By Chris Azzopardi
Photos by Johnny Miller
If you’re one of the 1.7 million people following nonbinary chef Jon Kung on TikTok (@jonkung), you may have watched their food tutorials and felt as hungry as you did thirsty. Hungry because, recently, they made spicy beef dumplings that look mouth-wateringly great, a recipe included in their new book, “Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen: A Cookbook.” Thirsty because they sometimes enjoy their dumplings in just a swimsuit, like they have in the past on a paddle board going down the Detroit River.
In the comments on a recent video of Kung preparing soba noodles without a shirt, one fan, who was clearly there for more than the food, wrote, “I’ve watched this 4x in a row and still couldn’t tell you any of the ingredients.” (Go back far enough in their feed and you’ll note that a simple gay white tank gets a lot of screen time.)
No surprise then that “TikTok zaddy” is how queer outlet INTO refers to Kung, who is 40 and describes themself as a “Farmer Jack-era Detroiter.” But that label, while inarguably true (they really did love that tank for a while), is the main course, but definitely not the full meal.
In a way you wouldn’t expect, their career in food started with a prospective career in theater, which they studied at Eastern Michigan University (EMU). TikTok is theater, of course.
“If you look at some of the most popular creators, it doesn’t even matter what genre — could be food, could be engineering, could be medical, could be law — it’s just a matter of being effective communicators,” they say about studying theater. “It helps you become effective as a communicator, and that’s why they do so well in this medium.”
Kung has undoubtedly done well — their impressive presence on social media, which became their full-fledged career focus just a few years ago, in 2020, eventually landed them a book deal through Clarkson Potter, a subsidiary of major publishing company Penguin Random House. In fact, you might go as far as saying that TikTok more than worked for them, and in a relatively short period.
“People who don’t really understand the art think performance is lying when really it’s the complete opposite,” they say. “It’s the expression of a truth at any given moment in time.”
Kung’s own truth is conveyed with dry humor and easy-to-love authenticity — the keys to success these days — that has allowed them to carve out a space in the professional chef world, with a side of baked-in queerness that goes much deeper than queer desire. For example, in the acknowledgments portion of the book, Kung raises the bar for engagement proposals, writing to their boyfriend-of-nine-years Jonathon: “Would you perhaps consider marrying me?” (Jonathon said yes.)
But long before the outro, there is richer context on Kung’s journey in the book’s introduction, which encompasses the answer to what “third-world culture” cooking means to them. To understand how who they are influences what they cook, this is a good place to start.
“As a third-culture kid, I grew up neither fully here nor there — I didn’t feel completely accepted as American or Chinese,” they write. “Personally, I see ‘third culture’ as being something that is inclusive and full of possibility. It has had a huge influence on art, literature, fashion and design, and I would argue that it can also apply to food.”
Featuring recipes for dishes like Jerk Chow Mein, Buffalo Chicken Rangoons, and Hong Kong Chicken and Waffles, Kung’s debut cookbook is a self-proclaimed “celebration of diversity,” one that helped affirm their diasporic identity as it spotlights their roots as a Chinese American who was born in Los Angeles and raised in Hong Kong and Toronto. They describe their culinary style as “American Chinese,” or “Third-Culture Chinese.”
“While I might not be able to express all the intricacies of my identity and culture in words, I can do my best to cook you a dish that captures my story,” Kung writes in the book.
“When I found out we had ‘Kung Food’ in as a project with Potter, I just knew I absolutely had to work on it,” says Felix Cruz, a publicist at Clarkson Potter, who says he was struck by that passage.
“Jon’s IG and TikTok videos were a big part of my pandemic routine — their voice was so soothing and the recipes they made, told with such insightful history and context, really strengthened my belief that cooking food is a powerful and intentional method for navigating uncertain times,” he adds.
The book, however, wasn’t ever really a part of Kung’s master plan, which, long before becoming a TikTok influencer and studying theater at EMU, also involved law school. In 2011, Kung got their law degree from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, but after they started practicing on real cases, they realized it wasn’t for them and changed course. They returned to their creative roots, posting 60-second cooking lessons on TikTok in 2020, a quick pivot from Kung’s pandemic-spoiled plan to open a small restaurant. People were already baking sourdough at home while sheltering in place, and now they could join Kung in making some of their TikTok specialties: Lion’s Head Meatballs, a variety of tomato sandwiches and dishes based on anime characters.
“Sometimes we need something beyond language,” Cruz says. “Food can be an ultimate saving grace when it comes to expressing and articulating who I am, in all the eras of my life, in those many moments when words fail. Jon’s recipes formulate an architecture of belonging for so many of us during and beyond the pandemic; in finding themself they help us seek methods for finding our way too.”
Cruz wasn’t the only one connecting with Kung during the pandemic. In the early days of their TikTok launch, Kung’s followers grew exponentially, with surges that ranged from 10,000 to 30,000 followers, sometimes in a single day. “It was wild,” they say. “There was such a huge, crazy dopamine rush of just watching these numbers go up.”
“I started getting brand deals and major anime-based companies who had me on retainer for content,” Kung adds. “I realized within a few weeks I made more than I had made in an entire year both as a small business owner by myself and as a person who cooked on the line.”
Kung initially worked at Detroit restaurants including Standby and the now-closed Gold Cash Gold and ran Kung Food Market Studio, a private dining space in Eastern Market. Their experience as a self-taught chef at pop-ups in the city was a “complete immersion, trial-by-fire thing,” which gave them a leg up on socials. It all snowballed into something so successful even Kung can’t completely wrap their head around it.
“It hasn’t really felt real, I guess, for a really long time,” they say. “Considering the fact that my time in Detroit was so… it felt really rooted. And then just transferring it to an online presence and then having everything move and progress and change so fast. I mean, I’m still trying to come to terms with it.”
Recently, Kung took the book on tour, stopping in cities like Chicago, San Francisco and New York, before returning home to Michigan. More dates will be announced for next year, and Kung has their eyes on promo stops in Provincetown, Boston and Philadelphia.
It seems unlikely they’ll return to their original, pre-TikTok plan to open their own restaurant in Detroit — at least not for a while. “To open something now with uncertainty and high prices just doesn’t seem smart,” they say. Not to mention, when it comes to possibly returning to the service industry they once were a part of, “I can’t even sit through an episode of ‘The Bear.’”
“I would not mind just a little bit of coasting for a while,” they say. “With everything that I’ve done and have explored, I’m totally fine with just having one job, which is making content for a little while before exploring other avenues.”
Chris Azzopardi is the Editorial Director of Pride Source Media Group and Q Syndicate, the national LGBTQ+ wire service. He has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.