The Food Ranger and I had arrived at our next meal. We knew it by the smell floating out of the diner in front of us. Blazing hot oil, the funk of coiled pink-brown organ meat, an acidic bouquet of crushed peppercorns, star anise, and scallions all wafted together, promising to numb our mouths. Plastic tables tumble out through the doors of the dining room and down the gray, rain-spattered sidewalk. We’re deep in Chongqing, China, a city that, with its surrounding areas, sustains a population of roughly 30 million. And yet, this particular joint is well off the Yelp network. I’d never find it on my own, which is exactly what The Food Ranger loves most about it.
Inside, he’s in his element. The Food Ranger, who is white, 31, and originally from Vancouver, Canada, begins speaking in Mandarin. The words slide into the kitchen like a keystone and crack the code — the staff, recognizing that he’s the rare Westerner who can communicate with them in their own tongue, receive him with open arms, and begin annotating the menu in ricocheting Chinese. The Food Ranger darts his eyes to the video camera held steady a few paces away by his wife, Ting, and relays our dining options. “That’s beef intestine!” “That’s silken tofu!” “That’s starch jelly with duck!”
We order it all. A few minutes later, a platter of Sichuan small plates is plopped down on the table in front of us. The Food Ranger does his taste tests, groans in delight, and regales the camera with a description of the fragrance, spiciness, and anesthesia of each bite. I spade tofu on the end of my chopsticks, spoon a dab of coarse chili powder on top, and quickly succumb to the cumin. As always, The Food Ranger is effusive in his praise, and the kitchen staff is pleased to see how much we’re enjoying our meal. After all, it may be the only time this restaurant appears on the Western internet.
The Food Ranger’s real name is Trevor James. He always wanted the bon vivant lifestyle of an Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsey, but he didn’t have a television contract or a generous book advance. Instead, he had a single camera, and so he began loading his own shoestring productions onto YouTube.
Today, The Food Ranger is one of the most popular food vloggers in the world. His speciality is China and the country’s ancient street food culture that hides out in curbside shops all over the 26 provinces. The vendors he highlights are watched by millions of viewers and earn a brief taste of international fame. But these stalls are under threat: The Chinese government continues to crackdown on the unregulated food economy. And so the Food Ranger represents a paradox: a YouTuber in a country that blocks YouTube, and a Westerner who has access to the deepest reaches of Chinese cuisine thanks to his Mandarin ability. In a country that’s misunderstood by those outside of its borders, that outsider status is crucial to his appeal.
James has been making YouTube videos for six years as The Food Ranger, and in that time has accumulated more than 3.5 million subscribers, and an additional 600,000 followers on Instagram. Food YouTube is a huge genre on the site. Jamie Oliver will show you the best way to roast a chicken, and Tasty will walk you through a three-course holiday menu. But in this particular content corner — Westerners exploring global cuisine — there aren’t many as successful as The Food Ranger. Other major players, like Mark Chen’s Strictly Dumpling show, or Simon and Martina Stawski’s Korean and Japanese food guides, are millions of subscribers away from eclipsing James.
He moved to China years ago to work on a Master’s degree in International Trade (while teaching English on the side) and watched as his gastronomical vlogs of the local flavors slowly mushroomed into an international brand. Today, when he’s not on the road, he splits time in Guangzhou and Malaysia with his wife, who he met on a backpacking trip in Turkey. Scroll through his videos, and you will see James, always flashing a toothy grin, pulling the curtain back in rugged Kaifeng, arid Xinjiang, and other dense, vibrant regions that often fly under the radar of Western tourism.
The template is simple; three or four meals in each 20-minute clip, focusing on the sort of cuisine that’s mostly unfamiliar to a non-Chinese audience. (I’ve watched The Food Ranger wolf down fried pork brain, lamb head soup, and steamed, lemongrass-infused snails.) Each video accumulates millions of views, mostly from other English speaking countries, which provides the trickle of ad money necessary for the next city, the next hotel room, and the next bowl of hand-pulled noodles. On his website, TheFoodRanger.com, he posts comprehensive food guides for cities like Hong Kong and Xi’an, and a directory of the best VPNs to get around China’s Great Firewall.
His work is the epitome of foodie fetishism, thumbnails plastered with words like “AUTHENTIC,” “EXTREME,” and occasionally “FORMER WAR ZONE.” When I meet James in Chongqing, he’s only a few cities deep into a worldwide noodle tour that will take him through Central Asia and into southern Europe. The whole trip will last at least two years, he says, a journey that plenty of Bourdain-weaned millennials would sign up for in a heartbeat.
Knowing Mandarin helps. It’s something that distinguishes James from the other white men who’ve attempted to explain China to western audiences: The Food Ranger doesn’t need a translator. That’s part of what makes his videos fun; we relish in the cook’s sudden chumminess when the Westerner reveals he speaks their language. Sometimes, a crowd begins to circle, drawn in by the cross-cultural, cross-continental exchange. “The foreigner is making you famous!” piped one onlooker in a recent Chengdu video as a shopkeeper in a microscopic stall heaped twice-cooked pork into a ceramic bowl. James doesn’t travel with a boom mic or a brigading production crew, and he thinks the stripped-down, single-take, #relatable nature of his videos keeps his subjects in their element. Also helpful: his Chinese wife behind the camera, ready to handle some of the more knotty translation problems, and relieve a baseline of apprehension in the subjects.
”I try to show them my excitement for the food, and how cool what they’re creating is, and how cool China is in general,” says James. “When people see me really into it, or asking really specific questions, or just giving a thumbs up, they [open up]. It’s everyday for them, but here’s a foreigner who thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world. They share so much. That’s my goal.”
Now we’re in a Chongqing alleyway deep in a concrete, working class neighborhood. The hunt is for xiao mian — a local speciality composed of wheat noodles, creamy yellow peas, and chili-stained ground beef that pumps warmth through your nervous system. James opens up the navigation app on his phone, revealing dozens of different pins he’s dropped throughout the city map — potential shooting locations. He researches using an app called Dianping (think Chinese Yelp), but also through early morning walks, on which he identifies the stalls, corners, and cookouts with the longest lines, happiest customers, and most mesmerizing smells. The xiao mian house we’ve selected is perfect, in that it looks more like a garage with a propane burner than a restaurant. James launches into his enthusiastic introductions, and together we watch the woman behind the pot concoct a blend of sweetness and spice that’s responsible for the single greatest meal I’ll have during my time in China.
”You just gotta get that first ni hao,” he’ll later tell me. The Food Ranger’s very own diplomacy.
James is clear that he makes his videos for a Western audience, though his wife does upload them to Chinese video sharing services. In China, he tells me he operates in relative anonymity. During the day we spent together, he’s only recognized twice — unsurprisingly, by other English speakers. The Chinese Communist Party’s blackout of Google, YouTube, and Facebook on the mainland means that The Food Ranger is celebrating Chinese street food on a platform that, legally speaking, Chinese people are not allowed to see.
This is emblematic of a contradiction that tails The Food Ranger, as both a person and a YouTube brand. James tells me a number of times that his videos are not a political act. He says he is proud of how The Food Ranger portrays Chinese people as buoyant, garrulous, and, most importantly, different from one another — given how the population is often painted as a grim monolith by the West. But he stops short of saying that his street food commentary should be lumped into any broader analysis or advocacy of domestic Chinese issues. “We like to stay away from any politics whatsoever,” James explains. “We do food and positivity, and that works wherever we go. There are so many different ideas everywhere, and we don’t want to get into that.”
This is an increasingly unsteady stance in modern China. In the past few years, the country’s municipal authorities have cracked down on the unregulated street markets in the busy metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing, which has purged countless carts from their usual corners. The government justifies these clearances in the name of hygiene and pollution, but the cooks under the gun are usually poor migrants from outlying provinces who’ve moved to urban centers in search of better means. Dominique Wong, a journalist working in Beijing, talked to two mobile cart vendors earlier this year about their struggles during the purge for the publication Culture Trip. Today, she says, neither is working —broken down by the constant police scrutiny.
”It’s completely changed the street environment,” says Wong. “It’s less vibrant, less alive with the sound of cooking and the sight of people lining up. For customers, it’s less convenient and tears away at the social fabric of the community.”
James has made a career highlighting the exact cuisine that’s under assault by China’s rapid development. Obviously, he’s noticed the effects of the injunction. It has become harder for The Food Ranger to find the places that make his documentation valuable — the teensy plastic stools, the prices that hover around three-and-a-half yuan (about 50 cents), and the aroma of Sichuan pepper billowing out of a silver pan perched on the edge of the street.
So I go back to the political question one more time with him. Perhaps James doesn’t see himself as an activist, and perhaps he feels like he doesn’t know enough about the Party’s infrastructural policies to critique them. But does he feel any passion for the preservation of a cuisine that he celebrates on his channel? Does he want to fight for jianbing carts? Once again, he demurs. The Food Ranger believes these quandaries are outside of his purview.
”It’s harder for us to find those [local] places, it’s sometimes frustrating, but I’m not here to really judge on what they’re doing,” he says. “For me personally, I do love those street-style places. I do get kinda bummed out about it.”
I ask Wong a similar question. I wanted to know how she felt about a Westerner who’s made a living showcasing Chinese street cuisine, without fully contextualizing how that same economy fits into the dramatic ways China is changing. From her perspective, a YouTuber can always be digging a little deeper.
”It’s one thing to enjoy a tasty bowl of noodles, but what else? Food tells a lot about a city, and its people, and it can be political,” says Wong. “If you’re not willing to explore any of this, you’ve got to wonder what the point is, and what you’re bringing to the table.”
Luke Winkie is a reporter from San Diego. He has written for Rolling Stone, GQ, The Washington Post, and the New York Times.
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