When the email arrived, Berkeley Bowl special projects manager Chi Dixon thought it was some kind of a joke. The request was to do an engagement photo shoot at the famed market, from a couple who said that the business had played a crucial role in the early days of their relationship.
“We’re a grocery store,” Dixon told Nosh. “It was one of those record scratch moments. You want to do what?”
Joey Chiang and Melody Yu met in 2018, in a class in the graduate school of public health at UC Berkeley, and Berkeley Bowl has a special place in their hearts.
Not only was Berkeley the first place they both came to as out-of-state residents (Chiang, who is from Seattle, attended Cal as an undergraduate, and Yu, from Vancouver, Canada, came to Cal for her master’s in public health), but cooking elaborate meals was a big part of their courtship, as was shopping for the groceries to make them.
“We are both from families who both love to cook and eat, so it’s a hobby and a skill that has been passed down to us,” Yu told Nosh.
Noting that many college students look no further than the nearest box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or ramen packet, she said that they are not those people.
Chiang is currently a medical student at University of California, San Francisco; Yu is an epidemiologist in the Alameda County Public Health Department. Both of Chinese descent, Chinese food figures prominently into their rotation, as does other Asian food, with Japanese and Korean also being favorites. But they don’t only do Asian food.
“We have a tortilla press, so we also make tacos a lot,” said Chiang.
When asked about their cooking styles, that’s when things got interesting.
“I’m such a perfectionist when it comes to most things,” Yu said. “My need for cleanliness plus organization merges together, while he’s a tornado in the kitchen. He’s on a path of destruction. Sometimes it’s fun for us, and sometimes it’s very stressful for me.”
Chiang added, “I have fun.”
When it comes to the division of labor, Chiang takes on more of the prep work.
“After spending long days at the hospital, it’s fun for me to cut things,” he said.
Yu added that her fiancé has a bit of a fixation on keeping his knives perfectly sharp with his whetstone.
“He really likes his knives,” she said. “In a non-creepy way.”
“It’s important to have sharp implements,” he added. “There’s nothing worse than trying to cut a tomato and smushing it with your knife. It’s the worst. I’m not a perfectionist in many ways, but getting a level cut and making sure things are cut in a homogenous matter is satisfying for me.”
“He can be a bit neurotic about it,” said Yu. “I’m sleeping in, and he’ll be up at the crack of dawn, sharpening his knives.”
“That’s happened, like, once,” he said.
“We both really relish the opportunity to cook,” Yu said. “It makes me feel at home and reminds me of home, plus we can avail ourselves of such fantastic produce here in Northern California, and that’s exemplified by Berkeley Bowl.” It was Yu’s idea to do the shoot at the Bowl, she said.
For their San Jose-based photographer Anna T. Nguyen, Chiang and Yu’s fondness for Berkeley Bowl was an exciting change from her usual settings.
“I had never gone grocery shopping for an engagement shoot before. I was really excited when the couple came to me with that idea,” she said. “It’s super unconventional. I wish more couples would do something like that.”
Once Berkeley Bowl management got over their surprise at Chiang and Yu’s request, the store was all in. They invited the couple to come do it after hours on a Sunday; Nguyen and they had the run of Berkeley Bowl West, all to themselves.
And as one can imagine with a photo shoot in a grocery store, these aren’t your run-of-the-mill shots of couples looking googly-eyed at each other. They have those shots, sure. But in them, Yu’s holding a bunch of swiss chard — not daisies, not roses — as if it’s a bridal bouquet.
In some shots, the bride-to-be is wearing a stylish off-white jumpsuit with a long veil. (Yes, there were outfit changes.) In others, the pair holds limes and oranges over their eyes. She pushes him around the store in a shopping cart, also filled with snacks. They cradle a giant watermelon as if it’s a baby. And he sits on the conveyor belt, while she acts as the cashier, corny pun alert: “checking him out.”
Dixon said that it was apparent to her that this was a social-media savvy couple, in addition to being incredibly photogenic.
“Some of the poses were inspired by Instagram but most came about when we were there,” Yu said, adding that they ended up spending more time there than they would have thought, since the staff was so accommodating.
“I just went with the flow,” Nguyen said.
“Everyone was having such a good time, so it went on for a while,” Yu said.
As for the shot with Chiang on the conveyor belt, that was Dixon’s idea.
“We were almost out the door, and she said, ‘Why not stop for one more?’” said Yu.
But if the couple and photographer had fun, perhaps no one had more fun than Dixon.
She said, “I was giggling the whole time.”
As to whether this is the first time this has ever happened at the Bowl, that’s hard to say.
“It’s very possible that a couple posed in front of the store or did some shots while we were open,” Dixon said. “We’ve been around since 1977 so the likelihood of it is pretty high, but we don’t have any proof.”