As I finished interviewing The Food Ranger, I mentioned that a friend of mine was a massive fan who had done impressions of him in the past.
To say that Trevor James’s entire mood changed is to understate it. He was practically euphoric.
The next thing I knew, James, his manager Josh Zimmerman, and I were on the phone with my utterly blindsided friend, who could barely speak from surprise, let alone grace us with his hilarious version of Trevor’s Canadian drawl. By the end of the phone call, James had invited him to hang out if he ever found himself in Chengdu.
That fearless enthusiasm is what has made Trevor James so successful. The Food Ranger, his YouTube channel, provides a super-accessible window into the street food of the world, food that James describes as, “the soul of authentic and local flavor.” His fans tune in to watch him eat machete-sized quesadillas in Mexico City, bowls of hand-pulled noodles in Xi’An – even Bedouin-style camel in Dubai. James is just as hyped about an exclusive sushi bar in Tokyo as he is for a loaf of peinirli bread in Greece, and if you offer him a plate of unidentified organ meats with a big enough smile, he’s sure to at least take a quick bite.
So how did a photography fan from British Columbia end up in Sichuan making food videos? When James was in college he and some friends traveled, “from Hong Kong to Beijing overland. I tasted new food in every city… At that time I couldn’t speak any Mandarin, so I ended up just pointing at menus and hoping the food was good, and it was!”
It was a transformative experience. He knew he had to return.
Fast forward to 2015. Trevor is living in China, eating as much street food as he can, he’s building a following, he visits Istanbul and meets a girl. Everything changes.
That girl was Ting Ting, a Guangzhou native with an equal passion for food. They traveled the city together, and since she had just quit her job, she went to visit him in Chengdu. Before long, she was his videographer. In the first 6 months of their partnership, James and Ting took the channel, “from 10,000 subscribers to almost 100,000. After 3 years we have almost 2.5 million subscribers!” Now, they’re engaged, and they even made a recent video with both families.
The purity of Trevor’s enthusiasm is almost jarring. He’s excited about traveling so much. He’s excited about the long lines at businesses he’s featured. He’s excited about how supportive his fans are, and he shows no signs of stopping: “It’s like every day you can have a new adventure and try new foods, new things, meet new people. Everywhere you go, if you drive, say, 50 kilometers almost across the entire continent of Asia, there will be a new specialty for you to try.”
Earlier this year, he was humbled by a visit to Hyderabad, where he visited a restaurant making a stew called haleem, “We got into [this] kitchen, you could call it more of a factory, and there were hundreds of these big pots full of pounded wheat and goat meat and spices… It was so hot in there, everyone was working so hard…It was amazing to see and to taste it as well.”
His channel has allowed him a similar window into the daily lives of food entrepreneurs the world over. Unfortunately, some of his favorite spots are being threatened: “A lot of places that we visit, we see a trend where street food is disappearing. It’s seen as something unhygienic, people don’t look up to it.” But countries like Malaysia and Singapore have established hawker centers, markets that James says feel the same as the stalls he loves, but that are more modern and regulated. He hopes to see more of them so these hyper-regional delicacies he loves can stay intact in the 21st century.
Regardless, he’s going to keep traveling, keep trying new foods, and keep making videos. And hey, if you find yourself in Chengdu, send him a quick message. You might end up in one of them.