Panoringan: The Accidental Influencer — A Conversation with Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare at Rodeo 39 Public Market in Stanton.

Anne Marie Panoringan

Voice of OC’s food columnist — reporting on industry news, current events and trends. Panoringan’s prior work includes writing about food for 8 years at the OC Weekly in which she interviewed more than 330 chefs, restauranteurs and industry professionals for her weekly On the Line column. She has been recognized by the Orange County Press Club and she also is a recurring guest on AM 830’s SoCal Restaurant Show.

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Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare is an influencer who resides in Garden Grove. Her backstory is different from most, as it was never her intent to be in a position of social influence. I first met Connie five years ago when she had about 3,000 Instagram followers. With her photography skills and engaging cooking content, she has amassed 99,200 total followers on Instagram.

Without using the word in a definition, an influencer’s role is to persuade potential customers to purchase a product, dine somewhere, or visit a destination with the purpose of driving business and spending money. Followers connect with popular individuals on social media — commonly Instagram, but influencers are found on other platforms such as Twitter or TikTok. With television and print media often criticized for being biased, the public looks for sources it can relate to (and ultimately trust) for making informed decisions on goods and services; this is where influencers are valued.

Instead of a typical interview, Connie invited me over to teach me how to make pho ga, Vietnamese chicken soup, in the Instant Pot. We conversed about her social media success while prepping ingredients and dining on catfish spring rolls we rolled ourselves.

Photo courtesy of Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare

Some of Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare’s home cooking: pho with lobster and sausage.

Let’s start with how the @occomestibles Instagram account came to be. Your children had a lot to do with it, from what I recall.

Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare: “I was learning how to use my camera, so my eldest son suggested I start an Instagram account to post pics of my food. It’s like keeping a journal of my food journey to see the progression of my photography. My husband, Nasar, was my lighting man.”

This is only part of the backstory. In January 2014, Connie created @occomestibles. However, it would serve a secondary purpose down the line.

When her sons (whom she lovingly refers to as her “cubs”) were away at college, they missed their mother’s home cooking. To show the boys that they could recreate the same meals on their own, Aboubakare began incorporating videos replicating her Vietnamese recipes using ingredients that could be located in most supermarkets. Certain spices and sauces required a pantry care package from home, but these culinary demos doubled as a long-distance love letter to her cubs. It also caught the attention of fellow home cooks, foodies and many more fans.

Per Connie, the “comestibles” in @occomestibles is French for “food.” When she started her account she needed a name, and “comestibles” was as close as she could get to Orange County food.

Photo courtesy of Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare

One of Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare’s favorite photos – a Vietnamese meal at Bamboo Bistro in Corona del Mar.

What equipment do you use to take photos?

Aboubakare: “I mostly use my Nikon D600 and Nikon Z6.”

She tries to utilize natural light whenever possible. When that isn’t an option, Aboubakare is known to conjure up a brick light, a rectangular-shaped, portable light source. For Instagram stories and videos, she will use her iPhone 11 Pro Max. One of her Nikons has video capabilities, but she is still learning to master the feature.

One other piece of “equipment” that is seldom seen (but often used) is a chair. Many of Connie’s best compositions are an overhead view of a table covered with dishes of food. When we’re at a food event, I jest and say that, “It’s not a party until Connie gets on a chair.”

What are your thoughts on being an influencer, and how do you monetize your account?

Aboubakare: “I never thought I would be an influencer. However, as an influencer your voice is important. You have the opportunity to help so many restaurants with your words and pictures. I am grateful for the many sponsored opportunities from companies such as Sierra Nevada, Ninja Kitchen, Farmer John, 2020 Census, Marriott Aruba, etc.”

Aboubakare, 51, focuses her talent by shining a spotlight on local restaurants in Orange County. During this COVID era, small and family-owned businesses are losing revenue due to reduced dining room capacities and diners who prefer cooking at home over going out. It is her giving nature that drives Connie to photograph and document restaurants who could benefit from the media attention.

Companies occasionally reach out to Aboubakare to promote their brands. In exchange for monetary compensation, influencers are expected to post their experiences involving those products. She may also receive other compensation such as an air fryer or, in the case of her first solo travel assignment, a trip to Aruba. These perks do come with a greater responsibility to generate quality content for her followers.

Where have you dined recently?

Aboubakare: “I just had a Viet beefsteak (filet mignon with a sizzling egg alongside) at King Paradise in Garden Grove. We were at Descanso last week, and loved the wine and live music on the patio. Their house margarita was pretty good, too. I recently celebrated my birthday at The Deck on Laguna Beach with my siblings and cousins, because I love its ocean view.”

As an empty-nester, Connie and Nasar go out to dine as frequently as she cooks at home. Invitations to visit restaurants introduce her to other cuisines. However, they prefer well-executed Vietnamese fare as much as new eateries, if not more so.

What advice do you have for home cooks and aspiring influencers?

Aboubakare: “Be consistent and keep trying. I didn’t know how to cook when I got married. I only started learning when I had my boys, because it was such a hassle lugging two toddlers and an infant to restaurants. I was using a Vietnamese cookbook my aunt gave me, but things weren’t turning out how I wanted them to. I kept working at it because I needed to feed my family, and I wanted to get better.

“I started asking my mom and the older ladies at my church for advice, and also began reading more cookbooks. My skills improved when I started cooking for a college-aged church group that we were leading. College students eat anything and everything, and their compliments made me strive to cook for them more. Eventually, I was able to comfortably cook for over 50 people. It has been a journey of learning processes, refining my taste, and knowing cooking shortcuts. Almost 30 years later, I’m still learning.

“As for being an influencer, it’s the same thing. You have to put in the time and work to grow. It’s not overnight or instant popularity. You can grow an account inorganically by ‘buying’ followers, but people figure it out, and your integrity will be at stake. When you grow organically, you go through the challenges that make you a better person in the end. Plus, once you reach the goal that you set for yourself, you feel accomplished because you did it on your own merit. It takes a lot of work to grow organically, but it’s worth it if you keep the passion and persistence to reach your goal.”

As a parent, it was a priority for Aboubakare for her three sons to finish college. Education is valued in their household, as well as religion, respect and family. She doesn’t think a person should grow up solely to be an influencer, but everyone can and should become a good cook.

What goals do you have for next year?

Aboubakare: “I would love to go on a mission trip with all of my sons and daughters-in-law. I’d take them to Vietnam to serve the underprivileged. My last mission trip to Vietnam was in 2015 in the remote highland of Cao Bang. I was the social worker for tribal patients who needed extra care or surgery. I’d get their information and set them up with our liaison at the hospital. I was also there to support Nasar, as he was the chaplain for the team.

“The feeling of giving people hope is indescribable. Your world becomes smaller as you see their hardship — poverty, hunger, homelessness, abandonment, incurable sickness, etc. You want to do more and give more but you can’t. It’s frustrating.

“I was attached to these three orphan boys, ages 16, 14 and 12. Their father passed away a few years before. Their mother remarried and abandoned them; they live on their own. The eldest quit school to work and farm so his two younger siblings can continue schooling. They’re very shy and scared, and I sensed that they are picked on due to their circumstances. I hope and pray that their future will be better and brighter. ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.’ (Proverbs 31:8-9)”

Photo courtesy of Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare

The Aboubakare family: from left, Samee (son), Kathy Dang (daughter-in-law), Adam (son), Nasar Aboubakare (husband), Connie Bang-Co Aboubakare, Tammy Nguyen Aboubakare (daughter-in-law), and Ismaen (son).

What are you doing for Thanksgiving?

Aboubakare: “All my cubs will be home, and we will have a Thanksgiving meal together. I’m so looking forward to this. My children are my world; they are my joy and my blessings.”

What is the key to making chicken pho?

Aboubakare: “It’s so easy to make. All you need is chicken, ginger, onions, seasoning mix, chicken bouillon and an Instant Pot. We can make it in less than an hour, and I would love to teach anyone who wants to learn.”

Speaking from first-hand experience, it was easier than I expected it to be. Here are a few takeaways, based on my lesson from Aboubakare:

  • Less is actually more — save additional spices, sauces, and aromatics for when you’re serving yourself. Our seasoning mix was a ratio of two parts sugar to one part salt. A simpler broth allows the flavors of your base ingredients to shine.
  • The fresher the chicken the better — fresher as in not frozen. You can taste the difference in the broth.
  • Instant Pots are better than the stove — instead of hovering over a pot, you can actually set the Insta and forget it until the final notification starts.
  • Want the right ingredients? Go to a specialty store for basil and noodles — I thought going to any Asian market would work. Nope. My noodles and one of the garnishes weren’t to spec.
  • Leftover broth is good for other things — namely cooking rice and incorporating into a different soup.

Thanksgiving Alternatives

Turkey for two or more shouldn’t involve sweating in a kitchen all day. I’ve rounded up a selection of ways to celebrate that skew towards the nontraditional, less stressful and sweat-free. For additional suggestions, be on the lookout for a holiday-themed article by our team at the end of the week.

If you insist on roasting your own bird, then sign up for chef Michael Puglisi’s turkey tutorial with Electric City Butcher on Nov. 19. For $15, his online class will teach you the finer points of trussing, roasting, browning and even carving from his DTSA outpost. Or reserve a Turkey Roasting Kit for $60, and the course is included. The kit includes compound butter, chicken liver mousse, stuffing sausage, a brine kit, trussing twine and a single-use roasting pan.

For a comprehensive Thanksgiving for only two guests, turn to Mind Body Fork and look up their mindful feast of flavors. For $95, they’ll deliver a sustainable bird with sage gravy, Mandarin cran relish, mashers, choice of stuffing (between gluten-free sourdough with pork sausage or wild rice with mushrooms), buttermilk cornbread muffins, petite pumpkin pie and one additional side of your choosing. BYOB to this ready-to-dine party.

Photo courtesy of Haley Hill

Thanksgiving selections available for pre-order at Pop Pie Co.

Those who prefer to leave pie-making to the experts should phone Pop Pie Co in Costa Mesa.

Pre-orders go on through the 19th or until sold out on their selection of five comforting flavors including pumpkin, vegan apple crumble, salted caramel apple crumble, honey bourbon pecan and chess pie (featuring Madagascar vanilla, Maldon sea salt and honey custard). If the turkey doesn’t go as planned, there’s always pie.

You could go the staycation route and book a night or two at Huntington Beach’s Pasea Hotel & Spa. Take a morning and sunset stroll along the water, then select between a low-key or more fussy meal. Thursday evening plans include an elaborate buffet featuring carving stations and an oyster bar inside the ballroom. Otherwise, head to Tanner’s in the daytime for a Thanksgiving sandwich filled with smoked turkey, apple and cashew stuffing and cranberry sauce. The dining room special is a proper plate of holiday goodness with all the fixings. Or head upstairs to Tanner’s Treehouse for a roasted turkey wrap stuffed with gravy and potatoes.

Now Open

Eggslice, Buena Park

First mentioned in our new brunch round up, this egg sandwich purveyor finally made its debut on October 30 at Grange Hall 39 along the perimeter of Buena Park Mall. Open daily from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., feed your breakfast needs at lunch or dinner. If you prefer less carbs, ask for a protein bowl (and add avocado) so they don’t include the bun.

ANNE MARIE PANORINGAN, Voice of OC

Smoked salmon with whipped cream cheese, baby spinach, black pepper and lemon by Holsom.

Holsom, Huntington Beach

Launching a new concept from the founders of Yogurtland, Holsom is their foray into savory, wholesome dining. Located across from Bella Terra, this affordable, quick-service eatery serves toasts utilizing Crema Artisan bread, complex grain bowls with a brown rice base, and steamed matcha or chai teas. Open as of Nov. 14, you can still find frozen yogurt here.

BLK dot Coffee, Irvine/VKCC

Location number five for this caffeinated brand, while the third in Irvine, has unique qualities the other locations don’t possess. As of Nov. 5, it is the first BLK in a shipping container, making it the first property not attached to another business. Plentiful, close parking in VKCC office campus is the best selling point, however. But don’t go on the weekends, as it’s only open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week at 16905 Von Karman Ave. An updated food menu is slowly being rolled out at all locations.

Sol Agave, San Clemente

111 Avenida Del Mar is where you’ll find modern Mexican cuisine as of Nov. 12. Originally a food truck, over the last six years Sol Agave moved into San Juan Capistrano, then expanded to Mission Viejo’s Kaleidoscope in 2018. Expect the same margaritas, tacos and seafood entrees it is known for.

Anne Marie Panoringan is the food columnist for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at [email protected]