Wilmette, Community

Food storyteller Kevin Pang is back for seconds, as long as he can stay in Wilmette

‘I’m lucky to be able to do what I do and live where I want to live.’

Basement podcasting ain’t what it used to be.

The industry is not all conspiracy theorists and political radicals ranting to their laptops. Thanks to technology, professional and award-winning podcasts can be recorded from nearly anywhere, including Kevin Pang’s basement in Wilmette.

Pang, a longtime food journalist, recently was named the host of “Proof,” a culinary storytelling show from “America’s Test Kitchen” that has been downloaded more than seven million times through its eight-plus seasons.

In October, “Proof” was named best food podcast series by the International Association of Culinary Professionals.

“I know we competed against tons of other shows. There are like 70 or 90 food podcasts out there,” Pang said. “We are lucky to be recognized by this organization and couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Pang became host of “Proof” prior to the current season after the previous seasons were hosted by Bridget Lancaster, the co-host of “America’s Test Kitchen,” the company’s flagship television program.

Before assuming the gig, Pang would occasionally write for the show, on top of managing the company’s website and working on the business and strategy side as ATK’s editorial director of digital.

He said “Proof” offers a different look at food and food culture than “America’s Test Kitchen,” a beloved public-television show aimed at empowering home cooks by presenting recipes that have been thoroughly tested “to give you the techniques, tools, and ingredients you need to become a better cook. It’s as simple as that,” the show’s website says.

Each episode, “Proof” takes on an engaging food-related topic, such as the history of eating wild boar in Japan and why and when did jello salad go out of style. This season’s first episode, hosted by Pang, uses Chicagoland as a setting to explore the demise of Jewish delis and what it will take for them to survive.

“It’s a bit of a departure (from ‘America’s Test Kitchen’),” Pang said. “Here’s a chance for us to do serious, longform audio journalism … and bring a Midwest sensibility to food stories. Most food podcasts are produced in New York or L.A., but this one is produced in Boston and Wilmette.”

The local aspect is what pulled Pang back into food media.

Pang is a recovering food writer who spent years as a food critic for the Chicago Tribune, winning a James Beard award (2010) along the way. He then in 2017 founded and led The Takeout, a food and pop culture website in the same family as The Onion and The A.V. Club.

But the years of work-required meals took its toll.

“After The Takeout, I really wanted to get out of all food media, because I was sort of done with it,” he said. “I did it for so many years it was getting to a point of adversely affecting my health.”

Feeding on the company dime is enjoyable, he said, but had its limits.

“It sounds really fun; and it was fun in my early 20s,” Pang said, “but when you have to go out to a new restaurant four times a week and order enough food for six people for only you and your spouse, it becomes not very fun. I gained a lot of weight and felt terrible going home.”

Pang pivoted, enrolling in business school at Northwestern University while working full-time in the marketing field.

When you have to go out to a new restaurant four times a week and order enough food for six people … it becomes not very fun. I gained a lot of weight and felt terrible going home.”

Kevin Pang, on his years as a food writer

Meanwhile, to get back in shape, he got a personal trainer and adhered to an extreme diet, which he said lasted four months and consisted of egg whites, kale, tomatoes, Ezekiel bread and absolutely no cooking shows.

But with Pang’s love for food, something eventually had to give. He began tuning in to “America’s Test Kitchen.”

That’s an understatement.

“I became obsessed with it in the same way some kids can tell you that Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 home runs in 1997,” he said. “I can tell you what was cooked in which episode and who cooked it. It was so crazy. I was so obsessed.”

Then, something crazy happened.

Pang was sure he didn’t want to go back to food writing, but he told his wife if “America’s Test Kitchen” came calling, he’d take the call.

“Twenty-four hours later, I got a cold email from a guy who is No. 2 at the company,” Pang said. “I thought, ‘This is so weird,’ but the stars had to align so I took the call.”

Aside from the digital oversight, Pang has gotten public-facing opportunities, too, such as hosting “Proof” and launching a YouTube show called “Hunger Pangs, which features Pang and his father, Jeffrey Pang, cooking Chinese dishes for the home cook.

Tens of thousands of viewers have viewed the first two episodes.

“About six months ago, I asked him, ‘What if we did a cooking show together?’ I was nervous asking him, but he eventually said yes,” Pang said. “In September, we traveled to Boston and filmed four episodes of the show. It was the longest time I’ve ever spent with my parents as an adult. We go from this in-and-out relationship and we didn’t fight once. We bonded pretty well over this.”

Through the years, Jeffrey Pang has regularly published simple, how-to cooking videos on YouTube, many of which garnered millions of views. The third episode of “Proof” Season 9 drops on Thursday, Dec. 2, and in it, Kevin Pang said he explores how his father became an “accidental YouTube star” and how that led his family on a journey to today and “Hunger Pangs.”

And it is all recorded in Kevin Pang’s basement in Wilmette, as he leaned forward into a soundproof box. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“One of the things about working for this company is that I really wanted to stay in Wilmette,” he said. “My kid is a kindergartner. My roots are here, I have family nearby, I go to AO Sushi once a week. I love this town and raising my family here.

“I’m lucky to be able to do what I do and live where I want to live.”

joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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