Albert Cho, the 21-year-old student whose sweary Instagram stoush with an Auckland cafe ended in racist abuse and thousands of new followers, opens up to Samuel Flynn Scott over some of Dominion Road’s finest.
This post was originally published 25 September 2018
A few months ago, Albert Cho was just a regular Auckland student, albeit one with steady modelling gigs in Korea. Then something happened to his Instagram account Eat Lit Food. Ballooning from a group of his friends to over 14,000 followers (and counting, it keeps going up even as I write this). The irreverent, sometimes abrasive style, mixed with a feverish drive to find the best of every food type in the super city, has struck a chord. If you go back to the first few posts (the account only goes back to late 2017), the style isn’t there yet and neither is the knowledge, but somehow not quite a year later this 21-year-old is possibly the loudest voice in the Auckland food scene. As he eats and writes about everything, he’s learnt a craft, and it’s funny shit – and usually pretty spot on.
That’s why it didn’t seem too surprising when his recent negative review of popular spot Goodness Gracious Cafe blew up into the second-most-significant bagel drama of the month. The first was Cynthia Nixon (yes, from Sex and The City) putting lox (cured salmon) on her cinnamon and raisin bagel while on the campaign trail. Clearly I’m a Miranda, so I love Nixon with all my heart, but that sounds disgusting and there is good chance that this foul, idiotic pairing cost her the election for New York governor.
To be honest, I don’t generally like bagels anyway. A good bagel, like say a salt beef beigel from Brick Lane in London, is a classic. Or a lox (not on fucking cinnamon) from Russ & Daughters in NYC – iconic. New Zealand has Best Ugly Bagels, which Albert loves (I admit I love them too – I’m a hypocrite, sue me). But your run-of-the-mill big ol’ fucking bagel, meh. It’s just a big dry bread poo that needs to be toasted to within an inch of its life and then spread with an amount of cream cheese equal to its original weight in order to be palatable.
So let’s just say I didn’t really notice the review when it first popped up.
Goodness Gracious did though, and they responded, in a polite but sort of intense way, and with a perceived dig at Cho’s mum wishing she’d gone out for yum cha. “Never respond to a bad review” should be the first thing they teach you in school. Cho then posted their reply in his Insta story. “Never respond to the response to your bad review” could potentially be the second thing they teach you at school (can’t you just imagine a teacher showing a bunch of five-year-olds photos of Simon Sweetman and Autozamm?)
It all got worse from there. Hundreds of comments, a Newshub article, the inevitable swarm of super-racists descending with comments like “not enough dog meat in it for ya?”
It makes me cringe to just type that. That people would jump to such a dark place so quickly over a fucking bagel review is nuts. Watching it all happen in real time on social media, I had to remind myself that Cho is a real guy. We arranged to meet up at one of his, and my, favourite spots – the chill AF Coffee Pen (don’t go there if you’re in a rush, they take their time, they totally rule, I love it).
Within about 20 seconds I realised I wasn’t interviewing the no-holds-barred Insta-food-thug Eat Lit Food. I was interviewing Albert Cho, an open-hearted young dude who is one of the most food-obsessed cats I have met in a lifetime of hanging out with food-obsessed cats. Of course, he speaks his mind when it comes to cafes and food culture. There is no filter. In conversation it feels light and honest; when I transcribe it and read it back it can read pretty harsh. But that’s what makes the internet so volatile. The written word gives you no indication of tone. And when you throw shit out there, you can have no preconception of how it will be read. It’s a minefield, even when the subject is if Daily Bread’s new croissant recipe is better. Cho and I passionately disagree on what makes a classic croissant (I like sourdough stretchy, he likes crisp, flaky layers). If you heard us go on about it you might think we were talking about something that matters. It doesn’t matter, really, but it’s fun.
Albert grabbed a coffee and we jumped in an Uber. We weren’t just doing an interview, we were engaging in one the great Auckland food pastimes; heading down Dominion Road to chase a whisper, a ghost, of a food recommendation. Today we are hunting banh mi, the Vietnamese lunch staple that should be available on every street corner but for some reason is as rare as hen’s teeth in the ‘09.
First off, what was the motivation to start Eat Lit Food and where do you find the time to post all this stuff?
Well, I think I get away with posting about a lot pastries and sweet treats – I’m not always actually writing about proper meals. But I’m the type of person who before I can go and eat somewhere, I need to find out the best thing so I don’t get food envy. You know, it’s the worst thing when your friend’s food looks so much better than yours. So I always check location tags on Instagram. I find that people with Zomato accounts are often looking to complain rather than seek out the best thing.
Yeah, like pointing out that Eden Noodles (which coincidentally we are driving past) has crummy decor and failing to mention the delicious noodles.
Oh I know, and coming from an Asian background, I’m used to going to places that don’t put a big effort into friendly service or ambience and how clean a place is. I think there is a time and place.
If you’re paying a lot of money?
Yeah, if it’s fine dining and I’m paying $120 for just myself, then of course I expect great service and great ambience. But I don’t know what people expect if they go to Eden Noodles and get a $10 bowl of noodles…
Yeah, if you’re paying $10 for 20 dumplings and they are some of the best you’ve ever had, then just enjoy that!
Yeah, and some other components might fall short a bit. But also when I went through my Instagram location tags – and I think Coco’s Cantina was the biggest example of this – all I saw was people in front of those red and white table cloths: “Here I am at Coco’s Cantina!” I didn’t see any photos of their food. I was sort of like, “Where the fuck do I find the information?” So I just started going to places myself and I was never like “I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do Auckland a service”. I just thought it would be a fun idea to write about food.
You’ve got a really different tone to most Instagram food writers.
Yeah, well to be honest I never thought anyone would read it. I did it for my own amusement, and my friends who followed it thought it was crack-up. It was never my goal to have my foul mouth as my brand. I never asked anyone to follow me, basically.
I described it to someone recently as gangsta-rap food writing. You sort of sound like “I don’t give a fuck, y’all”. I never thought “this guy is serious” with the tone, but it was clear you were serious about the food…
Obviously there’s been a bit of push back on that. Some restaurants, even ones you’ve criticised, seem fine with it, others are more like “this guy didn’t like our food and he said FUCK”.
The funny thing is, though, more than the swear word it’s what comes after it. If I say “it’s fucking good”, they don’t bat an eyelid. If I say “it’s fucking shit”, then it’s like OH MY GOD.
This might be a controversial angle, but do you think people don’t like a young Asian guy being so bolshie? Like that’s not the mould you’re supposed to fit.
Yeah, that’s actually what my dad said. He was like, “If you were this white guy, maybe a little more established, like 26 or so, people would say he’s spicy, he’s funny.” And I guess coming from this skinny Asian who’s 21, they’re like, “Who the fuck does this guy think he is?”
They don’t want their Asian dudes to have BDE.
Yeah, there is this stereotype of Asians being quiet and reserved.
Which, if you’ve travelled a bit, you know is not true.
Noooo, I go to Asia and I’m the quiet one. I go to Korea and I’m hustling to get through the day. They state their opinion. It is a real common stereotype in New Zealand that Asians don’t really state their opinion, that they just go with the flow. That’s not the case at all. I mean people complain about the service in Asian restaurants, it’s because Asians literally don’t care, they don’t have time…
They care about the food.
One hundred percent.
In Japan, it seems almost impossible to get a bad meal. But in Paris, where the best food is fucking amazing, a lot of it is actually disgusting. And the service and ambience might be incredible, but they are literally putting a plate of rotten lettuce in front of you. Because they just go, “You’re a tourist, eat this shit”. I’ve had great meals there, but always when a local takes me somewhere.
That’s true anywhere though, isn’t it? I mean if you search “top cafes in Auckland” it will probably come up with Winona Forever.
I’ve never been.
It’s fucking trash. But it looks great on Instagram. And you know, to be honest, you’d need a local to point out a hidden gem like Coffee Pen, for instance.
Oh for sure.
Even when I go to Korea, I do my research and read all the blogs and can end up quite disappointed. There is a real follow-the-hype mentality. Funnily enough, I got invited to a Zomato event recently to check out a new restaurant in Albany. And I was with some quite established Zomato reviewers. And on the night they all agreed with me that it was all a bit disappointing, but then the next day they literally gave everything five stars.
Oh right, they just want to keep getting the free meals.
And they want to be in the good books of every restaurant in town.
At this point we pull up at the corner of Dominion and Mt Albert Roads. I realise that Santhiya’s is here too, supposedly some of the best Malaysian in Auckland.
This is a great corner.
Yeah, it’s so far down Dominion Road that a lot of people probably don’t venture this far out of the city, but it’s legit.
When I first moved to Auckland, I took the kids to the Mt Roskill Cultural Festival – man, it was so good. Like 100 food stalls, each one a different cuisine. Maybe 10,000 people there and only a couple of hundred whities.
Great, and do you find when you’re the only white dude they get really excited that you want to try their totally specific food?
Well maybe, certainly my 8-year-old gets some special treatment. He loved the Lebanese za’atar flat breads so much we went back for more. The Lebanese grannies liked that.
We enter Drips & Dough – it’s that mysterious combo of mince pie bakery and authentic banh mi sandwich shop.
Ooooh the bread here looks good.
Yeah, it looks like the bread in Sydney, which is entirely what I base my banh mi standard on. When I was about your age my brother lived there and when I’d go stay with him we’d go on these ridiculous food quests to the outer suburbs to find the best Vietnamese food, or the best falafel. This is why I love what you do, I get it, that need to search far and wide to have THE BEST.
We order a lemongrass chicken and the barbecue pork and ham. Of course we ask them to cut the banh mi in half so we can try both. I order a Vietnamese coffee but, and this will be confusing for anyone who knows what a Supreme fanboy I am, I’m a little disappointed it will be a rather classy Supreme espresso with condensed milk and not the iconic drip using some ancient dirty coffee. When the sandwiches arrive, Albert and I hilariously snap into action to take a stupid amount of photos, him for his Instagram, me for The Spinoff. Once we do tuck in the verdict is: good bread, nice carrots, for me lacking that nước mắm fish sauce kick, for Cho it’s just not living up to his favourite spot, Fusion Cafe.
Slightly dissatisfied, but certainly not hungry, we decide to have a second lunch at the aforementioned Santhiya’s. Stir-fried cabbage sounds kinda shit but is actually wonderful. Just perfectly spiced and only just cooked.
So, Albert, as we wait for our second lunch, we gotta talk about bagel-gate. You’re a big fan of the Best Ugly Bagel, right?
Yeah for sure. So like what happened was, I was sick and I did a Q&A on Instagram with my followers. And someone asked, “What bagels do you like?” and I said the only bagels I like are from Best Ugly. And I got like 20 DMs from people saying, “You gotta try Goodness Gracious, sometimes I think they’re better than Best Ugly”. And I was like, “These are some pretty big calls you guys are making, you know”. But I’d only been there once, really hungover, so it wasn’t really fair for me to judge.
So I went for Sunday brunch with my parents and I went in and thought oh, maybe they have a factory somewhere else where they roll their bagels. I mean, they’re called a bagelry, of course I’m gonna assume they make their own. The bagels came out, and even in my review there is nothing terrible about them. Just underwhelming.
I gotta say I think you ordered pretty whack. A kransky bagel?!
It’s what everyone told me to get, it’s supposed to be the classic. But then in my comments everyone’s saying, “Why did you get The Kransky?”
For one thing, a sausage does not belong in bagel, it’s the wrong shape… and kranskies are kinda kids’ food.
And my dad, I’m like, “Why the fuck are you getting an eggs benedict bagel?” He’s one of those dudes who thinks you have to get the eggs bene or big breakfast at a cafe. I’d rather get the granola. But yeah, so people are telling me I ordered wrong, but it wouldn’t change my review because the bagel itself was bad.
To be honest, I don’t really love bagels. Except for Best Ugly – it’s a different texture, they toast real good. And they’re smaller. I just don’t want that much bread. And also, if you go to Best Ugly the toppings are really thought out.
Like The Yodi, it’s perfect. The right amount of pastrami, delicious cheese, that hot mustard to cut through underneath it all.
And then some McClure’s pickles to top it off and give it acid. I can’t buy normal pickles now. This keeps happening to me with food; try the best thing up the ladder and then I can’t go back. Life just keeps getting more expensive. It’s happening with wine now and it’s ruining my life.
I still don’t think I really “get” wine that much.
Well, give it 20 years and you might be like me, hiding wine purchases from your partner…
Errr… so bagel-gate…
When I posted it, my friend commented, “Albert, when I posted one thing about their coffee…” Like they took to emailing her – the owner, Greg – trying to tell her “look, you’re wrong”. And someone else said, “Oh, this is like the time they got left off the Metro Top 50”. And I Googled it and they have this open letter to Metro magazine on their Facebook basically saying, “We are left off for the third time in a row”. That’s when I realised, OK, these guys retaliate. And they responded with their comment, which was fine.
Yeah, I thought their response was OK. But I still don’t get why anyone would take the time to respond to a bad review.
It just got a bit a whack. I know I said my mum had wanted to go to yum cha, but that last bit where they commented that they’ll reimburse my mum and you can take it to your next yum cha feed, I was like “that is uncalled for” – immature of them as a business. So I said “go fuck a camel”. Then it got picked up as a story by Newshub. And I was like “oh fuck”, because that’s a pretty big platform and I knew it would attract a lot of people and therefore a lot of bad people as well. And yeah, it just attracted the weirdos of New Zealand to come over to my page and just yell racist abuse at me.
That must have been really horrible.
Yeah, horrible. To be honest, before the Newshub article I had comments from Goodness Gracious regulars saying, “Oh, I really love their bagels”. But after it was literally, “Was there not enough dog meat in your bagel?” or messages saying, “Go back to Korea you fucking gook”. Or, “You should eat more bagels you anorexic gook”. All these personal attacks at me.
I did see Goodness Gracious posted something about not condoning racism at this point.
I thought that was bullshit. At this point I just ignored it, I didn’t want to engage with it all… I dunno, it just seemed like an opportunistic way to show, “Look, hey, we’re a multicultural business”. But they were tagged in a lot of shitty comments and they could have replied to those personally saying “this isn’t cool”. You know, seeing as Greg seems to have so much time on his hands.
You say you’re not a food critic. But you have over 10,000 followers now.
I don’t know if you know this, but the bulk of those people have followed me in the last month and a half.
Yeah, it’s a bit daunting. So now when I leave a negative review it does make me feel… “oh, maybe now what I have to say actually means something”. It’s not just my friends reading and laughing about it.
Do you think that might make you less inclined to post about something you don’t like?
Nah, I’m still gonna fucking post about it. I dunno. I’m still gonna keep doing what I do.
But it’s not a compromise for your style to develop as you get more experience. It’s not a cop out…
I just don’t want me to be that guy who just posts brutal, scathing reviews. I’m more about just showing… my Instagram isn’t just about one specific cuisine, I eat everything.
I love how you can be just as passionate about a cinnamon scroll as anything else.
Exactly, that cinnamon scroll, from Bestie…
So crunchy, right?
I didn’t realise Bestie and Baby was the same food. And when I read your post about Bestie saying “these are the best cinnamon scrolls” I was like “NO WAY, WRONG. The ones from Baby are the shit”.
Same one. I don’t want to be Gordon Ramsay, like some fucking asshole. I just want to show people how much incredible food there is to eat in Auckland. I want to emphasise as well places like where we are now, Santhiya’s – like, it’s not Instagram-worthy in how it looks, but it’s so tasty.
When I’m scrolling through Instagram, I’d be much more excited to see food from a place like this than some flaming pineapple cocktail or doughnut burger bullshit.
I just want to show the diversity of foods in Auckland.
What are you studying?
Right, well there you go, it’s not just blind luck that you have a lot of followers, it’s because the writing’s engaging.
I don’t know why people follow me, to be honest.
Is it stressful knowing so many people were talking about the bagel thing?
Well, I didn’t mind until my dad went to work and his colleagues knew about it. That’s when it started to hurt, when Dad read the comments. As much as you want to brush it off, it does bring back memories of things said in the past, you know?
You can brush off a response from a cafe who doesn’t like your review, but people reading something on Newshub and then actually taking time out of their day to go follow you on Instagram in order to sling vile shit… Who are these assholes?
And you know when I talk shit about food, the chefs could choose to sit around and discuss what they could change. When someone attacks who I am, I can’t sit down with my parents and say, “Hey, can we change my race?” Talking shit about food and talking shit about a person don’t go hand in hand. At all. I keep it within food.
I do think every cafe and restaurant should always be listening and striving to be better.
And I really do not claim to be a food critic. If you are going to claim that about me I’m going to claim that about you. If you eat food and talk about, then I’ll call you a food critic. Everyone has a right to talk about what they like and don’t like. They have to have that label.
And just because people like what you’re doing, does it impose responsibility? I dunno, I’m not sure about that one. Yes, you have a lot of followers, so what you say does count, it affects things, but also you haven’t sought this out, you’re not writing reviews for the Herald (yet).
Yeah, who knew my foul mouth would get me this far!
We leave Santhiya’s and Cho decides to walk back into the city to burn off some of that double lunch. Apparently his Korean modelling agency send him concerned messages that he is eating too much. “New Zealand modelling agents would never tell you to your face to lose weight, but in Korea they tell you to lose four kilos in a week.”
I decide to join him for the stroll. I have never walked the length of Dominion Road and it’s a remarkable place. Almost like a timeline of immigration and diversity cutting right through the heart of the inner suburbs. We explore Chinese supermarkets, buy some Indian sweets (I take Cho’s advice on what sweets to bring home for my kids, all picks go down very well). We pass Xi’an Food Bar, where Cho put up his online barricade of hand-pulled noodles as a “fuck you” to his new racist followers.
His post got taken down three times by Instagram. Probably reported, and full of swear words that would make any AI blush.
I return the next day by myself and get the #39. It is incredible. Salty, sour, complex flavours but in complete harmony. Spiced with Sichuan chillies, but just the right amount. It’s so good I’m almost in tears. That’s what a good food explorer can do. They can open doors to new cuisines, new cultures, food epiphanies.
The bagel incident can go to the dung heap of history. Goodness Gracious is always packed, I wish them nothing but the best, they are obviously loved and that’s a special thing in this fickle world of food. I’ll bypass Cho’s review and go check them out at some point. I’ll also put aside his views on Winona Forever and give them a go, why not? But both those places are very visible and popular, I don’t need them. I need the #39, I need to try every perfect bowl of noodles on Dominion Road. I need to try the best Korean barbecue on the North Shore. I need the best ramen downtown. And for that, I need Cho to keep exploring and eating and telling us what he really thinks.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.