A TikTok food star on why gas stoves are overrated
The American stovetop is increasingly a battleground in a war over the fate of the 70 million buildings powered by natural gas.
On one side of the stove wars is the natural gas utility industry, which has tried to thwart cities considering phasing out gas in buildings. One of its PR strategies has been to hire influencers to tout what they love about cooking with gas to generate public opposition to city efforts.
On the other side are climate and public health advocates who point to years of mounting scientific evidence on what combusting methane in a kitchen does to one’s health. Even the relatively small amount of gas burned by the stove has an outsized effect on indoor health because it releases nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide, two pollutants known to increase risks of respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Dozens of cities in California have passed stronger building codes that encourage new construction to be powered by electricity instead of natural gas pipelines. New York City and Eugene, Oregon, may be the next cities to adopt these ordinances.
As more cities move to electricity, what will replace gas stoves? Instead of the electric coiled stoves Americans have learned to hate, there is a newer technology that many chefs prefer: induction.
One of the foodie influencers weighing in is the rising TikTok star Jon Kung, a Detroit-based chef who adopted induction years ago because it keeps his kitchen cool and his air cleaner. Kung, who grew up in Toronto and Hong Kong, learned to love induction while training in China, where induction is more common than in the US. He considers the climate benefits of a stove powered by an increasingly clean grid an added bonus.
Kung’s home kitchen has a gas stove. But he almost always uses a portable induction cooktop — for private dinners and pop-up events he’s hosted around Detroit and, more recently, for his short, playful cooking tutorials on TikTok, where he’s amassed 1.5 million followers.
Climate advocates have sought to elevate Kung and other chefs with their own education campaign on induction. In March, the group Mothers Out Front hired Kung for a paid promotion on why he prefers induction to gas.
I called up Kung to learn more about why the health and working conditions of kitchens are less safe than most people realize, and the role chefs can play in advocating for environmental and worker health. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.Rebecca Leber
Let’s start with the basics. What is induction?Jon Kung
Essentially, induction stoves use a magnetic field to heat the pan itself from within. [Only certain kinds of pans work with induction.] With gas, the flame heats underneath to get the pan hot. You’ll hear a fan go off to keep the induction burner cool itself, but you’re literally pressing a button and turning it on.Rebecca Leber
What do you see as the environmental benefits of induction?Jon Kung
Gas stoves produce a lot of indoor air pollution, there’s a lot of exhaust and fumes. After a certain period of time, your gas stove will burn less and less cleanly.
With induction, the pollution is limited to what you generate to make that electricity. In an electric grid that uses hydroelectric, solar, or wind power, you’re actually using cleaner sources of power to cook with. It just depends what your grid is like. So, for example, I am building a home that is all induction and will be installing solar power on the roof at that home. Most of my energy for home-use cooking will be generated through clean energy.Rebecca Leber
What was your introduction to induction cooking?Jon Kung
I’ve had the pleasure of working in both large kitchens that use gas and large kitchens that use induction. [The latter] was over seven years ago, I was working at this 24-hour restaurant in Macau in China. All of the facilities that I was using were all 100 percent induction. There were woks the size of me to boil water for pasta and noodles.Rebecca Leber
And lately you’ve been using induction for doing pop-up dinners and cooking at home, right?Jon Kung
In my own home kitchen I’m doing as much induction as I possibly can, just for the sake of my own comfort and issues like indoor air pollution. It’s just a much more efficient way of cooking in the sense that any of the heat you need to do your job is concentrated at what you’re trying to cook, not just displaced into the room and your body.Rebecca Leber
Interesting you say you used induction out of necessity. What made it a necessity?Jon Kung
Lack of ventilation was the biggest thing because I lived in a super-old building in Detroit, and even though there was a gas range in there, there was no ventilation that was helpful. It predated any kind of safety and health regulations. Because of that, I started using induction ranges.
I was also doing pop-ups in places like museums where it was really important I didn’t have a lot of exhaust in these rooms. So induction does seem like the natural way to go because it provided me with the power I need, with portability and cleanliness, and lack of fumes that requires me to have a fan.
Whenever I tried to cook at my home [with gas] in the same way that I cook in that restaurant, I set off the fire alarm because there wasn’t enough ventilation. The fans just weren’t strong enough to take in all of the smoke and gas.Rebecca Leber
You’ve worked in professional kitchens in restaurants, too. What’s it like in a restaurant kitchen that is relying on gas?Jon Kung
The heat is uncomfortable. It’s almost like disregard for the comfort of workers the way that kitchen life here is just accepted. You’re supposed to suffer for your art and for your craft here, and the open flame cooking is just one of the components of that.
If we ever got a break at all, I would run downstairs just to change a T-shirt because one of them was so soaked that you literally could wring through it. We would get that sweaty depending on how much the restaurant cares to put in the appropriate ventilation. We’d go to the walk-in coolers and freezers and we’d be steaming off of our skin simply because we’re so hot.Rebecca Leber
What about air quality?Jon Kung
Because of workplace regulations, the ventilation for professional kitchens has to be so much stronger than what people have at home. It all depends on the [restaurant] owner; how much money the owner is willing to spend could determine what kind of air quality you have. If you did all induction, that just takes that factor completely out of it — all you need is ventilation that will get steam and some heat out of there. But you won’t need to force fumes into one specific direction to prevent it from going into your lungs.
Gas burners, if they ever burn clean in a professional setting, would probably only be that way for the first month. Those things are, by and large, so dirty and get so clogged and become so inefficient over time. Very few kitchens operate at 100 percent efficiency and 100 percent cleanliness, simply because manpower isn’t there to maintain restaurants in that way.
There’s no way that being around any of that is good for you. Especially if that is your job, being there 12 to 14 hours a day. Over time it creates a very unsafe environment for our workers’ long-term health and well-being.Rebecca Leber
I’m not sure home cooks always think about ventilation either. Most gas stovetops, like your apartment kitchen, aren’t even equipped with a hood that vents to the air outside. At best, they have a fan that recirculates polluted air. What’s ventilation like in a restaurant kitchen versus at home?Jon Kung
Having working ventilation is part of the health code to make sure your restaurant is approved to run. And it’s usually really powerful to the point that you have these fans going and it’s really hard to hear people right next to you because they’re just so loud. These ventilation systems are not in everyone’s home. Even though the gas burners may not be quite as strong, I don’t see how these little microwave-over-the-range things are doing enough to mitigate the pollution caused by these burners.
Obviously, even when you’re using induction, you’re gonna want ventilation for things like offsetting steam, for when you’re boiling water or when you’re frying food. But ventilation is mainly there to take in the fumes of your gas burner. You don’t really need strong ventilation if you were just using electric burners, but because most people use gas they need one that is stronger.
RelatedAn “attack on American cities” is freezing climate action in its tracks Rebecca Leber
What would it take for more restaurants to adopt induction burners?Jon Kung
There are no financial incentives to get people to adopt this new technology. Especially in the restaurant industry where margins are so small people are terrified to try anything new because what is new might be something that doesn’t work.
Certainly high-end restaurants have the budgets to do this. [Dan Barber’s Blue Hill restaurants in New York use both kinds of stoves.] It seems like when you have a lot of money, that’s when you’re able to budget a damn to give for the quality of life for your workers because restaurants at that caliber have a high interest in retaining workers. Therefore, every little bit helps, including maintaining comfort, health, and safety for those workers. But when you’re trying to talk about people on the ground level, people that are operating at a loss in their restaurant and restaurant groups, then that becomes a little less of a priority.Rebecca Leber
What is your advice for the readers who are mulling over a kitchen renovation or are eyeing a plug-in induction stovetop?Jon Kung
There are simple plug-in burners that people can use that cost $200. [There are other models for under $100.] The quality will vary based on how much money you’re willing to spend. At the same time, the cost of adopting this just to try is relatively low, and people might appreciate the fact that they can actually use this burner anywhere in their kitchen and can maximize use of counter space or whatnot.Rebecca Leber
Is there much of a learning curve to induction?Jon Kung
As with any kind of tactile skill and everything that is different or new, it takes a little bit of time to get used to. Honestly, if people just give it a shot, they’ll realize it’s a lot more like gas cooking than people give it credit for.
The trade-off of adopting induction is learning a new kind of timing for your cooking. Also: Make sure that your pans are compatible. If a magnet will stick to your pan, it should work. Cast iron works beautifully with it as well — if you have a saucepan or dutch oven.Rebecca Leber
There’s a lot of myth-building around gas cooking and its place in the food and restaurant industry. What do you think is the biggest myth?Jon Kung
Any argument or reluctance to adopt induction seems to come from a refusal to change and possibly an old toxic masculine perspective, where it’s, “Oh, I want to cook with fire, fire is part of our job.”
I’ve never heard any argument for gas that really makes sense from a professional standpoint except maybe for initial investment and cost. But otherwise, any kind of romance of cooking doesn’t come from a place of logic. It comes from a place of nostalgia, which is not really how to run a business.Rebecca Leber
What is the role of chefs like you doing this kind of advocacy?Jon Kung
If we normalize induction in the restaurant it becomes something desirable to people at home because they want to be able to do everything the pros do. And it’s funny because the best of the best have already adopted this technology. I just don’t think anyone’s really vocal about it yet, for whatever reason. But chefs will do it for one of a few reasons. One might be for the environment, one might be workers’ safety and comfort. Either way, both of those things apply to your home.