— The first in a series about extreme diners and standout regulars in NYC.
By Rachel Tepper Paley
“Try the black sesame kouign amann,” Mike Chau counsels, gesturing to a sugar-flecked display of golden French pastries. He offers the spelling for good measure. “That’s K-O-U-I-G-N, A-M-A-N-N.”
I’m sitting across from Chau — better known in online circles under the Instagram handle @foodbabyny— at a two-top in the back of Patisserie Chanson, a sleek on-trend dessert bar in Flatiron. Today is opening day; how does Chau already know what to order? Apparently our 3 p.m. meeting time wasn’t early enough. Just the slightest bit sheepishly, Chau informs me that he’d made a morning pitstop hours earlier. “It’s part of why people follow us,” he says. “They know we’re the people who go everywhere first.”
The “us” in this equation is Chau and sometimes his wife Alex, but most always one of their two children, Matthew and Samantha, who at ages 3.5 and 16 months respectively put the “baby” in @foodbabyny.
Back in 2014, Chau began uploading pictures of his children alongside buzzy New York City food fads — anything from towering cylinders of violet ube soft serve to greasy pork belly ramen burgers—and early press attention quickly translated to follows. “One-hundred-and-fifty-one thousand,” Chau answers quickly when I ask the precise figure. Just two days later, that number ticks up to 152K.
Of course, @Foodbabyny’s appeal doesn’t require much analysis. Chau often positions his children — two imp-like creatures who yawn and smile and happily perform for the camera — such that a sugared apricot-and-almond croissant seemingly sprouts from his daughter’s head and syrup-draped pancakes levitate before his son’s incredulous eyes. Chau, who in person is genial and likable almost to a fault, chafes at the notion that his children are some sort of gimmick.
When they were born, “I became one of those people always taking pictures of my baby,” Chau says. “I didn’t want to be doubly obnoxious, so I combined them.”
For the record, Chau and his wife are not “horrible monsters, feeding our children giant hamburgers” at every turn. The family tries to eat healthy during the week in preparation for weekend indulgence, and the kids, as it turns out, aren’t all that into sugar anyway. “Since it’s always around, they don’t go crazy for it,” Chau says. “They’ll have a giant ice cream in their face, but they’ll just walk away.”
Chau is somewhat unique amongst the flash-happy members of New York City’s Instagram set, who, iPhones in hand, hop from one rainbow bagel to the next. For one, “it’s a lot of young girls,” he says. And unlike many others in Instagram’s top tier —those who command six-figure followings — Chau maintains a full-time job, working as a computer programmer for a major bank. (He prefers not to say where.) Chau doesn’t accept money for endorsements, and he’s largely stopped making rounds on the Instagram circuit, a steady stream of restaurants, dessert shops, and bakeries that dole out freebies in efforts to drum up publicity.
“It’s hard here, because all the PR companies reach out to all the Instagrammers,” Chau tells me. “They all go to the same dinners. But is that restaurant really good, or did they all go there must because it’s free?” Not long after, a waiter swoops in with an offering: a narrow plate piled with macarons, pistachio-riddled caramels, and glossy hard-shelled chocolates piped with silky ganache. We’re not charged. Some freebies, it seems, are just part of the game.
So is obsessiveness. Chau segued into Instagram after being seduced by Yelp, which he joined in 2012. Chau quickly attained “Elite” Yelper status, a coveted standing that earns members access to private restaurant events and plenty edible handouts. Whole corners of the Internet are devoted to coaching hopefuls on how to secure the “Elite” designation; there is no one correct formula, but common wisdom is that if nominated, users with frequent and quality posts win the approval of the so-called “Elite Council.” To date, Chau has written 1,346 reviews on the platform, the most recent on March 23. That translates to roughly 10 reviews a week.
“I always joke — but it’s not really a joke — that I have OCD,” says Chau. “When I get into something, I get really into something.”
As a child, Chau was “always overweight, obese,” weighing more at age 12 than he does now at 33. When the Atkins diet fad came to prominence, he glommed onto it, enjoying the rigor and structure of the program’s high-protein demands. He dropped 70 pounds in a single summer.
After that, Chau was fastidious in his diet, afraid that the weight might come back. He turned his focus toward less caloric obsessions. In college, it was hip-hop; Chau developed an encyclopedic knowledge of the genre by ordering scores of CDs off proto e-commerce website hiphopsite.com and snagging concert tickets at every opportunity. Years later, it was movies, with Chau and his wife hitting up local theaters four to five times a week with the goal of seeing as many major film releases as possible. When Chau’s interest turned to food — enough time had passed since his overweight days — exploring New York City’s culinary scene in moderation wasn’t really up for discussion.
On a busy week, Chau might hit up a new restaurant or shop every day. He gets his intel from sites like Eater and Grub Street, as well as other Instagram accounts, and regards his own postings as dispatches from the front line. He knows people are watching. “I’ve had some businesses tell me how helpful [being featured on @foodbabyny] is,” Chau says. “It can make a difference, just putting things on people’s radar,” especially for smaller outfits that can’t afford a PR push.
But there’s also a distinct competitiveness to it all, something that clearly appeals to Chau. Hours after our meeting, I refresh Chau’s Yelp page. His review of Patisserie Chanson is up; It’s the bakery’s first write-up on the platform. I can’t help but recall Chau’s words from earlier, when he’d described the ideal reaction he labors to elicit from followers.
“‘Damn, that baby beat us there.’”
Rachel Tepper Paley is a writer, editor, and sometimes illustrator based in New York City.