“If I could make you one meal, what would it be?”

Yiming Lin pops this magic question to strangers in NYC in the memorable “street interview” videos populating his social media. In his iconic series, Lin cooks meals for strangers to learn more about people and our relationships with food. His content encapsulates the beauty of food, showcases his ability to cook anything someone speaks into existence, and captures the heart-warming stories people carry through their favorite dishes — watching even just one of Lin’s videos is sure to put a smile on your face. I got to meet Lin and learn more about himself, his goals, and his refreshing approach to food content creation.

Photo courtesy of Yiming Lin

Spoon University: You label yourself as a food ethnographer. How would you describe food ethnography in your own words?

Yiming Lin: Food ethnography is a subset of anthropology that specifically focuses on the study of people and society, and so food ethnography is the study of people and their connection and relationship with food. I call myself a food ethnographer because what you'll notice about my content is that it's about me making a meal for people in order to understand why that meal or that food is so symbolic or important for them. And then through that exercise, it helps me understand not only my own relationship with food, but also how our broader society connects with food.

SU: Is there anything about your upbringing or childhood that shaped your decision to pursue this kind of path in life?

YL: Both my parents were in the food and restaurant industry, and the way that they navigated their immigrant identity was through food and having a Chinese American restaurant and feeding the community. And so growing up, I not only learned how to cook through the lens of my parents, but also saw that they played a critical role in their society and their community by feeding people. And it's such a parallel to my life now, where part of my community is online and in the community of New York and a lot of what I do is feeding people. I really enjoy watching people eat; it's kind of weird, but it's my favorite part of the process. And so I think my parents’ perspective and their identity really parallels how I'm dealing with what food means to me, and what it means to be an immigrant in America and exploring that identity in itself.

SU: What would you say is your favorite part about doing the street interviews you post on social media?

YL: The money shot is always when I deliver it to the person and then they take their first bite. I guess I have such high anxiety because I'm afraid the food will be cold or it won't taste good or won't be like something that they're familiar or recognized with. For me, that's the highest risk but also the most rewarding. Also, through the process of doing it multiple times, I've just learned so many different cooking styles and recipes. And I started to learn and see how food systems are integrated through things like immigration patterns, through political reasoning, or because different cuisines come about when there's conflict — like how Korean army stew started during the Korean wars. So I start to see from a global perspective how different cultures influence each other, which is always fun to see. In addition, just meeting people and having a conversation with them is super meaningful.

SU: What made you want to start creating content and posting on social media?

YL: I first started posting basically a year ago — it was on Cinco de Mayo — and I made a seven layer Mexican dip. And I realized that when I was making the food at home, it didn't feel fun for me. It felt like I was just cooking for myself in front of a camera, and it felt really awkward. And so I thought, “How can I make this more me?” So much of me is hosting dinner parties — I love feeding friends. And so I thought about how I can take this and feed people, and that's how the street interview style started. I think that in order for content to be sustainable, you have to be interested in it, and you have to be passionate about it.

SU: What do you hope your audience takes away from your videos?

YL: I have been thinking about this a lot in the sense that when you have a platform, you have a responsibility to put out content that is net positive to the world. And so for whoever watches it, I hope it makes them smile or elicits an emotion, and then more importantly, makes people curious about cultural differences and be curious about trying other foods. If I can help people with curiosity, if they leave a comment or have a discussion with someone else, I find that to be really meaningful.

SU: What would your advice be for younger people who are thinking about entering the content creation space?

YL: I think that content creation is very hard physically, emotionally, and mentally because you're giving yourself to the whole world. And there is also a huge stigma because it's not a traditional job. But if you really love it and if you really want to do content creation, you could still have a corporate job and create content at the same time, which is what I'm doing right now.

SU: And what's some advice you'd give to your younger self?

YL: I would say the biggest advice I could give to my younger self is to acknowledge the things that you want to do, and acknowledge the fact that they're difficult. There's a lot of mimetic desires which are, basically, influences from your community that push you into maybe the corporate world, or maybe the STEM world, but that might not be what you want. So if you know that you want to be a creator, or you know that you want to be in food, explore that passion a little bit more, even if it means giving up other parts or other luxuries in life.

The second thing I would tell my younger self is to have gratitude. I feel like a lot of times I'm chasing things like, go, go, go. Take stock of all the amazing things that everyone has done: getting to college, finishing college, going through courses — those are all very difficult things to do. Be thankful for the process, and then trust that the process will take you to where you need to be as long as you're true and honest to yourself.