How Jen Balisi Became @IndulgentEats, Blogging the World’s Food on Instagram
September 06, 2022
Food to Jen Balisi has always existed as an integral piece to her ancestry and culture, growing up in a multigenerational Filipino household.
Travelling to New York for her undergrad studies at New York University (NYU), Jen continually sought to cherish secret family recipes for traditional Filipino dishes before her homeland.
Enjoying the cheap finds and Michelin eats became a hobby for Jen while studying for her degree in marketing and international business. Blogging her eating adventures in the city later became a side-gig, before materialising into a full-time passion with her Instagram account, @IndulgentEats.
With more than 360,000 followers on Instagram, Jen has matured a serious global backing online in the more than 12 years the ex-marketer has blogged her food journey, from New York as a struggling student to a full-time blogger, author, and chef in Hong Kong.
“Food has always been an important part of my life and culture,” Jen told The Beat Asia sipping tea in a café in Mid-Levels, where the Filipina-American charted the beginnings of her food blogging in New York.
During her studies at NYU, residing in the verifiable food capital of the world, the undergrad was instantly blown away by the wealth of cheap eats found in Manhattan and beyond. Eager to share with friends at home and beyond, Jen would routinely upload pictures of her plates on Facebook and Foursquare. “This was all pre-Instagram,” Jen said.
Her summa cum laude graduating title brought her to American Express as a digital and mobile marketer, earning money to explore a variety of cuisines and price points beyond her student days. With available time after work post-6 PM, as opposed to her student cramming days, Jen sought to fill her evenings with working out and eating more.
In 2011, she opened her inaugural food blogging site on WordPress, called No Gut Glutton, dedicated to documenting both recipes, reviews of New York restaurants, foodie trips abroad, and gym routines, experience training for marathons and races, and fitness tips. As readership grew in New York, Jen transitioned her blog to be titled “Modern Indulgence” two years later.
In a time pre-dating the mass popularity of Instagram, online food blogging on social media, and the precious relationship between an influencer and a public relations manager, Jen built up her blog and then-personal Instagram with bright-coloured pictures of foods from New York.
“There was no strategy on social [media] then and [food] influencers didn’t exist. When I got invited to my first [free tasting] meal, I was like, oh my god, I can get free stuff now. That world didn’t even exist for me. I was just sharing what I was eating for fun. I got to a level of people looking to me for recommendations, sharing organically on Instagram.”
“I remember I got my first free thing, a cake, when I hit 5,000 followers. When I reached 10,000, I started to join other food bloggers in New York at restaurants where we were invited to try their new menu. So many people began to follow my private Instagram to a point where I created @IndulgentEats,” Jen explained, referring to her familiar moniker for all indulgence in creating food and eating it.
After the Explore tab was introduced as a key feature to Instagram in 2012, allowing users to browse popular pictures from local pages, Jen’s flashy pictures of bagels, burgers, noodles, and pasta from New York came to be seen by thousands. “What is this?” Jen referenced peoples’ actions to seeing her juicy, salty, flashy food finds and creations, “I’ve never seen this food before. People lacked access to this!”
"I would literally post a photo of pizza and get [10,000] likes. I posted four times a day on my Instagram, 8 AM, 12 PM, 4 PM, and 8 PM. Thousands of followers would like each post, [I gained] hundreds of followers a day.” In early 2016, as Jen recalled, she grew her Instagram account, from 50,000 to 100,000 followers in four months. Three months later, she topped 200,000. “Nobody knew these foods existed!”
An increase in follower count followed press opportunities and money coming in, funding her side-hobby alongside work at American Express. “I would often go to two dinners in weeknights, a press tasting at 6:30 PM, before friends' dinner at 8:30 PM.” Press tours and trips abroad, to places such as Australia and Jamaica, would conflict with work plans. “At the same time, my blogging friends were quitting their jobs and going full time with their food stuff.”
With her husband landing a job in banking in Hong Kong in 2017, Jen quit her job in May 2017 and dedicated her time to blogging on her Instagram and website. The pair took off to Hong Kong in September 2017, where Jen reunited with fellow New Yorker expat and future-bridesmaid Vivian Gu of @gutakesworld.
“She showed me around the PR firms and restaurant circles, introducing me to people. Over time, I built my own relationships with people in the F&B industry and restaurants, promoting, reviewing, partnering up to show off their food. I have been able to cultivate [these relationships] now where I am able to collaborate with my favourite restaurants to create my own dishes and sell them!”
Following the next four years of exploring Hong Kong, travelling Asia-wide, and into the West for visits, Jen documented her probing of all things food, all the while nurturing her home-grown cooking skills. In late 2021, Jen saw her break into driving a passion of food beyond her home kitchen and Instagram, collaborating with local restaurants to bring her creations alive.
October 2021 saw Jen collaborate with Kennedy Town’s Alvy’s to serve mouth-watering birria and bone marrow queso taco, lobster mac and cheese, and a cheeseburger pizza to customers. In November, Jen partnered with Soho’s pop-up space HATCH to host a sold-out five-course dinner, later creating an East Meets West Coast Burger for Honbo Wan Chai in late November. And December had Jen welcomed to Italian restaurant Posto Publico to host a Filipino-inspired Thanksgiving dinner.
At the Shady Acres bar and restaurant on Peel Street in early April 2022, the foodie influencer launched her next foray in her publishing career, launching her cookbook “Indulgent Eats at Home,” a physical collection of over 60 original recipes inspired by Jen’s relationships with industry friends, destinations, and cuisines. From spicy vodka pasta and scallion pancakes, to beef patties and sugary butter garlic noodles, each recipe includes a QR code linking to behind-the-scenes content and video instructions.
“I've always been someone who loves eating a diverse range of cuisines. I really wanted it to reflect how I eat and a reflection of my Instagram. Its recipes based on dishes that I have grown to love, whether it's travelling to Thailand, living in Hong Kong, like things I missed from New York, trips to Jamaica, and more. I feel like I can plug and play the recipes based on what each restaurant kind of serves and when they do for my pop ups.”
Speaking to The Beat Asia on the continued success of her first cookbook, Jen is earnest about bringing her recipes to real life at venues in Hong Kong. “Learning how to translate her recipes into a tasting menu or prepping and creating into service for a restaurant, it is a very humbling experience. I love backing my favourite local Hong Kong restaurants,” she said.
"Doing these pop-ups have been a lot of fun testing out my recipes and getting real-time feedback without being involved in managing the restaurant, service, or hours.”
“I am getting my name out, my food out, and it’s a win for my followers who have an opportunity to try these dishes that they've seen on my Instagram feed.”
Jen is set for a return behind the counter, teaming up with Alvy’s to bring back the Birria and Bone Marrow Quesotacos (HK$288), with her new creation of the Filipino Sisig Pizza (HK$188), bringing sourdough pizza base with the crispy juicy Filipino pork classic, and her creations of Crispy Noodle Wrapped Prawns (HK$188) paired with Pineapple Chili Sauce.
Hosted at the Kennedy Town pizzeria from Sept. 1 to 18, with signed copies of her cookbook available for purchase for HK$200 on Sept. 1, 2, 4, and 18, Jen’s Filipino-fusion team-up represents a new direction for the Instagram sensation in food.
“I'm Filipino, but I don't know how to cook every single Filipino dish yet. The next stage [of my journey] is to dive deep on doing more, learning more how to cook the Filipino dishes from my family and share them. [These recipes] will eventually start getting lost if the next generation doesn't learn the original ways of making things.”
“I do have the lens of like, ‘I love this dish from the Philippines,’ but how can I translate this into today's modern age? How do we make something that maybe doesn't look as presentable and make it into something where a non-Filipino would want to try it?”
On par with Jen’s direction, the remainder of this year and through to 2023 is seeing her dream to bring Filipino recipes with partnered restaurants in Hong Kong, delivering her culture to non-Filipinos. “Once people try [Filipino food], they love it.”
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