Chef Jonathan Kung’s culinary talent was a Detroit secret until nearly a year ago. But his dishes weren’t hidden — he operated with a discreet profile while working in restaurants around town and hosting pop-up dinner parties from his Eastern Market Studio that gained a loyal following through word-of-mouth.
“I found anime to be such an accessible but sophisticated form of art. … Not only could you just cook the food that they had in those movies, but there were so many themes from nature to capitalism to childhood that I found really inspiring.” — Jonathan Kung, Detroit chef on merging food and anime on his TikTok videos
Prior to the global health pandemic, plans to open a noodles and dumplings restaurant were in the works, but with the future of the restaurant industry still reaching for stability, Kung turned to a platform with endless sustainability: social media, specifically TikTok. In this trendy and youthful space, the culinary artist merged his passion for food and anime to create dishes reflective of the look and personality traits of characters from Naruto — a popular Japanese manga series about a young ninja seeking recognition from his peers and dreams of becoming the leader of his village.
“It really started with my desire to intersect my love of art in general with food. I was very inspired, back in the day, with the very first ‘Chef’s Table’ show and watching these amazing chefs take inspiration from nature and fine art, and then translate that into an experience for dinner,” Kung says. “Over time, as I was doing my own thing, I found anime to be such an accessible but sophisticated form of art. There was a lot that I could take and translate onto a plate. Not only could you just cook the food that they had in those movies, but there were so many themes from nature to capitalism to childhood that I found really inspiring.”
Combining his Chinese heritage with his North American upbringing and Western-informed cooking, there’s rich history, cultural education and intention behind the dishes Kung makes. Kung’s food is a mix and match of flavors, textures and cultural styles, he identifies as Third Culture Cuisine — a term he describes as a derivation from Third Culture Kid, “people from an immigrant, mixed-raced or multicultural family who experienced a culture at home and then lived in a place of a completely different culture.”
Kung brings this ideology and “amalgamation of what I’ve learned in western kitchens and coming in from a Chinese home” to the plate.
“It’s just having that really intimate understanding of two cultures to create something that is completely different. You have to have that emergent and complete understanding of both to be able to cook this way and it doesn’t have to just be Chinese food and American food; it can be anything,” he says.
The conceptional relationship between Third Culture Cuisine and Third Culture Kids resonates with Kung’s growing following because, he says, “there are a lot of these kids that didn’t even realize that there was a name for what they are but saw my food and some of the dishes that I made, and were like ‘this pasta and shrimp with Chinese pickles dish — this just sounds like me!”
Listen: Chef Jonathan Kung dishes on amine culture and his culinary arts evolution.