Cookbook Photographer Anya Ku Tries Law School

Pushing setbacks aside, a young Oakland go-getter funnels her energy toward law after a successful cookbook project.


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Photo by Carl Posey

According to family lore, for the first few years of her life, Anya Ku didn’t recognize the difference between blue and gold. She’d spent so much time on the UC Berkeley campus—where her mother was finishing her degree—that the school’s colors were inexorably linked in her mind.

This was the beginning of the love affair with Cal that would end up shaping much of Ku’s life thus far and driving her ambitions. Now 21, she graduated from the university in May and started law school there this fall. She’s also a published cookbook author and a professional photographer.

Though she only ever wanted to attend UC Berkeley, Ku applied to nine colleges—and was rejected by eight, including Berkeley.

“It was awful,” said Elizabeth Haugen, Ku’s 11th-grade history and English teacher. Everyone was shocked, she said, because Ku “had done everything right.”

Ku described this rejection as “the most defining moment” of her life. She had always been told by teachers and counselors how smart and hard working she was—they considered Berkeley a safety school. She was suddenly grappling with doubts.

Still, Ku continued with her trademark determination. She decided to attend community college for a year and kept trying to get into UC Berkeley. She appealed the decision and was rejected three more times. Finally, on the fourth attempt, she was admitted as a junior transfer.

“She’s a fighter,” said her mother, Maria Ku. “She never gave up; she just found another entry point.”

The community of her hometown has been so pivotal in Ku’s life that her mother said she thinks “her heart must be the shape of an oak tree.”

Ku’s mother said that their family moved when Ku was a toddler from Walnut Creek to Oakland for its multiculturalism; Ku’s mother is a Russian political refugee and her father is a Peruvian immigrant. In Oakland, their daughter was able to make friends with people from all walks of life.

Ku’s desire to give back to the community that meant so much to her led to her co-authoring a cookbook, Flavors of Oakland: A Cookbook in 20 Stories, with Elazar Sontag. He was passionate about food and she about photography, having recently started a business, Kutography. The cookbook highlighted Oakland’s home chefs, with Sontag writing and Ku photographing.

“We wanted to showcase this super vibrant food scene that’s happening not just in restaurants but in people’s homes. We wanted people to connect over food,” she said.

Self-published in May 2015, the book contains 20 recipes and life stories from passionate home cooks all over Oakland representing the city’s major ethnic groups and cuisines. The crowdfunded first printing of 1,500 copies—500 were donated to local public schools, libraries, and youth groups—sold out; the co-authors are in the midst of a second run.

Family, friends, and acquaintances are a little in awe of Ku. However, for Ku, there’s sometimes a disconnect between how others view her and the way she sees herself. Ku is working on managing her personal expectations. Her mother has noticed that although her daughter still has the intense energy and enthusiasm that led her family to conclude that she must be an alien, she believes that Ku “now sees herself more as a human than as a superhero. While she has very high aspirations, she’s accepted that she can’t do everything.”

Still, Ku’s mother said, “Her passion is both what helps her and hurts her, but you cannot take it away from her. Anya is passion itself.”

 

The author attended the same high school as Ku, though a few grades behind. Readers can learn more about Flavors of Oakland: A Cookbook in 20 Stories at www.FlavorsOfOakland.com.

 

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