Before the pandemic, chef Jon Kung ran small, secret dinner parties in Eastern Market. But the global pandemic provided him with a much wider international audience, a deal with an anime streaming service, and the opportunity to inspire millions of people stuck indoors through TikTok.
Kung ran an underground kitchen prior to the global health crisis that sold thousands of tickets over the years to private, intimate dinner parties at his Eastern Market studio. Guest lists were developed via word of mouth. Since last July, the Detroit chef has come out of “hiding,” sharing his artful take on “third-culture cuisine” to a burgeoning crowd of fans on TikTok.
“Before TikTok, I was very, very secretive,” says Kung, who’s racked up more than 911,000 followers and ten million-plus likes on the video-sharing social networking app.
A multigenerational audience is spending more time on social media and streaming services these days due to lockdown conditions, giving home cooks like Kung a new and larger audience. But life amid COVID-19 also means the weekend dinners at Kung Food Market Studio and the small Chinese dumplings restaurant that Kung was working on opening in Eastern Market are on hold indefinitely.
“On Saturdays, I would walk the [Eastern Market] stalls, buy a bunch of stuff, make brunch and people would show up” he says. “COVID put a halt to all of that. I could have still held private meals, unsanctioned, but that wouldn’t have been responsible.”
Instead, Kung’s TikTok followers get a daily invite to his studio, where, in 60 seconds or less, he inspires them to explore their own kitchens, and shares everything from must-have Chinese condiments for the pantry to lessons on poaching and pasteurizing eggs. Kung’s creativity has now led to a video series with the anime streaming service Funimation, which launches Friday, March 12.
Kung’s cross-cultural recipes are variations on classic dishes. He’s whipped up curry macaroni and cheese, developed a new spin on fried chicken and waffles, and shown off a spicy twist on the trendy feta pasta for the cameras. Kung also launched a YouTube channel in August 2020 to post directions and recipes from his TikTok creations.
“A lot of my third-culture cooking videos have really resonated with younger kids, many from multiracial or multiethnic families,” says Kung, who is of Chinese descent and grew up in Toronto and Hong Kong. “I know what it’s like to not be completely settled in the place you live. I was expressing that through my food.”
Inspired by various art media, Kung also found quite a following among anime and comic book fans, imagining dishes from anime series, comics, and cartoons. That means lion’s head meatballs influenced by “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” the now-defunct animated Nickelodeon series; or Allister’s Ghost Gym curry, courtesy of Pokémon.
His animation-inspired dishes attracted the attention of Funimation. Kung’s “Naruto Ramen Chowdown”, based on characters from the classic manga series “Naruto”, is now streaming on Funimation’s Instagram TV, TikTok, and YouTube channels.
The self-described “Farmer Jack-era Detroiter” moved to the city’s center in 2007 after graduating from Eastern Michigan University. Like many young adults, he learned to cook as a necessity while attending the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
“There weren’t too many places to go to eat downtown,” Kung says of attending law school during the Great Recession. “Living in Detroit back then gave me the opportunity to rediscover Chinese food.”
Detroit’s food scene “was small and very forgiving” and ripe for experimentation, he says. Kung found his footing in the kitchen and began a local food blog. That took off organically, inspiring him to develop some of Detroit’s first pop-ups, often hosted in abandoned properties.
Kung, who refers to himself as “Detroit average,” never expected anything to come out of his TikTok videos. But his entrepreneurial spirit has been advantageous to growing a wide and inclusive audience.
“I had been on TikTok for a while, but only as a viewer, very early when it was nation-young,” Kung says. “Once the Black Lives Matter [protests] happened, I saw a lot of Black political activists on social, who I met and started to follow and become friends with. That was the jumping-off point. I started making content that was political. I might have my opinion, but I’d much rather share what I’m actually good at,” he adds.
“It’s nice to see people going crazy over it. It’s affirming the work I have been doing in Detroit for years.”