More Than Likes is a series about social media personalities trying to do positive things for their communities.
On a gloomy April afternoon, Jaeki Cho arrived at Renee’s Kitchenette in Woodside, Queens — the borough where he was raised — ready to work. He wore a loosefitting navy blue suit, with an off-white beret and blue-tinted sunglasses framing his goatee. Mr. Cho plopped down at a window table, an iPhone camera already pointed at his face.
Mr. Cho, 34, is the public face of Righteous Eats, which shines a spotlight on small New York restaurants, ones mostly run by immigrants and members of minority groups. Righteous Eats, which has nearly 400,000 combined followers on TikTok and Instagram, is not in the business of so-called food porn. In the crowded market of food influencers, where butter boards and cheese pulls are common attempts at going viral, Righteous Eats offers viewers a more nutrient-dense content experience. Food is the hook, but Righteous Eats is really a platform to celebrate the people who make up one of the world’s most diverse cities.
In his trademark baritone and hip-hop vernacular — he starts every video with an elongated “Yo!” — Mr. Cho walks viewers through litanies of dishes, while tracing the historical arc of the food and the people who made it. The spots Mr. Cho and his team highlight often don’t have the resources or business fluency to finance their own marketing campaigns. (Mr. Cho does not accept free food.)
“We ultimately want to bring empathy through representation,” said Brian Lee, chief executive of Righteous Eats. Mr. Lee believes the way his company presents a variety of cuisines can help people “realize we’re all the same.”
Mr. Cho started the series on his personal TikTok account in late 2020, after learning of a report that, after the lockdown and loans ran out, roughly one-third of the city’s 240,000 small businesses might never reopen. One of his earliest videos, uploaded on Nov. 2, 2020, was at Renee’s, a 10-table family-run Filipino restaurant in one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Mr. Cho calls it the “modern-day Ellis Island.”)
“They make up the cultural fabric of your communities, so support your local eateries,” Mr. Cho said at the end of the video, a black surgical mask on his chin.
Renee’s survived the pandemic, like many of the establishments Mr. Cho highlighted in those early days. “We had a wave of people coming in trying out our food that we hadn’t really seen,” said Earl Dizon, whose mother, Renee Dizon, runs the restaurant alongside her husband, Ernesto.
Two and a half years later, Mr. Cho was back at Renee’s, preparing to theatrically bite into a heaping plate of sizzling sissig (chopped pork, onion, chili pepper and an egg) placed on the table by Beth Chu, Ms. Dizon’s sister.
“You’ve lost weight!” Ms. Chu said, grinning.
“Lost weight? Really?” Mr. Cho asked, chuckling. “I gained weight, with everything I’ve been eating.”
‘How do we craft our American identity?’
Mr. Cho was born in South Korea, then moved to China when he was 6. Three years later, his family immigrated again, to Queens. He grew up in a dingy, first-floor apartment on 41st Avenue and 75th Street — five blocks from Renee’s.
“No one in my family spoke fluent English at the time,” Mr. Cho said. The majority of students in his elementary school were immigrants asking important questions of themselves. “How do we craft our American identity? What do we model ourselves after?”
Mr. Cho found himself drawn to hip-hop culture. Rappers like Nas, Immortal Technique and Ice Cube introduced him to aspects of U.S. history that went untold in his textbooks, like colonialism and government corruption. Soon he was dressing and talking like his heroes. After graduating from Fordham University in 2011, Mr. Cho wrote and edited for hip-hop publications before producing a documentary, “Bad Rap,” that follows the lives of four Korean American hip-hop artists — including Awkwafina — released in 2016. Two years later he became a co-owner of the Flushing location of Alumni, a fashion boutique.
On March 24, 2020, while sheltering at home, Mr. Cho uploaded his second-ever TikTok, a step-by-step guide on how to make tteokbokki, Korean spicy rice cakes. As of last month, the clip had amassed more than one million plays.
Soon Mr. Cho was uploading several cooking videos per week. His audience exploded.
It was around this time that Mr. Cho decided to shift his focus to the small restaurants struggling across the city. He thought of the people who worked the fiery stoves, chopped vegetables and cleaned tables — people who, like his parents years earlier, needed to hustle to make ends meet in an unfamiliar country.
The Righteous Eats series on Mr. Cho’s page resonated with an audience eager to support those most affected by the pandemic. It caught the eye of Mr. Lee, a media executive with experience working with social media creators, and in April 2022 they officially started Righteous Eats as a stand-alone page with a 59-second clip spotlighting Cuts & Slices, a West Indian-influenced pizza spot.
“If you’ve never seen oxtails on pizza before,” Mr. Cho says in the video, “continue to peep the details.”
‘Tastes like home’
“Do you smell that?” Mr. Cho asked as he walked through his old neighborhood, about a half-mile from Renee’s. The air carried an aroma that even the most daring fusion restaurant couldn’t dream of achieving: a mix of Thai, Bangladeshi, Pakistani and other cuisines. “This particular scent, at least in my memory, was always a fabric of this community.”
Over the course of a 30-minute walk through Woodside, Mr. Cho was able to maintain his anonymity; during a later shoot in Astoria, a more gentrified part of Queens, he was approached four times by fans.
“Our audience tends to be very diverse, though 10 out of 10 times they’re English fluent, or culturally New York fluent,” Mr. Cho said.
For Mr. Cho, spreading the word to a broader audience is “completing the mission.”
“The whole point of it was to have more cultural dialogue through food and introducing people to places that they normally wouldn’t be familiar with, or even make the attempt to try to go out to,” he said.
In November 2022, in advance of Election Day, Righteous Eats filmed its highest-profile video yet: Mr. Cho sat down with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York at Evelia’s Tamales in Corona, another Queens neighborhood — part of an ongoing push for the brand into longer-form content. (The team recently added Helen Cho, a former producer for “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” to lead that charge.) Mr. Cho and Mr. Lee’s grandest vision is to create an incubator for small restaurant owners looking to scale.
The plan is contingent on the continued appeal of Mr. Cho, who chatted with fans at the Korean-inspired Between the Bagel in Astoria while waiting for his order: a bagel stuffed with jeyuk bokkeum (spicy barbecued pork), onions and jalapeños. Mr. Cho took a heaping bite as his cameraman, Rob Martinez, an executive producer at Righteous Eats recorded.
“It tastes like home,” Mr. Cho said, nodding. “It tastes like New York.”
He paused. “My New York.”