An Interview with Drag Queen Kim Chi and Youtube Chef Jon Kung
Kim Chi’s TikTok is @kimchieats. Not “Kim Chi does makeup,” not “Kim Chi from RuPaul’s Drag Race,” but Kim Chi, the drag queen and entrepreneur, eats. She eats Chipotle and cooks Korean beef radish stew. She sums up her eating adventures while traveling the world, and even partnered with Imodium and Pepcid AC for some gastrointestinal realness. So when she approached her friend chef Jon Kung of YouTube’s Kung Food about doing a podcast together, could it have been about anything but food?
Kim Chi and Kung’s new podcast, 1 for the Table, is like hanging out with two friends who have the best restaurant tips. They talk about the importance of rice across cultures and hating licorice desserts, the differences between fine dining in New York and LA, and just about all interesting things they’ve had to eat recently. They are funny and opinionated, and most of all curious. As Kung says, the two of them are the type to try anything not just once but twice.
Mostly, they both wanted a chance to talk about food even more than they already do. But they also wanted to celebrate how a passion for food can come from anywhere; you don’t have to be an expert to love or talk about it. We spoke to Kim Chi and Kung about the similarities between Korean and Chinese cultures, the few dishes they have a hard time eating, and if there is such a thing as queer food.
Eater: How did you two meet?
Kim Chi: Jon and I first met at Motor City Pride in 2016. I was in my dressing room and Jon actually stumbled in drunk with his friend. Later the promoter asked me, “Do you want me to take you out to dinner at a restaurant or do you want to have a private chef cook for you?” I was like, “Oh, I’ll get the private chef to cook for me.” The chef was actually Jon. He then went to Whole Foods, I believe?
Jon Kung: I didn’t actually agree to do it, but my best friend agreed for me. The next thing I remember was him driving me to Whole Foods where we spent 45 minutes shopping for ingredients. At this time, there was a situation where I was the only person in my entire building and the building consisted of four apartments and I had access to all of them. I pretty much used every single kitchen in each apartment to whip up this four- or five-course meal for Kim in like an hour.
Were you still drunk at this point?
JK: I sobered up by the time I got home because it’s like, you get into cook mode: We’re pretty notorious for working under intense circumstances. By that time I was fine, and Kim came in and we bonded over the food, and it was a nice little experience. Then one thing led to another where Kim, you came down and ate maybe one or two more times because you had gigs in the city. Then you invited me to go to P-Town? We went to Provincetown together and it turns out we were really good travel buddies. Provincetown turned into Joshua Tree and then an amazing trip to Taiwan. And then I guess we realized we were friends.
You mentioned in the podcast notes that you two always wind up talking about food when you’re together. What was the impetus for the podcast?
JK: We had spent some time on the road, and noticed that we were always talking about food or anything connected to food. Then once, out of the blue, Kim mentioned the podcast.
KC: The stuff we talk about is quite educational, so why don’t we put in a podcast form and see if people like it? We have our combo: People love Jon’s content on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube. I have fans that are always like, “Oh, I love your mukbang, I like what you do with the food.” I was like, “All right, it feels natural to do a podcast.”
You’ve focused on East Asian cuisines and chefs. What conversations around those cuisines do you feel have been missing from the general public?
JK: I feel like we’re two people that have a similar lived experience, even though ethnically we are completely different, and were raised differently. Our love for food is what unifies us. As far as who is having that conversation, it feels like there aren’t that many foodies who look like us. I mean, unless you’re super-hyper-established like David Chang.
Kim and I have an opportunity to travel, we’re both extremely adventurous, but at the same time, we’re not really out to do anything but enjoy ourselves and share that love with people. Food podcasts are not easy to do because ultimately it’s a pretty limiting topic. But we managed to expand to other aspects of our own cultures and identities.
KC: I think our goal with the podcast is to not to be just another podcast that talks about roast chicken in gravy, but also talk about the way food connects with people and the way people can relate to food, and maybe even unearth the generational trauma that comes with our food.
I want to get into that, because in the conversations around Asian American and second-generation Asian identity, food is treated as inseparable from that identity. Why do you think that is?
KC: For Koreans, when they see their friends, the first thing they say is, “Have you eaten yet?” When you are grown adults, the easiest thing you can do is go and get a meal with each other. Time just goes by if you’re sharing a meal and having a conversation over it. Food is also one thing that everybody has an opinion on, whether you like it or not. It’s an easy way to relate to people and it’s an easy way to get an insight into a person’s psyche.
JK: In Chinese culture we also ask, “Have you eaten yet?” even in place of other phrases such as, “I love you.” In Asian American communities — especially places where you don’t have large populations of Chinese people — there are a lot of situations where, in all this detachment from that greater culture, food is your only connection. A lot of people feel very strongly about these things because sometimes that’s their only window into this part of themselves. I call a lot of the food I make Chinese food, but it challenges what Chinese American food is. I get a lot of pushback from Chinese people, like, “That is not the food my grandmother made.” I’m like, “Well, you know what? The food that your grandmother made might not have been good.”
I’d love to talk a little bit more about positioning yourselves as public opinion-havers on food when so often the reactions can be, “Well, how do you know what you’re talking about? What’s your background? How dare you even suggest that what my grandmother made, that there might be a different way to make that?”
KC: Before I was doing drag and all the glamorous things I’m doing now, I worked in fast food. I worked as a barista. I worked as a sandwich maker at a factory. I’ve worked in fine dining for many years. I feel like I definitely have a voice and a lot of my fans are interested in hearing it.
JK: We are both the type of people that will try something and if we don’t like it, we’ll try it again to make sure. And if we still don’t like it, we’ll try the same thing again made by someone else to just be doubly sure. I don’t think either of us can name a dish that we cannot appreciate in some way, because we’ve been on the receiving end of having our food bashed in some way. Having experienced that, we are more interested in gassing up other cultures’ food because there’s so much to love. Truly the most glorious, pornographic thing is to listen to Kim talk about food.
Is there any food either of you started off not liking and have come to appreciate more?
KC: For me, it is food made with anchovies. Growing up, I was like, “That sounds gross.” But now that I’ve grown up, anchovies are one of my go-to pizza toppings. The salty, fishy taste paired with the salty cheese and tomato sauce: chef’s kiss. Whenever I made pasta at home when I was young, I was just throwing in marinara or a jar of creamy sauce. But now do more of an oil-based pasta dish where I melt the anchovies with some garlic and chile flakes and then just toss pasta in it. Very simple, but so flavorful and good.
JK: I think the main issues I’ve had with food were your typical childhood icks — anything fishy, anything bitter. One flavor profile that I have the hardest time with, because I’ve got a really sensitive nose, is anything that’s too alkaline. Century eggs, because they’ve been preserved in lye: This doesn’t taste bad, but it physically hurts my nose. I still would eat it anyway. There’s this Scandinavian preserved shark dish that apparently is like that.
KC: Koreans have a dish like that too, but it’s made of skate wing. It just reeks of ammonia.
Kim, obviously you have incorporated food into your drag. We talk about all these foods from different ethnic and cultural traditions, and I’m curious if either of you think there’s such a thing as queer food?
KC: The first thing I can think of is bottom-friendly food. There are actually a lot of diets and rules out there for people having anal sex. High fiber, no dairy.
JK: Brunch to me has an element of queerness to it, simply because it’s a typical time when you gather with your chosen family members. The other thing is desserts — and not just because there’s a queer vibe to desserts, but I know so many cookie companies and ice cream companies that are headed by queer people. There’s something about the happiness behind them that is attractive. I think being queer lends you to being fearless creatively, which shows in any way that you’re trying to express yourself. I just happen to do it through food. A lot of what I do, I credit to being a queer person because it liberates you to be free from societal roadblocks normally associated with toxic masculinity. People aren’t as expressive when they don’t feel like they’re allowed to be and queer people are just magically the opposite.
Your podcast is all about being passionate about food in all these different ways. What is your number one tip for becoming more open-minded and curious about food?
KC: My thing is to always approach everything with respect. Even if it’s an ingredient or a flavor combination that’s unfamiliar to you, don’t ever say, “Oh, that’s disgusting,” because to somebody else, that’s very offensive. Every ingredient has a life, and they give that life to be consumed by you. Just treat it with respect that it deserves.
JK: What’s so great about being an adventurous eater, when you are trying new things constantly, is that if you don’t like something, that might be a few seconds of your life that you may not enjoy. But if you try something new and you end up loving it, you’ve just discovered a new love, and you will love it forever. The risk is definitely worth it, if just for the sake of that discovery. It’s another source of joy that you’ll always have for the rest of your life.
KC: Also making a personality out of not liking things is so pathetic. Like, “I don’t like raspberries.” Why?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.