Law grad turns culinary passion into TikTok fame and a brand-new cookbook
Like many others, Jon Kung figured that law school would be a safe harbor to weather the storms of the Great Recession. But after emerging from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law in 2011, Kung changed course.
Kung, who is nonbinary, says the realization that the practice of law was not for them hit after they helped the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in Michigan achieve a conviction in a murder trial.
“I had a hand in sending a 19-year-old into prison for, I think it was like 29 years or something like that,” says Kung, adding that previously, they had done less sobering tasks, such as signing preliminary exam forms.
They realized they did not have the personality for that job.
“So by the time I got the call and got a formal job offer from the prosecutor’s office, I declined,” according to Kung.
Over the next several years, they established themselves in the Detroit culinary scene, hosting secret pop-up dinners and dumpling classes and honing their take on “third culture” cuisine.
“I actually taught myself how to cook while I was in law school,” Kung said. “It was the only creative thing that I felt justified in doing that was taking me away from my studies.”
Kung was born in Los Angeles and spent their childhood in Hong Kong and Toronto before landing in Michigan for college and law school. Their recipes combine elements of Cantonese and North American cuisines and cooking techniques.
“This new fusion that I’m referring to as ‘third culture’ takes a more thoughtful approach to the genre,” Kung writes in the introduction to their new cookbook, Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen. “Third culture embraces each side as equal, drawing from a lived experience that is immersed in both or multiple cultures, once again taking the mentality of the American culinary renaissance that came around in the 2010s and granting the rest of us the ability to take part in it.”
In an episode of the Modern Law Library podcast, Kung discussed their new cookbook with the ABA Journal’s Lee Rawles—who made the Beef and Broccoli Potpie, the Shrimp Paste Dumplings and the Parmesan-Curry Egg Fried Rice from the book—and offered their favorite meal tips for starving law school students.
“One of the truly magical places that sustained me when I was in law school was the Asian grocery store. Those are the types of places where you’re able to do things like buy giant restaurant-size bags of frozen premade dumplings,” Kung says. “Throw these things into some boiling water, and then once they are floating—and a little bit afterward—they are done, and you can eat it with whatever sauce you want. Those got me through a lot.”
Kung also shares how they went from word-of-mouth pop-ups to social media fame. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic made their pop-up meals impossible and the murder of George Floyd prompted massive protests in Michigan, Kung began using @jonkung, their TikTok account, as a place to find community and share recipes.
“By this time, we were in quarantine and lockdown, and so I was like, ‘I can teach people how to break down a chicken and use all the parts to make multiple meals. I can teach people how to clean out their fridge and whip it all up into a frittata so that nothing goes to waste,’ because we didn’t know when we were going to get to grocery shop again,” they recalled. “And … that was how I was trying to help.”
They quickly began gaining followers and started being approached to partner with brands on projects, such as developing recipes based on anime series.
In the Modern Law Library podcast episode, Kung talks about being offered the book deal for Kung Food and being a social media influencer. To listen, scan the QR code or find the episode at ABAJournal.com/books. The Modern Law Library is available on all major podcast listening apps.
This story was originally published in the February-March 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “The Art of Kung Food: Law grad turns culinary passion into TikTok fame and a brand-new cookbook”