Life has not felt real for professional chef Jon Kung for nearly two years. Not just because a global pandemic has distorted reality but because of the 37-year-old’s whirlwind success as a “food content creator.”
In May 2020, the Detroiter started posting brief cooking lessons on TikTok to help other people through the tedium and inertia of COVID-19 lockdowns. “A lot of people were just helping each other out, so I started filming awkward things like, ‘Here’s how you can stretch a can of beans as long as you can because who knows when we’re allowed to shop again,’” says Kung, who identifies as nonbinary. It was the best they could do, given that their own planned Eastern Market restaurant got put on indefinite hold when the pandemic hit.
Kung would go on to use TikTok for videos about everything from their favorite cookbooks and healthy snack alternatives to anime- and manga-inspired dishes (think: Jon’s Mapo Tofu Curry inspired by Bea from the Pokémon universe). And Kung’s astonishing 1.5 million followers on the platform can’t get enough, liking their content more than 22 million times. Kung also shot a five-episode cooking series last spring for the anime streaming service Funimation — Naruto Ramen Chowdown with Chef Jon Kung — and secured a book deal.
While Kung says they didn’t set out to become a social media influencer, the position has allowed them to share experiences from growing up in Hong Kong and Toronto as well as the intersections of food, culture, and identity. “People were starting to become interested in not just my content but my story and who I was as a person,” they say. “And they started relating to the fact that I am a Chinese American, brown person trying to rediscover my culture through food as a medium. … And now, it’s [about] trying to set an entire vibe, whether it be teaching somebody a fun way to cook something or [communicating] the idea of cultural exchange being a good thing and something that should be embraced.”
Kung made their livelihood cultivating communities through food long before they found internet fame. After moving to Detroit in 2007 for law school, Kung sought out traditional Chinese dishes they enjoyed as a child and came to realize the city’s Chinese community was culinarily underserved. Around three years later, they began cooking professionally and started hosting pop-ups around Detroit in former foodie haunts like the Harlequin Cafe, Gold Cash Cold, and Lady of the House. For years, Kung put on secret dinner parties for ticket-buying guests in their Eastern Market studio. “The food scene was so young, and the city was so ready for more people and more options,” Kung says. “The people were always here. We just needed more options to serve them.”
And serving Detroit and beyond is what Kung will continue to do — even though they say they’re still waiting for someone to barge through their doors and say, “Just kidding!”
Kung plans to finish their book in 2022 and, hopefully, move closer to opening that restaurant in Eastern Market. “Sharing the food, sharing this with the rest of the world, I didn’t know it was a dream of mine,” Kung says. “But I’m so happy doing it.”