On a fateful day in October 2012, Michael Shen, a longtime lover of food, travel and photography decided to start a personal project, combining his three passions in life. As a result, the much-loved food blog, I’m Still Hungry was created. Known for its objective reviews along with beautiful photos taken by Michael, the blog has gained popularity over time and at last count, has amassed a following of over 45,000 food lovers on Instagram.
Tony Zhang from ECX sat down with Michael recently to learn about his amazing journey exploring the cuisines of the world and to give ECX readers a glimpse behind the scenes of his popular food blog.
I was curious to know how you got into food blogging?
Well for me, the story is not particularly special. I was actually into general photography before food photography. I loved travelling and sightseeing and that’s one of my core hobbies other than food. I thought to improve my skills in photography I might as well take my camera into restaurants and start taking photos of food just for the heck of it.
I did that for about half a year before my friends started telling me, “Your photos are really good, you should start compiling it or start a food blog”. So I dumped everything there like a food diary to record everything. At the beginning, I thought it was way too much work because it took a long time to get started. But in the end, it was almost inevitable because I realised I loved taking photos of food and I liked reviewing it, so it eventually morphed into something really big.
Are photos the key of a food blog? Especially since the emergence of Instagram.
Well this can vary, since it depends on how much effort you put in and what your goals are. I mean some people take food photos as a literal diary of what they eat so they don’t have to care as much. For me, my photos are the main selling point of my Instagram and blog, I need to make the photos look good without obviously changing how the food looks, because you don’t want to misrepresent.
Is misrepresentation common? Do food bloggers intentionally do that?
Yes, that’s actually my biggest issue with the food blogging industry as a whole. Lots of bloggers don’t have the same journalistic upbringing and training that proper journalists in food or similar fields have. Sure I don’t have that as well but I try to be as objective as possible, to write with integrity. You do food styling when you take the photo but you can’t change how the dish truly taste. You may not need to pay for the meal but that shouldn’t result in a biased review. It’s all about being very transparent and that’s a big problem in the quest to gain more likes.
Tell me about your unique scoring system, I can tell it’s very much about food and less about service?
It’s definitely based on what I value. I know other scoring systems that might prioritise service more. For me, I could tolerate subpar service as long as the food is still good.
Kind of the notion where if you grew up in China or in Asia, you have bad service but you still go there all the time because the food is spectacular. If I were to generalise, western countries value service more and tend to seek a complete package experience. My scoring system simply reflects what I value, food is out of ten, service is out of five and ambience out of three. That shows I value food the most and others are only secondary.
Now that you’ve gone through so many different foods, experiences, seen so much. Were there any chefs that you love and inspired you?
Yes, there are definitely inspiring chefs out there. It really depends on what you are looking for. Chefs who are pushing the boundaries of innovation are always inspiring such as Daniel Puskas at Six Penny.
While chefs definitely need to be respected and be credited for what they do, it’s probably more important to look at a more macro perspective. Any foodie would know Rene Redzepi from Noma who is literally like the rock star in the food world. But it’s not so much about his cooking but what he represents for me. He emphasises the philosophy of going local, using foraging and trying to find new experiences of sustainable and environmentally conscious cooking. Even though a chef may cook an impeccable dish, it’s what they represent and their impact on setting a trend that inspires me.
How do you find places that are hidden, such as local gems?
For me, I mostly rely on what people tell me. Friends tell me places that don’t have a lot of coverage and I will go. I am all for local gems. For example, when people talk about Thai, they will automatically think of fancy restaurants like Longrain or Chin Chin in Sydney but for me, I would think of local gems like Spice I Am, which is my personal favourite when it comes to Thai.
I do see local gems from time to time but probably not as often as I like. It’s really hard to find them and I can easily say it’s a common weakness of the mind to get swept up by the Michelin stars and the Hats. It makes you go to very famous restaurants first, ignoring others who don’t have any awards but they might be just as good.
What are your future plans?
There’s gonna be a lot of food blogging and travelling coming up. I’m going around the world next year from mid-March to mid-April. Japan is the first stop then Italy, France and the UK for a few days. After that, it will be the United States, Singapore and then back to Melbourne. So yeah, lots of exciting trips coming up.
Journo for ECX Magazine