“I want to come to your house for the holidays,” said judge Sohla El-Waylly to the chef standing before her. “I totally want to roll up my sleeves and sit down with this on my lap.”
The “this” was a steamed whole fish, one of several stunningly plated submissions by chef J Chong in Episode 7 of HBO’s new series, The Big Brunch. That episode’s challenge, a “celebratory family-style holiday brunch spread,” allowed chefs to open a window into what holiday celebrations look like in their homes.
“The fact that she said, ‘I want to put this in my lap,’ was high praise. What better compliment is there for a chef?” asks Chong, a forty-five-year-old chef based in Asheville, North Carolina. She’s made her mark on the culinary world by folding her life story into cuisine that is somehow both bold and homey. Stirring her Cantonese heritage together with her Canadian roots and a sprinkle of Southern influence, Chong welcomes you into the world of her flavors by leading with an ingredient she holds as important as salt or acid: love.
G&G caught up with Chong, a finalist in the Dan Levy–created competition show, about what life looks like on this side of her big break.
The Big Brunch begins with ten contestants, then ends with three finalists, of which you were one. How did you get cast on the show?
My dental hygienist is actually responsible for that, believe it or not! I see her twice a year, an hour at a time, and 80 percent of that time, her hands are in my mouth—not really a dialogue! But she happened to see Dan Levy’s Instagram post about launching the show and casting talent, and knew me well enough to say, “Hey, I think you should apply for this.” One evening while I was already cooking and had a little liquid courage, I took a peek at the application. One of the options was to submit a video of yourself, so I answered the questions they provided and then watched the video back again to keep an eye on my language. I have a potty mouth.
I feel like that’s both a very Southern and a very Canadian thing to be concerned with.
Yes! Exactly. And I didn’t swear too much, so I sent it off.
Your warm, encouraging, joyful personality was so compelling to watch. You were the first person to start giving hugs and high fives to fellow contestants after they presented their food for judging, then the practice spread like wildfire, and before long hugging and celebrating became rote for everyone. It feels clear that you’re a natural encourager.
I’ve gotten a lot of feedback specifically about that aspect, and it’s so affirming. I put myself out there in a way that’s very authentic, and to be so embraced was wonderful. I actually went to college on a soccer scholarship, and I’ve always had the mentality that in any group setting, we’re all a team. As a team, you’re constantly trying to cheer each other on, to uplift and encourage each other. I needed that encouragement myself, so I kept pushing it out to others. You know how the saying goes: “Give what you need and it will come back to you.” We had to stay light, otherwise, what’s the purpose of us being there?
In one of the most notable episodes, you guys were asked to create an “it” item good enough to form lines around the block. Fellow Canadian Dan Levy’s reaction to your creation was delightful. He playfully tossed his fork down and declared, “No notes.” Can you talk a little about that moment?
I wanted to blend my ethnicity and my nationality to make a wonton stuffed with poutine, which I branded as “woutines.” It was so fun to present! Here were these two Canadians on HBO Max giggling like children about a dish that Canadians kind of get made fun of for. It was probably one of my favorite dishes because I felt it was truly representative of who I am and where I’m from, but in a way that people would really be interested in eating it. And it had a catchy name.
In that vein, what lessons or feedback did you take away from your experience that are still informing your work today?
What keeps resonating is the constant support and reminder that the judges (creator Levy, critic El-Waylly, and restaurateur Will Guidara) gave us: to keep presenting “us.” Once we were down to five contestants and all our dishes were on the table, the judges said they were able to tell whose dish was whose just by looking. And that’s because we were all able to cook from our soul, and it showed on the plate. They provided us space to authentically grow. I feel like it was really beautiful, and it’s something I’ve kept with me.
One of the loveliest things you said on the show is, “Food is love.” How does that idea play out for you in real life?
It can’t be said often enough: Food truly brings people together. Food is our connector. What we put in our bodies nourishes us, of course, but there’s also conversation over a meal and when you’re eating, you’re in your rawest form, concentrating on your food. You don’t have time to re-write your thoughts to make sure they sound perfect. Being together and eating provides this unique chance for us to talk about real things and make real connections.
A meal also allows us to travel. If we live in an area where there are a lot of different ethnic cuisines around, when they’re done respectfully and not being appropriated, we can travel the world because we learn so much about a culture and its history by eating its food. Using my food as a tool to try to connect people and bring them together allows me to show up as both queer and Asian in spaces where people may not be engaging with either of those identities.
For people who’re interested in visiting Asheville, what recommendations do you find yourself always giving, and where can folks find you in 2023?
I love Neng Jr.’s, The Golden Pineapple, Leo’s House of Thirst, and Little Chango.
I’m passionate about my growing business, J Chong Eats, where I sell frozen dumplings, sauces, and wontons, teach cooking classes, and host private dinners. Folks can find me at two tailgate markets in Asheville: at the North Asheville location starting on Saturdays in February, and at the East location on Fridays beginning in April. The show has only been out for a few months and I’m embracing all the positivity that’s coming my way. We’ll see where it takes me. At this point, I really feel like the sky’s the limit.