen to a lot of podcasts. It makes me feel like I have someone talking to me. Sometimes music can be more dissociative when I’m trying to work. I write a lot of lists when I’m panicked and there is so much to do. I’ve got no one else to bounce off of – I just stop and write down a list. What do I need to do? Those are kind of my biggest things. Also taxes.


What is the best piece of advice you could give to young women and queer folk who want to make art or music or run their own business or just be seen and heard?

Sometimes you have bad ideas but that is okay it’s part of learning. You end up where you end up. There’s a lot of things I really wish I hadn’t done - that I really wish I made a different choice but I can’t control that, I can’t go back in time. I tried it and I learned something and that’s what is important - where you go with the information. It’s all data collection – everything we’re doing is data collection because our brain is a system and it’s making more informed choices as you go. Sometimes you’re going to take a risk and it’s not going to pay off and you fuck up and that’s okay even when it’s not okay I think. That’s probably my big advice - it’s okay even when it’s not okay. It’s not over unless you do something that is going to make it over in which case please don’t do that. I’m glad that was something I was not successful at in my life. There’s always a way even sometimes you may make some choices and end up somewhere where you feel like there’s no way out and that’s okay because there might be just a completely different way to travel down that road and end up somewhere better then where you thought you needed to go. You do have to just try because no one is going to do it for you. If you’re already a minority you’re not going to get any cards handed to you so you do have to work your fucking ass off. I was listening to Nicole Byer’s podcast called ‘Why Won’t You Date Me?’ which is her interviewing guests and going through her dating profiles. She was talking about her old management and representation that said to her once ‘we’ll only work as hard as you work’ and she responded ‘I work very hard – I am a fat, black woman I do not get any cards handed to me, I have to work my ass off all the time and that’s why I have a TV show and that’s why I’m doing a podcast and that’s why I have these opportunities and yes I’ve been lucky’ – sometimes you just have to be lucky and no one can plan that for you but you’re not going to get lucky unless you’re putting the energy and the effort out there or at least your likelihood is much lower. I think we get shown a lot of media through things like Instagram now where you don’t see the work. You see the product but you don’t always see the journey and the process and I think my performance background showed me a very different route which is that the process can often be better than the final product. That is something we did a lot of at uni – about the process and opening up rehearsal rooms and stuff like that and I think that’s why for me showing process is so important and even if process is my journey and my processing and stuff - how you get there is sometimes way more important than what you show at the end because that’s where your learning is. 

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