Chef Jon Kung uses his popular cooking videos to draw links between the food we eat and its impact on the climate crisis. Moving to induction cooking is better for the climate, for health and for safety, he says. Lately, he’s focusing on how he can inspire change: “My effort recently has been trying to convince myself that all is not lost. Keep doing what you’re doing, keep trying, and hopefully we can turn this ship around.” The Detroit chef releases his first cookbook, Kung Food: Chinese American Recipes from a Third-Culture Kitchen, on Oct. 31. – As told to Kendra Pierre-Louis.
I have been a big believer in electrifying kitchens, especially in the advent of induction technology. For me, it’s not just about sustainability but also about worker comfort, health, and safety. Gas stoves don’t just heat up the pans; they heat up the kitchen with their excess heat. So, as a result commercial kitchens are hot — very, very hot. When I worked in kitchens, if there was a lull in my shift, I would have to run downstairs, into the basement, take off my apron and change into a shirt that wasn’t sopping wet with sweat because of all the waste heat.
We have to use towels to grab the handles of every single pot that is on a stove or you would literally singe the skin off of your hands from the waste heat that instead of going into cooking your food heats the handles. And of course, there are the fumes that come from these ranges. It is a dangerous workplace and simply removing the flame would make everything so much more comfortable and safer. It also has the effect of being very good for the environment.
I started cooking on video during the pandemic, because we were all stuck in quarantine. It was my way of doing my part, of finding a way to be useful to everybody that was stuck at home. So I started sharing easy cooking techniques, almost survivalist cooking techniques related to stretching food. How to use up what’s in the fridge, that kind of stuff. And as my platform grew I just thought: ‘Why not try to use this platform that I’ve acquired to do something good?’ So I started quietly incorporating environmental messaging.
Some of that is showcasing how good induction is. It’s better than gas. It’s also looking at what we eat. I am very much an omnivore, but meat is not necessary for every single meal. And that means eating more vegetables and being more open-minded to plant-based sources of food. Keeping an open mind to what constitutes a meal can help so many people live healthier lives while also benefiting the environment, because the farming industry, specifically the meat industry, is a big producer of greenhouse gas.
But using my platform in this way makes me a bit polarizing because, somehow, we’ve managed to politicize making the world better for future generations. I will just mention induction, I won’t even touch on the climate messaging, I’ll just say this is actually faster than my gas range used to be, and for some people that elicits a personal response as if I’m personally attacking them. It’s not based on logic, it’s based on emotion. I’m not trying to argue with those people. I am simply showing off, like, a kitchen that I built for myself that in my mind, as a chef, and as a professional chef, is aspirational in a home. They always try to think they’re doing something when they say, ‘You’ve got induction, but where does your electricity come from?’ This forces me to explain that I’m part of a program with my local utilitiy where I purchase power that is derived from solar and wind in Michigan. I also have solar panels on my roof.
What’s keeping me up at night is the effort to give myself the grace that all is not lost. There’s just so much doom and gloom messaging, like it is the end of the line for coastal countries, or island countries are disappearing. I operate under the constant worry and weight of this. A lot of people in my generation and certainly people in the younger generation Gen Z have that hanging over their heads. But really, I try not to stay up at night. I try to get some sleep. So I can focus on making the world better the next day.
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