Jon Kung, the self-taught chef who went viral
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Among the legion of foodies who have become stars on TikTok, it’s worth savouring the particular appeal and success of Jon Kung. For a start, the Detroit-based chef, who currently has 1.7 million followers on the platform, doesn’t fit within the usual age bracket for an influencer. “I’m pushing 40 and on TikTok,” he says. “I feel old every day.”
On the other hand, Kung has a knack for digital storytelling and for making a big impression. And yes, occasionally that involves him taking off his top. “I haven’t done that in a while,” he says, laughing. “When I was doing it quite a bit, I didn’t have any air conditioning in my place.” So it was more of a practical consideration? “For sure.”
A self-taught cook, Kung got his professional start working at supper clubs and pop-ups around the city, assisting top-tier chefs who had moved to Detroit in the 2010s, before setting up on his own. Before that, he trained to be a lawyer. And before that, he majored in creative writing and theatre at Eastern Michigan University, the perfect grounding for making his own content. “Everybody on TikTok is a theatre kid,” he says.
The son of Hong Kong residents, Kung grew up between Hong Kong, Canada and the US. His most resonant videos explore his third-culture sensibility through his cooking. Think pasta dishes seasoned with traditional Chinese condiments. “[The huge response to those posts] showed me that many people can relate to this notion of expressing ourselves through food in a way that not only reflects our complicated identities but also affirms them,” he writes at the start of his debut cookbook Kung Food: Recipes from a Third-Culture Chinese Kitchen (Clarkson Potter/Ebury).
The book (out this month in the US and in November in the UK) is filled with third-culture gems (many shamelessly nostalgic). Among them, Thanksgiving turkey congee; beef and broccoli pot pie (inspired by the microwaveable pies his mother used to bring home); SELT (pan-seared spam, egg, lettuce and tomato sandwiches); and dan dan lasagne (a homage to frozen-food brand Stouffer’s version). There are fresh takes on traditional recipes such as pork chop buns, Hong Kong borscht and chao nian gao (a Shanghainese stir-fried dish). And dishes that borrow from other cultures such as Persian tahdig clay pots; chipotle mango sweet-and-sour pork; jerk chow mein and mapo paneer.
The most intriguing recipes are those that draw from popular culture, whether inspired by Pokémon or that modern phenomenon, the online spat. “My first truly viral video was a clapback to a nasty comment someone made about me being a stupid millennial and telling me to ‘go eat toast’,” Kung recalls. “In response I made a video about honey-torched brie on toast and mixed the process of making it with calling that person out. It turned out to be a turning point for me in understanding how to do short-form cooking content – combining cooking with narrative or soapbox talking points.”
One soup dish from the book was prompted by a Reddit “flame war” about the cultural ownership of kimchi; his recipe for mapo tofu kimchi jjigae aimed to reconcile Chinese and Korean netizens by marrying two iconic dishes from either side. Another of my favourites, the Asian chicken salad, was inspired by a skit by comedian Margaret Cho (“This is not the salad of my people...” she crows). Rather than a generic, watered-down “Asian fusion” dish, Kung thought, “Let an Asian have a stab at this,” and came up with a salad of ponzu, pomelo and Szechuan peppercorn oil.
A large portion of the book is devoted to what might be termed the building blocks of Chinese-American cuisine: flavoured oils, master stocks and spice mixes. Kung is keen for cooks from other diasporas to use these to come up with their own third-culture dishes. “The whole cultural exchange in the US has generally been distilled through white, male chefs,” he says. “I want to expand that conversation to different ethnic groups. I want communication between the rest of us: the Chinese Americans, Nigerian Americans, Mexican Americans. What I am defining as third-culture cuisine in regard to Chinese food, I would love to see in regards to other cuisines as well.”