After moving to the Irving Park neighborhood of Chicago from Gurnee, Joelen Tan started her blog, What’s Cookin, Chicago?, as a way to share her recipes with family and friends. She began accumulating followers, and now, four years later, she receives an average of 80,000 hits a day and has become well known within the Chicago food-blogger scene.
Joelen, who was head chef at Three R’s Filipino Café in Albany Park, currently runs three Meetup.com groups — What’s Cookin, Chicago?, What’s Cookin, Mama? and What’s Pouring, Chicago? — two of which have corresponding blogs. She also works with local food companies on social media, PR and marketing, and has made on-camera appearances for local TV shows. The 35-year-old mother hopes to one day launch a Filipino food truck, but is waiting until Chicago regulations allow truck owners to cook in their vehicles.
In the meantime, Joelen enjoys spending time with her husband, Louis, and 14-month-old son, Joel, who is a foodie in the making. Well Community talked with Joelen about her love of food and its impact on her life.
Joelen, what inspired you to start your blog?
I always kind of did my own thing in the kitchen, and my husband was always curious as to why I never worked from a recipe. He suggested that I write my recipes down, since a lot of our friends and family would ask for them, and I’d have to fumble and guess how much I used, or what I used.
When I first started [the blog] I wasn’t even thinking about followers. It was more about doing it for myself and for my family as a place to share recipes. Eventually, people started following, and friends started creating their own food blogs, and we’d follow each other.
Over the past couple of years, I have become so overwhelmed with how many followers I have. My site is usually visited by females who are busy moms and/or foodies. In total, the groups that I organize on Meetup have about 4,000 members. I never really expected this much attention. People have been appreciative and grateful and really enjoy the things that I share. I get daily comments, tweets on Twitter, wall messages on Facebook and emails.
How long have you been cooking?
My parents are retired caterers so I pretty much grew up in the kitchen, playing and hanging out while my parents were cooking and handling catering orders. I probably learned my first recipe and helped out my mom actively in the kitchen when I was about 8 years old.
How has your blog changed over the years?
At first it was just jotting down the recipes and not even including pictures. Now it’s gotten to the point where pictures are so important. People eat with their eyes first. In the very beginning, my pictures were horrendous, because it was still very new to me. A lot of bloggers go back to change those photos and recreate those recipes, but I’ve chosen not to do that. I’ve chosen to keep what I have there as a way to remember where I started.
I’ve learned quite a bit about food photography. I started out with a standard point and shoot camera, and now I’ve moved up to a digital SLR. I’ve learned about lighting and composition. It’s been a great journey.
Where did you go to culinary school and why?
I have very strong opinions about culinary school. I went to a community college called College of Lake County in Grayslake, Ill. Their program is really good. It certainly doesn’t have the notoriety of Kendall College, Le Cordon Bleu or the French Pastry School. But, when it comes to culinary talent, it’s not where you get your education from, it’s really how you perform. There are so many wonderful chefs who have made it into the big time who don’t have culinary degrees.
You were head chef at Three R’s Filipino Café while you were in school. Why did you leave?
Because I have a 1-year-old, I decided to be with my family and to pursue other avenues using my culinary experience, rather than be in the kitchen. It was a great time while I was there, and I gained a lot of experience and new skills.
Tell me about the Meetup.com groups that you started.
The first group I started was What's Cookin, Chicago?, which coincides with my blog. It’s dedicated to folks who like food, learning to cook and seeking out hidden gems in Chicago’s different ethnic neighborhoods and unique, non-touristy spots. What's Pouring, Chicago? is focused on all things wine. As you know, food and wine go really well together.
I had my son last year, and as he got older, I wanted to continue doing these Meetups. It was awkward to be the one person with a baby tagging along all the time. So I wanted to create another Meetup group that was dedicated to moms and parents who have kids, and don’t have the time to go out on the weekends for foodie events. So, I created What’s Cookin, Mama? Our kids can have play dates while the adults enjoy one another’s company and food.
Has writing your blog benefited your health in any way? How so?
Yes, it certainly has. When you’re writing recipes and taking pictures, you become very aware of what you’re eating and what you’re buying. When you start to see what you’re consuming, it makes you think, “Is this a healthy choice?” With my son, I’m leaning toward more organic foods, and fewer or no processed foods as much as possible. It’s definitely made our family eat a lot healthier.
What is your favorite type of food to eat?
That’s kind of like asking, “What’s your favorite child?” Because I’m Filipino, Asian cuisine holds a special place in my heart. But, I rarely post Filipino recipes on my blog because growing up that’s all we ate. That’s what my parents’ specialty was when they were catering.
As I grew up I realized there were a lot more cuisines out there to explore.
When I went away to college and got introduced to authentic Italian and Mexican food, I was just hooked. That’s when I really got excited about learning about other cuisines, and even more so when I moved here to Chicago in January 2007.
An ethnic cuisine or culture is highlighted within each Chicago neighborhood, making it easy to find pretty much anything food related in the city. Also, being a metropolitan city, folks are more open and adventurous when it comes to food.
What do you do for fun on the North side?
Even though we had to adjust our lifestyle after having a child, we still enjoy eating out. It’s been a lot of fun introducing my son to different cuisines. It gives me an opportunity to share different cultures with him, especially as he gets older. We also enjoy visiting children’s museums in the area and attending the summer festivals.
How do you find time, as a busy mom, to blog?
I think it’s a matter of organization and balancing your time really well between family and hobbies. I’m thankful my son is extremely easy (knock on wood), which helps me to juggle a lot!
Joelen’s top five North side restaurants: