I met up with serial Instagrammer Paul Jones, also known as Aka Hige and Daigoeng, recently at the place which he describes as ‘Pulling the best shots of Espresso in Manchester’: North Tea Power. With a background in music, Jones has lived in Manchester since 1998 (with a brief, but significant, spell in Toronto).
I came across ‘Aka Hige’ on Instagram a while back, and noticed that his food and drink photos went beyond the usual hashtag-flooded posts so frequently shared on Instagram and Social Media. There was not a #foodporn #cleaneating #instafood #foodstagram in sight, but instead, cleanly lit, simple photographs and detailed and meticulous descriptions exploring flavour, food production and experience. There was a definite sense of measure and order in these photographs, that illustrated something more than a keen interest in food, and I was curious to know what that was.
It made sense for Jones to borrow the title of one of his favourite films, ‘Aka Hige’ by Kurosawa, for his online working persona. Aka Hige is Japanese for ‘Red Beard’, which in meeting him for the first time seems appropriate. Foreigners in ancient China and Japan were sometimes referred to as Red Beard and that is something he resonates with – in one place you can feel completely ordinary, only to feel like an alien elsewhere. Daigoeng, Jones’ current Instagram moniker, means ‘Big Ginger’ in Cantonese.
What is your background?
My background is in Music Technology, and for the past 4 years I’ve been doing a mixture of studying and writing. I came to Manchester to study Music Technology in 1998, stayed here and loved it. After that the music kind of drifted off for a bit. I ended up running a Buddhist Organic Vegan Cafe for a few years – The Earth Cafe underneath the Manchester Buddhist Centre. That was really fun, and actually that’s one of the things that sparked my interest in food.
Have you always had an interest in food?
When I first moved here I wouldn’t buy a lot of the junk food that my friends were buying; I couldn’t stand it. I mean, they were ripping themselves off financially more than anything. I’ve always had an interest in cooking good food. My mum was adamant that I wasn’t going to be like my dad; the type of man who’d burn beans on toast. She wanted to get us interested, so we did very basic things like baking, but we didn’t do anything major.
The food photos that you post on Instagram have a ‘food blog’ feel to them, do you follow other food bloggers?
I’m really inspired by a girl in Hong Kong called Little Meg, Siu Meg and a couple of other food bloggers in Hong Kong too, namely HKEpicurus and Janice Leung Hayes. I had this aim of getting a new list of restaurants to visit in Hong Kong – my wife’s parents live there and we go back every year. I first came across Janice Leung Hayes’s e-ting Hong Kong blog and was so happy to add more places to our list to try. There’s also another girl, who’s blog I used to follow, called Charmaine Mok. She used to work at Time Out London, but moved back to Hong Kong. Despite the fact that my wife’s parents are really good at keeping in touch with what’s going on in Hong Kong, I was keen to get a younger impression.
Little Meg writes what can only be described as essays on Instagram, and she can be very cutting too. She eats out a lot and really critiques places, but she’ll go into a massive amount of detail about what makes the dishes and restaurants really great. While I don’t think that style of critiquing is for me, I do appreciate that it can be very useful. I did think a number of times about starting a blog, but I really don’t like the food blogging culture. I don’t like the freebies and the compromised editorials and advertorials; I just don’t like any of that kind of stuff. I also don’t like that people write critiques based on a press night. The only people I tend to respect are those people who go to a restaurant as a normal customer and write-up that experience.
When it come to Instagram, I snap a lot of stuff, but, if I don’t enjoy it I don’t post it. I will make the odd comparative negative criticism here and there, but only if I’ve got something genuine to say. Publicly criticising someone’s work or business can have a substantial impact. I’m conscious that what I post on social media will be here in the public domain, in some sense, forever. These images and comments are not mine; I’m not in control of how long they stay around for or how many people see them. I’m conscious of the fact that a restaurant manager or chef might be reading it, and, although I’m not tailoring what I write to please them, I am very aware that when I comment I want to write something that’s helpful for everybody. If I do have something critical to say I’ll try to phrase it in the way that I would if I was talking to them face to face.
I often feel there’s an agenda when it comes to food bloggers’ styles, and there are a lot of people who seem to take inspiration from people like AA Gill and Jay Rayner. They take enormous pleasure in cutting places down, but in London they are incredibly spoilt for choice. In London that style of critiquing works. We’re not in that situation up here. Manchester is like a mediocre Borough of London when it comes to our food scene – and that’s our whole city, so I think that to apply that kind of critique to a whole different marketplace would be a little ignorant, personally. That’s why I’m not interested in being too harsh in my comments.
A lot of places in Manchester open up and then learn as they go along, and most of us (as consumers) are quite happy with that. Most of us are happy for places to get better at what they do, or even learn about what they do, as they go along. Restauranteurs couldn’t possibly do that in London and that’s why critics are super-critical down there. There’s so much competition. In London if a new coffee shop opens that doesn’t know what it’s doing, then no-one wants them to take custom away from the good guys. Whereas here, for example, when North Tea Power opened up there was no-one pulling a decent Espresso in the city – and they didn’t in the beginning either (to be fair coffee wasn’t their primary focus then, as it is now) – but some months later they really pushed and really studied the market and their craft, and now they’re pulling the best Espresso in the city. That’s our local context, and so if you were to be really harsh and critical – I don’t know – you might curtail some of that growth and some of that development. I don’t think that’s going to get us to where we want to be. I think encouragement is good; fair encouragement with the odd bit of constructive criticism here and there.
How did you get interested in coffee, in particular?
When I lived in Toronto there was a really cool coffee shop called Dark Horse. My friends and I would go round to all of the different shops. I really embraced their culture. There was none of that kind of posturing with the coffee culture that you’d see in other cities. They had a lot of Inteligencia coffee from Chicago in Toronto too.
When I came back, because there was nowhere making good espresso in Manchester, I bought an espresso machine so I could get good espresso at home. I bought the machine in 2009, and in 2010 I volunteered at the World Barista Championships in London. I went down for a week and became what is known as a Barista Buddy to Scottie Callaghan who came third in the end.
The championships blew me away. It’s a really serious competition, but, from the outside if you don’t have the direct sensory experience of the drinks or the insight into the discipline of how to make a really good espresso, it can seem a little odd. Being there for that week, and seeing how hard folks were working, was really impressive. I remember the point when Scotty was testing out his competition coffee and he was going through a process called ‘dialling in’ where you set the grinder up. Here, Baristas can change how fine or coarse the grind is, and also change the weight of the coffee ending up in the Portafilter. Scotty had these really cool scraping tools with different curvatures on them that let him, very quickly, get different doses. I remember him giving me one shot to try and, honestly, it was like he’d injected some passionfruit concentrate into the espresso; it blew me away. The next shot he made, he couldn’t get that flavour back. That was a singular experience, and it really inspired me to get into it more than I already was.
In your opinion what makes the best coffee?
I’d say it would be to know what a good coffee tastes like. If you’ve had really good coffee you can try and get towards that. If all you’ve ever had is burned or bitter, harsh or thin espresso, then you can’t make a good espresso. People who’ve only ever drunk large lattes don’t know what a good coffee should taste like. I would say if you’ve had really good espresso that’s the place to start, then I’d say the beans and then the grinder are of the next most importance. After that it’s the machine. If you want to make a good espresso there’s a lot of things going on there.
How did you get so interested in beer too?
I used to really like real ale and would go to The Dog and Partridge in Didsbury and seek out real ale, but again in Toronto there were a couple of bars (the now closed Smokeless Joes, Sin and Redemption and Bar Volo) that had very Belgium-leaning beer lists (as well as some local craft beers). From that point on I sought out interesting beers.
Kernal brewery in London had started just a few months before the Barista Championships and at one of the after parties we were taken to this really cool cocktail bar called Purl. I remember they had this Kernal IPA Citra that they were serving to everyone. It was phenomenal; I’d never quite had anything like it before. Within days I’d had two experiences that would stay with me forever with the espresso and then the IPA. It developed my idea to seek out more, equally impressive experiences.
We’ve been going to the Copenhagen Beer Festival for last 3 years too; it is unbelievable. They have 4 sessions, and every session has different beers, so that was over 300 beers in total over two days. You only get small 70 cl measures, so it’s a really good experience for trying the length and breadth of beer. As long as I can get the tickets I think I’ll always go. I’m happily to travel out there for that.
From your Instagram page it appears that you travel a lot? Do you have favourite places to eat outside Manchester?
Yes, that’s pretty much what we do. When we were in London recently for the Raw Wine fair we went to eat at a place called Raw Duck (that is the second premises for a place called ‘Duck Soup’), also ‘St John Restaurant’ and 40 Maltby Street’s own wine fair.
Places like 40 Maltby Street and Elliot’s, they do things exactly as they should be. For me they’re perfect. It’s a shame because potentially that’s money that I could be spending in Manchester, but we take from it good memories and very inspiring experiences. You’re talking well thought out wine lists, good service, and all of these places change their menus regularly, sometimes daily, and they just work with seasonal modern british food.
How did you get into Raw wine? What is Raw wine?
Raw or natural wine can sometimes incorporate Organic or Biodynamic wine, but it’s not the same. It’s also, more usefully (I think), called Low-Intervention wine. They pick the grapes and tend to ferment it without the addition of yeast, instead using the natural yeasts that are present on the grapes already for spontaneous fermentation. They don’t often use sulphur, which is a preservative, but it also changes the flavour. So in Raw wines you tend to end up with tertiary flavours, not just the variety of grape (primary flavours), and not just from the wine making process (secondary flavours), but the odd stuff from the spontaneous fermentation. When you have such a small batch and it’s purposefully not under the strict control of the wine maker, then the grapes can ferment naturally and do their thing. You tend to get more interesting flavours.
You can’t buy natural wine in Manchester. The closest place I’ve found in the North is a place in Settle, in Yorkshire, but London has some amazing places so I tend to just go nuts when I’m down there. Raw wine has a really varied spectrum of flavour – it sits in a triangle between Lambic or Gueuze beer, what I’d call mass produced wine, and Cider. It often has more flavour and character than you get from mass-produced wine. I’m sure at some point there’ll be somewhere in Manchester you can get it. We’ve actually just attended the Raw wine fair in London for the first time.
What I like about raw wines, as a whole, is that the restaurants who serve it, will for the most part, just give you one single sheet of paper with choices on it. You don’t have to feel like an idiot flicking through a big book of wine. Unlike the old-school world of wine where you feel like you have to learn something to be able to even pick from the list, let alone appreciate what you’re drinking, you can walk into a natural wine bar and say, ‘Just bring me something odd,’ or ‘fresh’ or ‘bold’. You can use sensory words to describe what you’re after rather than quoting producers, vintages, vineyards. It’s pretty straight forward.
A lot of the photos you post on Instagram show Vegan food, is that a conscious decision?
I was vegan for a period of time; when I worked at Earth cafe I was vegan for the best part of that. It was just an experiment really, and also for environmental reasons. The decision came from a rejection of meat production; I’m still very strongly opposed to industrialised farming. At the time a lot of my friends were vegans, and they looked healthy enough, so I thought let’s try it. I thought if I feel healthy then I’ll stick with it, and I did for a long time, but years later I started to feel a little undernourished and weak, so I had an experiment the other way, which was to start eating fish. I still don’t eat any land animals. Wild animals, I might feel a little more comfortable about, but I still can’t stand a lot of the ideals working in industrial farming and meat production. If I did start to eat meat again it’d be difficult for me to go to a friend’s house and say, ‘Oh sorry, is it er, grass-fed?’ I’d just sound like an arsehole. It’s a bit of a cop-out, but it just means I’ll eat fish – wild animals and animals that aren’t being messed about with. I feel ethically sound in my reasoning. I don’t mean to criticise anyone else’s choices, but for me it’s important.
Vegan food is still very much comfort food for me. I really like vegan food that’s well made and nutritious, as it’s always perfectly guilt-free.