This is the first in a series of interviews telling the stories of ordinary people who've turned into social media success stories. -- ED.
By Jane Han
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- When Seonkyoung Longest began cooking Korean food out of her small Mississippi kitchen with little to no fresh Korean ingredients, she didn't dare to dream that, in just a few years, she would become a YouTube celebrity chef.
''I still remember the first day I stood in front of the camera,'' Longest said in an interview with The Korea Times. ''It was a very cheap digital camera that my husband owned and I had it awkwardly propped on top of a salt container."
That was 2010 and the beginning of her wild journey on social media that now brings her more than 1 million subscribers on YouTube, 2.2 million followers on Facebook as well as 250,000 followers on Instagram.
Since debuting her first video on YouTube, Longest has cooked up everything from traditional Korean bibimbap and bulgogi to the staple American Chinese dish chicken chow mein and popular Vietnamese pho noodles.
Her humorous and upbeat YouTube show ''Asian at Home'' began with a focus on Korean cuisine, but quickly expanded to cover a full range of Asian dishes.
''I think that was the turning point for me,'' Longest said, as she recalled her expansion four years ago. ''It was leaving my comfort zone and experimenting with and embracing other cuisines, and that alone enabled me to reach a much bigger audience.''
For the 35-year-old, this wasn't the first time to leave her comfort zone.
Fresh from Korea in 2009, starting a new life in Mississippi after marrying her husband who was, and still is, in the U.S. military was already a life-changing event.
''I was lonely and depressed. I didn't have a job, friends or family and all I did was wait for my husband all day,'' Longest shared of her past. ''I thought I spoke decent English, but the southern accent was a whole new level for me. All in all, I was struggling.''
She remembers watching the Food Network most of the day, getting inspired by famous chefs and TV personalities like Giada De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray and trying to replicate some of their dishes in her own way.
''Believe it or not, I only started cooking after I moved to the U.S.,'' said Longest. ''Because if I didn't cook, I didn't get to eat any Korean food. We didn't have much money to eat out so cooking at home was a necessity.''
And being creative with her ingredients was also a necessity.
''There was only one other Korean person in the entire town I lived in and the closest Korean grocery store was a five-hour drive away. You get the picture,'' she said. ''So I was able to shop for fresh Korean ingredients maybe only once or twice a year.''
That was for more than five years, which gave her plenty of time to get acquainted to and learn to use everyday ingredients in American grocery stores.
The self-taught chef's experience and flexibility show in her 10- to 20-minute videos as she is generous in allowing ingredient substitutes.
But before taking any of her recipes public, Longest makes sure she experiments it in her own kitchen a countless number of times.
''There's a reason why people trust my recipes,'' she said. ''I don't share a recipe just to fill up posts on social media. If I don't have one ready to share, I just don't because I'd rather not share than share a bad recipe. I have very high expectations.''
|Wasabi Shrimp Spaghetti|
Delivering content on a regular basis for large viewership calls for a demanding schedule.
Longest, who currently resides in Sacramento, says she uploads two videos on YouTube per week, three to six videos on Facebook daily and three to five photos of videos on Instagram daily. She also airs a live cooking show on Facebook once a week.
All filming and editing is done primarily alone by Longest.
''There's a lot of work to juggle alone, but it's beyond rewarding in many ways,'' she said, hinting that she easily makes over six figures a year from ad revenue, sponsorship and product sales.
Despite her current success, Longest says she doesn't know how things will change in a few years.
''It's all about speed now, isn't it? Whoever adopts the newest technology faster gets big faster,'' she said. ''There is no guarantee that YouTube or Facebook will be around in the next five to 10 years.''