Albert Cho is better known as Eat Lit Food, New Zealand’s premier food blogger – though, influencer is more accurate a term. It’s hard to estimate just how much of an influence Eat Lit Food has had on Auckland’s burgeoning restaurant scene since he started the Instagram account in 2017. A scene that culminates and narrates the countries past and present waves of immigration, colonial history, reflections of global trends, as well the potential to set them – of which Cho samples the whole spectrum.
From Māori fried bread in the city’s South, to the neo-French bistros with local natural wine in the city’s centre (described ‘bojee’, Kiwi slang for bourgeois), Eat Lit Food provides a cartography of the best places to get your gastro-hit in the so-called City of Sails.
It’s important to differentiate that Eat Lit Food is not about cooking – it’s about eating other peoples food, and doing so in the company of others (Cho hates eating alone, and has trouble dining solo). Fans of the now-defunct Lucky Peach (RIP) will know the feeling that a visceral description of an eat can bring. Cho’s no-bullshit expletive-drenched accounts of dining out in the city’s food scene are more than just reviews (his top ratings include: 14.8/10 and 12.5/10, to thankyouandyourewelcomedonna/10, ihaventhadsexin17dayscanyoutell/10, fuckstayingpozzy/10, and celebratingnothingbutcelebratingeverything/10 during ‘Rona times’) – they’re ‘just his fucking opinions’.
His unapologetic addresses that openly embrace both personal tastes and biases (after all, what else is an opinion but a symbiosis of the two?) has lifted the lid on New Zealand’s denied conservativism and seen Cho speak candidly on his experience of racism since birth. The popularity of Eat Lit Food (currently sitting at 44,000 Instagram followers – and remember, Auckland itself has a population of around 1.6 million – suggesting almost 3% of the city may be looking to Eat Lit Food, if we assume the majority of his followers are Aucklanders) is a testament to the nation’s desire for uncensored voices, and love for eating out.
I spoke with Cho whilst New Zealand was in a state of government-applied ‘Level Four’ lockdown (which he describes as ‘the same as Level Three, just without takeaways). We discuss his transition from dining out to having to cook for content (‘I hate cooking’), the political potential of his visibility, as well as what happens when you’re perceived as being ‘mean’.
Hey Albert, for all the non-Kiwi readers, could you please introduce yourself and tell us about you, your work, and how Eat Lit Food came to be?
My name is Albert Cho, I’m 23 years old and I’m a New Zealand-born South Korean. Eat Lit Food came about for a whole bunch of different reasons… Firstly, I come from a family who love to dine out and experience new cuisines. But it was my time as a model, when my agents in Korea told me to restrict and diet, when I weirdly started getting more obsessed with food. I was put on this crazy diet where I could eat one meal a day and for me, that one meal was everything and I couldn’t let it be a fuck out. So I got into reading reviews, looking at photos of the dish so I knew what to expect. But a lot of the times, these food photos were barely ever uploaded with a caption to state what that dish was, so expecting someone to write an honest opinion was fucking stretching it. I guess you could say I just took matters into my own hands and started doing it… I also clearly had way too much free time.
What was the trajectory of Eat Lit Food? Were any major events/happenings you can identify that caused the project to take a turn, amp up, or morph into something else?
At first, Eat Lit Food was just a fun platform where I could talk about my opinion and have a laugh. But then chefs and famous restaurateurs started following me. Al Brown (one of New Zealand’s most successful and ‘household name’ chefs) talked about me to the Sunday Herald and I had a full page feature in a newspaper which was so fucking cool at the time (2018). And when David Lee followed me, I was like holy shit. He’s the man who has opened the most successful cafés in Auckland like The Candy Shop and I’ve been looking up to this man since the early days at his North Shore cafe, Little King. I started to recognise that my voice was louder than I thought and then this controversy with Goodness Gracious happened. For those of you who don’t know what Goodness Gracious is, it’s a bagelry that doesn’t make its own bagels and is quite literally the most trash food in Auckland. I wrote a shitty review about them, which they deserved, and they responded, telling me to send them my mum’s bank details so they could send me a refund, and for me to take it as their contribution to my next yum cha feast. Newshub picked up on it and wrote a story, and I got so many death threats and racist remarks like “stick to reviewing noodles you gook.” That’s when I decided that my page was about more than just food. It’s about me being someone of colour, in an industry that is so predominantly white, and almost being a voice for Asian people. Us Asians have always been so ridiculed for our cuisine and I love how I have this platform to shine light to how fucking awesome all cuisines across the world are.
Is Eat Lit Food your full-time ‘job’? Can you make a living from it?
As of currently, yes it is. We’re living in an online world now and sadly, print media does seem to be on its way out. I was made redundant from my job as a food journalist at Denizen Magazine (Ed. Note; Cho was given the post after being ‘discovered’ through Eat Lit Food), but my work for Eat Lit Food has sky-rocketed and I’m finally able to make a good living out of it.
Did you start Eat Lit Food with a vision for making it into your main gig, or was it intended to be something on the side that could open other doors more important to you?
I didn’t expect it to ever reach the point where it has now. The fact that brands are wanting to partner with me is still pretty crazy to me. Although it’s my main gig now, I don’t want to close any doors or opportunities. Some people ask if I regret giving a whole year of my life to another business (Denizen) or if I had an agenda while working there. My answer to that is, no. I am lucky to be able to say that I’ve worked for a small business for over a year where I learnt a lot about magazine writing, especially from the senior editor, Margie Cooney who I now call my older sister. A lot of the women that worked there are like my mums and sisters and they’ve shown me the ropes to not only writing, but owning your own business and brand which I will be using in the upcoming future, but I never planned on simply just learning what I needed to learn, and fucking off.
Over the past year you have moved from Instagram posts into ‘vlogging‘ – creating a series of episodes on YouTube of food and eating experiences in countries outside of NZ. What caused you to embark on this? Is it a strategic move to transition Eat Lit Food into a new existence?
I had basically every follower telling me to please start a YouTube channel and I put it off for as long as I could. I’ve seen YouTube vlogs and 95% of them make my skin fucking crawl, but I knew I had to do it someday. I can’t just swear my nut off on one platform. That gets so fucking old! This guy, Tim Lambourne started following Eat Lit Food and I noticed that a lot of people that I followed, follow him too. I did a little stalk and saw that he lived in Tokyo and I messaged him, telling him to get the Hokkaido Cream Cake Roll from Lawson and his life will change. He thought I was bold and weird and asked me if I had ever been on camera, which I sort of had from doing a few TV commercials, but never as me just being myself on camera. He said that he was coming to New Zealand for a few weeks to do some contracted video work and suggested that we should just film something for fun.
We met up at Selera and shot on a phone and Jesus fucking Christ I hope that never resurfaces. I hadn’t planned on doing anything with the video, but apparently, Tim saw something special in me and went back to Tokyo with a plan. He planned to find an investor, which he did. I got a phone call, asking if I could get two weeks off work because we have a man who’s willing to fund our entire trip and eat around Asia. My first reaction was, honestly, “do I have to suck his dick?.. Because I don’t do life like that” and Tim said there were no strings attached. It took me a free trip around a continent with a professional videographer to really push me into starting a YouTube channel. Fuck I sound so snobby.
Now that you’ve transitioned to the vlog, what are your ambitions for Eat Lit Food?
That’s a hard one… I guess my ambition with Eat Lit Food is to always keep it as something that gets me excited. This Instagram account has turned really personal, which I never expected. People don’t just message me to ask about what restaurant to go to, but they also seek advice on how to come out as bisexual or gay to their family. How to deal with body positivity issues is also a big one. For now, I keep these messages unread and although that might sound harsh, I’m not a therapist and don’t have the confidence to give anyone life advice. But I hope one day, I grow into a person that has lived a seasoned life and actually can give words of guidance in the future.
How has life in the times of COVID-19 changed your days and Eat Lit Food?
Well, now Eat Lit Food is my full time job. I had to decrease my fee rates because nobody has money and charging a large fee per post is just wrong right now. I also have to make my content, like literally make it, and it’s so fucking draining. I’m so tired of cooking and I’m not ashamed to admit it. But it has been really fun, learning new recipes and everything. But fuck, I’m so excited to go to restaurants again.
All I’m saying is, if you want to stay home, nobody is stopping you. If you want to go out, do it, but safely and sensibly.From an EatLitFood post, early-March 2020.
Fuck me gently with a chainsaw, I have never felt so conflicted while uploading a post in my life and this is coming from the one of the biggest assholes in Auckland. On one side, I have people telling me that I need to go out and support the restaurant industry, while the other side is telling me that dining out is socially irresponsible and Rona is just not chilling the fuck out aye. People are telling me to ‘use my voice and platform’ and like, I know that I have a large following on here but just because I have followers, it doesn’t mean I have a fucking brain. You all should be listening to Jacinda, not a 22 year-old punisher and as of most currently, Cindy has told us to reduce human contact even further. So what I have decided is, from now on, after this post, I’m going to be eating majority of my meals, takeaway, at home for a while and that way I can support both, the restaurants and the community. Going out to eat is my favourite thing to do, I love being a wanker and being seen but right now ain’t the fucking time for that.From an EatLitFood post, three days later in mid-March 2020.
Earlier on you were a proponent for continuing to support the restaurant industry despite social distancing recommendations, was there a backlash?
Oh my god, yes. But I’ve learned to accept that there will be a backlash from whatever I do. If I don’t support the local restaurants, people will talk shit, and the same for when I do. I said this before, but I can’t stress this enough: just because I have followers, doesn’t mean that I have a fucking brain, and we should all be listening to Jacinda (Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister) and not a food Instagrammer.
What’s the process like now for continuing the Eat Lit Food project and coming up with fresh content?
Babe, it’s so fucking stressful aye. So what I do is create a little content buffer. I will make something today for tomorrow’s post, while I post yesterday’s creation, today. Unfortunately, life can get in the way sometimes and completely fuck up your cooking, and that means you’ve just lost a potential post and have to whip up something else. When I was reviewing restaurants, it didn’t matter if it was lit or shit as it wasn’t by me and it was the chef’s fault. But now, if I post something that isn’t good, that’s all on me and I look like the fucking idiot.
What spurred your recent stories showing old family photos and pictures of you from childhood and teenagedom?
Well, there isn’t much to do during lockdown, is there? My family and I have been going through a bit of a rough patch ever since they found out that I wasn’t straight. So I just felt a bit nostalgic and looked back at my childhood photos and fuuuck, they made me laugh so I posted them. Usually, the shit I find funny, so do my followers.
Recently you took a 24-hour break from life online. How did the need for this arise and become apparent?
Oh I was compleeeetely taking the absolute piss and I didn’t take a break at all. I was just referring to all those social media influencers who talk about how stressed they are and always announce that they are taking a break. There was a lot of that going on at this time and I was just getting so fucking over it. Like, take a fucking break if you need to, nobody will realise, bitch.
Does a life tightly tethered to Instagram have any impacts on you?
Hmmm… There are definitely positives and negatives. The fact that I’m able to make so many people laugh with my captions is so cool to me. I’ve had a woman come up to me saying that I saved her from postpartum depression as they waited for my posts every single day and it made me cry. But there are times, especially when I’m out at night, people can get a bit aggressive. I’ve had people rip out some of my hair as they grabbed me to get a photo and I’ve also had someone throw a beer bottle at my head because they didn’t like my Instagram. I do also think that I need to work on just taking a breather. I have never missed a single day of posting for over two years and I get a sudden wave of anxiety if it reaches around 1pm and I still haven’t posted anything. Social media is so fast-paced, I feel like I’m being forgotten. But I should take a step back and realise that maybe I do need to be forgotten about sometimes because I’m probably really fucking annoying to a lot of people.
If you could change any of the functionalities/ways of operation of Insta, what would you like to change?
I wish you could search who saw your stories. Not scroll, I mean SEARCH. I get like 16,000 people watching my stories and that makes it really hard to see if my ex is stalking me or not.
Are there any standpoints you feel are important to express through your work (identity-wise, politically, geographically, etc)?
I like to make it clear that I’m unashamed of who I am. I’m a very proud Korean, I love the fact that I like both men and women. I just want to encourage as many people as possible to unapologetically be themselves, even just through my actions and ways of presenting myself as I mentioned before, I don’t give out words of advice.
What has become your new favourite thing to do since lockdown?
I have picked up no new hobbies and I’m not sorry. What I can say is, I love how everyone is calling each other now instead of texting. My chats with my friends have been over an hour long and it takes me back to the landline days when my friends and I would talk about nothing all night, just for the sake of being on the phone.
I love that you say “It’s just my fucking opinion”. Does this statement breathe a liberation for you? Are there implications once you start having such a visible voice?
That actually started because the owner of the cafés, Winona Forever, Major Tom, Rude Boy Deli, etc, threatened to sue me for defamation after I talked shit about their doughnut at Rude Boy Deli. My lawyer advised to me to make it very clear that everything on my page was strictly my own opinion and what better way to say it than, it’s just my fucking opinion?
If there was something you wish people knew about you but remains little understood through Eat Lit Food, what would that be?
I know this sounds super lame, but I wish people knew that I wasn’t a genuinely mean person. I feel like I have built a reputation for myself, especially in the beginning of my food Instagram as I was unafraid of bashing down any restaurant. But now that I’ve grown a bit older and gained more perspective, I have changed, just like any other human being. I was at Splore Music Festival earlier this year and I met a guy who seemed to not have any idea who I was, and I’m completely aware that I’m not famous at all, but in a small town like Auckland, you don’t have to be a celebrity to be recognised. It was nice that he had no preconceived opinion about me but then other people around us would keep referring back to my Instagram and he suddenly looked at me and said “are you that mean food blogger?” He didn’t mean it in a hurtful way at all and we’ve become great friends. But it was a wake up call that people know me as being mean. I can accept the reputation of being annoying and a bit of a bitch. But ‘mean’ is something I never want to be.
Follow @eatlitfood here and find Albert’s YouTube channel here.
Header image by Dean Purcell via NZ Herald.