Out of Print

Number One Boy

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Christopher O’Leary.

Christopher O’Leary talks about his independent publication FatBoy Zine, the lessons he learned from his mom, and the impact of food beyond the kitchen.

“It’s been crazy,” says Christopher O’Leary, founder of the UK-based independent food publication, FatBoy Zine. Crazy seems to be the theme of 2020 but despite all its ups and downs, it also gave Christopher the time to try and experiment more. Some things proved easier, like working from home, since he always treated his flat as a work studio even before the pandemic. “I’m pretty introverted so the idea of being a recluse and tinkering with food and art sounded pretty great,” he says.

Christopher began working on FatBoy Zine with his partner Emily Leonard in 2018 and the magazine has since been featured in numerous design publications including It’s Nice That and Elephant Magazine. There are three issues to date, the latest one being under the theme of “Palette and Politics” that looks into the food and identity of Hong Kong. Christopher has a very specific and personal view of what kind of food magazine he wants to make and calls FBZ “a greedy attempt at documenting a very small part of Asian food.” It’s also a diary for Christopher, one that allows him to recount and celebrate the food he had growing up in Hong Kong and the Philippines.

At first glance, FatBoy Zine looks more like a contemporary art magazine than anything else. The covers of each issue alone highlight a certain aesthetic more than it does a particular cuisine. But like any well made dish, the beauty of its design is in its ability to combine different elements to create something that’s both familiar and fresh. Its visuals celebrates the Asia that Christopher grew up in, one that doesn’t shy away from color nor is it stingy when it comes to typography. It is vibrant and proud, far and away from the meek and conversative view that are forced on many Asians by other cultures. And while this all goes back to Christopher’s childhood roots, it also showcases his credentials as a graphic designer—not to mention how he’s grown to view and appreciate food over the years. In a feature in Elephant Magazine, he said that he didn’t want the design “to feel like something precious.” It’s a statement that goes beyond FBZ and speaks of his wider view of food as a whole: “I don’t think with cooking, the outcome should be precious; it’s more about the process of making something and sharing it with other people.”

Christopher talks more about FatBoy Zine and food’s impact beyond the kitchen over email.

The following has been edited for publication.


Cover of the second issue of FatBoy Zine that focuses on the Philippines and the rich diversity of Filipino food.

Out of Print:  A lot has been said about the bigger food publications (especially this year), but are there any you’ve enjoyed reading that maybe have inspired FatBoy Zine over the years?
Christopher O’Leary: To be honest, I only consistently read a few. The Gourmand is great as a combination of art and food, Put A Egg On It has amazing energy, Mold is genius and Lucky Peach (which I could only appreciate from afar) was always pretty sick. I think what’s special about these for me is, after looking into the editors, writers, or founders, they’re always fascinating people who explore food as an output to explain bigger ideas. That’s a really hard job to do.

Let’s stay on that last bit. Why do you think that’s a hard job? What makes it so easy to get wrong?
I think it’s down to your ability to think about [the] audience, how you make a point of view so human and relatable you don’t just accept it, you really appreciate and value it. People who can do that are incredible and it’s something I want to work on personally.

Why makes food such a great platform to discuss bigger ideas and issues?
Food is just a great medium, it can be endlessly interpreted and everyone likes delicious food. It’s on a level similar to music, universally enjoyed.

FatBoy Zine, as you said elsewhere, is more of a diary for you than anything else. Not to take anything away from other publications, but what value do you think there is to writing and talking about food beyond merely articulating recipes?
I personally think more space has been given to the writers at the larger publications to talk about the bigger issues around food. I think that change has come from the readers and chefs being more outspoken. Seeing that sense of movement is pretty exciting.

I think the value comes from appreciating the wider context around food, whether it’s the history of a dish, the context it’s usually eaten in or the technical skill behind pulling it off is always interesting. It presents the food in a more conversational way rather than some strict classroom vibe.

Zines have always been a niche way of presenting or articulating a topic and so much of its appeal is based on that culture it’s a part of. While it’s gotten a lot easier to share thanks to the Internet, how does online culture affect how you work on something as physical as a zine?
I love zine culture, and the self-publishing world that comes with it. It's tough, (financially and mentally) but the experimentation and conviction behind publishing is something I love. I don’t really see online culture as being at odds with that, most of the time I think they’re related, just different kinds of publishing with different remits and audiences.

When it comes to affecting my work, it definitely has an impact. Crawling through the internet is how I research, start conversations, or learn new techniques. I’m a visual person so books and the internet are my go-to. Not for output, but for ideas and understanding.

A spread from the second issue of FatBoy Zine.

There’s a kind of blinding nostalgia when we present food to others as an invitation to culture but with everything that’s happening now in Hong Kong, the Philippines, the UK—and most if not all countries in fact—what’s been the challenge for you in balancing celebrating food and its culture while discussing certain realities of its time and setting?
It’s difficult trying to create something that brings joy while grounding it in reality. Sometimes it’s even uncomfortable, but that probably means we’re moving into important territory.

The challenge for me personally is probably the same for a lot of other people out there, that’s education. No one is born understanding the complex political and cultural struggles around them, it’s something I honestly have to educate myself about, work on consistently and not be afraid to talk about. That’s difficult, trying to translate that into an object means constantly thinking about it from as many angles as possible.

But back to my use of internet culture, paying attention to free press social accounts and pro-democracy figures is a great source for education, learning and conversation. Not all comments sections on sites have to be a cesspool of negativity.

What are some of these accounts or resources you’ve gravitated towards?
Issue 3, I was glued to Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and the HKFP instagram, also looking at amazing series like Nowness’s “China Wave” and Creative Director Eric Hu. There’s loads. But for issue 2 specifically I looked heavily at family photos, Filipino brands and the paint work for jeeps for style inspiration. Nowhere on earth has the same colour spectrum as the Philippines, it’s definitely special.

Christopher says this leche flan recipe from Issue 2 was one of the hardest to get right.

What’s been the toughest or hardest Filipino dish you’ve had to make?
I think there’s a lot more technically challenging dishes I need to throw myself at. The ones I’ve gravitated towards are ones I can cook for a small group in my home kitchen with the ingredients I can get my hands on. But from Issue 2, trying to make leche flan was so damn difficult, the consistency has to be perfect and it takes so long to cook, if you mess up an earlier step you’ve wasted the next two hours of cooking time. I’d love to practice my lechon though, I have a lot of respect for that dish.

You said in an interview that your mother “challenged my opinions and wanted to really think about what I was doing and why.” Could you talk about those opinions more? And is it safe to say that the topics went beyond those of the kitchen?
She was very good at asking open questions that made me critique what I was doing, it was subtle, and now I’ve carried that into how I interact with others. Maybe opinions was the wrong word, but definitely my work ethic, my attention to detail, my patience and resilience.

They definitely went past the kitchen. I was a pretty scatterbrained kid, introverted and terrible at structure, she must’ve seen that and wanted to help me.

“Someone once said recipes are like rivers, they’re never the same from one moment to the next.”

I recently got a hold of my lola’s diary of recipes also and while it was fun to try and recreate her recipes, it just wasn’t the same. What’s been your experience like cooking the things you learned from your mother and your family?
That’s a lovely thing to try to recreate, well done!

Someone once said recipes are like rivers, they’re never the same from one moment to the next. That’s lovely and I just remind myself of that. And I encourage people cooking at home to remember that too, don’t bother trying to be perfect and start trying to be honest about yourself, I promise it’ll taste just as good that way.

Food is a great gateway to know about someone’s culture, but have you seen any stereotypes or notions of Filipino or Asian culture based on our food?
My favorite stereotype around Filipino food is that if you go to a Filipino party, the food is the reason we’re celebrating. Even when our western friends or family would come to a party it always struck them as a big deal and became a long-running joke. I appreciate that as a positive stereotype, because unfortunately we know Asian food in general gets encumbered with untrue stereotypes and the lack of understanding around regional cuisine makes people lazy with their commentary.

What’s a typical comment you’d hear?
I don’t want this to perpetuate negative stereotypes, since a lot of us are probably (and horribly) familiar with the commentary, but it’s usually some bullshit about the quality of ingredients being questionable, the cleanliness of the restaurant etc. In fact, when I was researching different Pinoy recipes I came across a tourist review board of food and loads of people were complaining about the quality of Filipino food after staying in Manila for five days. How can you judge an entire country based on that? It’s lazy.

In another interview, you talked about how “It was pretty revealing to start looking back and trying to understand why certain recipes were so intrinsically tied to an emotion.” As someone from the Philippines, my own personal feeling with most of our cuisine is that it is tied to family and a communal setting, but I’m curious what emotions you felt cooking or eating certain dishes your mom and family made?
Comfort was arguably the thing I felt most recreating dishes. Comfort in remembering food eaten in the Philippines as a kid and having it in England when I felt a bit homesick.

How I remember eating in the Philippines is communal too and also celebratory, my favourite memories were eating Ube Stik-Os on my tito’s porch at a family party or bangus with tomatoes on the beach with family. Something about the time felt kinda wild, celebratory and free.

FatBoy Zine showcases Christopher’s skill as a professional graphic designer but also reflects the different cultures he was surrounded by growing up.

I appreciate the look of FatBoy Zine and in a way veers much closer to Lucky Peach than it does Kinfolk or even BA. And I guess to be perfectly frank I love that it doesn’t feel “white.” Was it important for you to showcase the food you were talking about in its own aesthetic?
Haha thank you, being compared to Lucky Peach is always cool. I never set out to not look “white”, I learned traditional western design so it will always play a big part in how I work commercially, and I also really appreciate it as a practice. But for FBZ I wanted to get back to design I felt was freeing and less bound by those principles. It was more important to me that I be honest with who I was and what the content is, how it plays out was never going to be completely western because I’m not completely western.

Actually, you could argue it’s not even a design aesthetic at this point because the personal is overtaking the communication aim, so it’s shifting closer to art.

How so?
It’s moving closer to my personal interpretations of a theme, and the interpretations are becoming more abstract, I love it. But I have to accept the reason I'm creating the zine now is different than when I first started, it’s still a form of therapy, but it’s more open. I guess the difference between it being communication and it being art is that I'm less tied to a single message with each issue, I just explore a theme I think is important.

You’re very open and generous when it comes to praising and hyping your collaborators, even if FatBoy does refer to you, it doesn’t restrict itself to just one POV or one palate. How do you balance what you want FBZ to be with what others add to it?
We try to be as helpful to the community around us as possible. We can’t always be as helpful as we want but at least we’ll try. And thanks for noticing our POV, it’s becoming broader and I prefer that.

I pick who we work with very carefully, sometimes it’s because their work is something I don’t completely understand or is different from my usual taste, because there’s huge value in bringing in an opposing way of working. The only thing I pay attention to is if people seem open, which I think our community is inherently.

With the overall direction, I’m the only one who sees the whole picture, and I’d rather the people we work with focus on what they’re passionate about, so I don’t bother a writer with social media ideas unless they’re interested, unlike the illustrator who we got hyped with about transitioning flat visuals into movement.

At the end of the day I’m not here to say yes or no, I’m here to ask why and how.

How has working with your partner Emily been like? It’s quite easy to spot what you’ve done for FBZ but what would you say is her biggest contribution to FatBoy Zine?
It’s great, parts of FBZ are still so personal, especially the food so it makes total sense that it’s photographed by someone I’m tight with. But her contribution goes past photography, it bleeds into the writing, the general direction of the zine. I think I start a hundred questions throughout the process with “is this stupid or great...” and she’ll always give me an honest and thoughtful answer.

I think having someone you can have an open, conceptual conversation with is key. Building each other up should be a given in a partnership.

I don’t know if I just missed it but one thing you mention on your site that I’m still curious about is your stance on the term “fusion.” I know a lot of chefs also hate the term but what about it do you think is unfair or inappropriate?
I love critiquing language, and sometimes I get a bit too focused on it. But the term fusion never sat right with me, it sounds forced. Like a manufactured way of bringing ideas together, when there’s literally millions of people who can represent these ideas in a much more natural way. I mean, why label it?

Also my experience with fusion food specifically hasn’t had a great track record. Although, right before lockdown I tried a sushi taco (rice instead of the corn tortilla) by a couple where one was from Japan and the other from Mexico. I was definitely apprehensive but it was really good!

You’ve done a lot of interviews about FatBoy Zine, what’s one thing about the zine or what you do that people sometimes or often miss?
Sometimes I worry people get too attached to the visuals, when really the writing is just as exciting/challenging. But I suppose it’s partly due to us existing mostly on social platforms there’s less chance for writing to take centre stage. Maybe that’s a recommendation I have in general for these platforms, giving people the space to unpack and understand someone's writing can mean a lot. ︎

Jonty Cruz is a former magazine editor and creative consultant based in Manila.