The Life & Times of Food YouTuber Mark Wiens
Words by Sofia Levin
Images by Parker Blain & Michael Pham
As he approaches 10 million subscribers, YouTuber star Mark Wiens opens up about why he’d never be a food critic, the importance of family and whether or not he exaggerates his famous food reactions.
If you haven’t heard of Mark Wiens, you probably don’t consume content on YouTube. The American-born, internationally-raised “full time eater” travels the world filming himself chatting with locals and scoffing everything from whole goat in Saudi Arabia, to mountain food with the Hmong hill tribe in Thailand. His enthusiasm is as bottomless as his stomach, while chat forums about his life and idiosyncratic food reactions teeter on the edge of conspiracy theories.
Mark, 37, was born in Arizona to a Chinese-Hawaiian mother and American father. He grew up eating Chinese food and spent his formative years overseas with his parents, who worked for a mission organisation. He lived in a tiny town in the French Alps when he was five years old, was homeschooled in the jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo at age seven, and later attended international school in Kenya. His first taste of independent travel was after high school and university in the United States, where he explored South America over a few months. In 2009, he started his blog, Migrationology, to document his travels. He had caught the travel bug and soon departed for Asia, meeting a friend in Bangkok when his money ran out. They taught English to get by, which is where he met his now-wife-former-student, Ying. Mark never left. Before their six-year-old son, Micah, started school, the family would travel for most of the year. They still travel for nearly half of it.
This is an extended Q&A from a chat I had with Mark in Bangkok, ahead of his first visit to Australia during the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. We sat in a coffee shop beside a pad krapao restaurant he co-owns called Phed Mark, which popped-up over a weekend at local Thai restaurant, BKK. You can see some of the places we ate together during his visit in his Melbourne videos, here and here. We talked about what makes a good eater, tips for breaking into food vlogging, the colossal amount of work that goes on behind the scenes of his channel, how to maintain work-life balance and whether or not his food reactions are exaggerated. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Read the story behind Mark's favourite Melbourne restaurant, a Turkish barbecue spot, here.
On Food & Travel
SL: What makes a good traveller?
MW: I believe you need flexibility and a willingness to be open-minded and to try new things. If you're flexible from the foundation, and you are able to accept a diversity of different outcomes, then that is a huge part of traveling.
SL: What makes good eater?
MW: The biggest word that comes to mind for me is respect. Of course we don't always love everything we try, but there's a difference between loving something and just eating and respecting. I think the most important thing to do is respect a culture through food. And being adventurous is good, because then you'll just have more things to try and it'll be more fun.
SL: On that note, you've been to so many different places and tried so many different things. Is there any food that you respect, but don’t like?
MW: Occasionally. I mean, one of the reasons I'm a terrible food critic is that I just like to eat everything. I never claimed to be a food critic; I'm a food describer. I just say what food tastes like and test it. I really don't like judging food. Of course, once you have some experience with certain food, you might think, ‘I like it this way’ or ‘I've had a better version of that’. But food is so subjective, right? So you're always comparing it to something you've had, otherwise you wouldn't be able to judge it or criticise it.
SL: Are there any countries you’re desperate to go back to, or wouldn’t go back to?
MW: Very rarely do you have an opportunity to go to one country for one or two months, or longer than that. Even if you go to a place for one or two weeks, you're still only scratching the surface. There are so many countries that you can spend a lot more time in, so many regional places. Like, if you come to Thailand and you just go to Bangkok, it's great, but there's still so much more you could see that would be so authentic if you get out into the region. So countries like – I would love to do more in Ethiopia. I think I've been twice, but there's still so much to do. Mexico is so diverse and I've been to maybe three or four states in Mexico, but there are just so many other places to explore. I'd love to go back to India, China. There are never-ending places you could go to in Indonesia. Every single island has a different food culture. It’s just never ending.
On How He Travels
SL: When you travel, how do you decide where to go? Do you plot it out yourself or partner with tourism boards?
MW: It’s a mix of things, but usually just on our own, occasionally with a tourism board. Oftentimes we just go on a trip and I'll try to find a local, either I'll have a local friend already, or somebody who is a food person who sent me an email a year ago and said, ‘If you ever come, I want to show you around.’ Back 10 years ago I loved just showing up in a new destination and just walking around and eating whatever you see. Now, things have changed a little bit, so it's more about trying to search out good versions of things, or unique things, or things that stand out. But that being said, sometimes I still enjoy the novelty or curiosity of just trying something. Maybe you don't even know how to eat it, but somebody will always show you how to do it.
SL: How about the type of content that you look for, what are you drawn to when it comes to food? What are you seeking?
MW: I think there's so many things nowadays. One is just food that's tasty. But I've always erred on the side of tradition, old-school. I like legendary places. I like places that have been around for a long time.
I love the food that local people are eating. And so my goal has actually always been to, rather than create videos for travelers, to make a video for local people, that they might be inspired to explore their own backyard or their own city.
My main criteria is to just find what is popular locally, and then from there. It's so many different things. Sometimes I try to seek out one dish with a history. I love going to origins, where they invented dishes, and then also interesting locations is something that's great. Like, if you need to travel out into the middle of nowhere, or you're on a deserted beach and there's a shack serving giant crabs, that's just amazing.
On Filming, Editing & Tips for Aspiring Vloggers
SL: How do you feel when you watch your first few videos?
MW: Oh yeah. They were extremely basic. That was before even smartphones. It was just one of the Cannon Powershot cameras, or even something lesser than that. I didn't have any kind of video experience at all. I didn't have any kind of production training, and I'm still learning. But I think it goes to show that really anybody can do it. It's nothing. It's just a passion for food and then continuing to learn as you go.
SL: On that note, do you have any tips for aspiring bloggers, vloggers, or anyone who might want to make a living doing what you do, being a full-time eater?
MW: I would say, especially for online presence, just being yourself. Being honest is important. It’s also about making your mouth water. Like, what would you want people to see that would make their mouth water? What makes your mouth water? And then you're just showing that. So many of us love food, so it's kind of just covering it in a natural way that is your own opinion of what you like about food. That can resonate with so many people, because it's just an honest and real view of food.
One of the most important things that has been hugely beneficial in growing social media for me is consistency. It's easy to be like, ‘Oh, I want to be a blogger or a vlogger, and then if you don't see any results after six months, that's it. But it can take a lot of time.
SL: Do you mean consistency in terms of content, your style, or both?
MW: Both. But delivery in content coming out. Like, if you really want to go for it, it can't just be publishing a video once a month and expecting to see big growth results. I did two videos a week for 10 years and then I cut back just recently to about six videos per month, or sometimes eight.
SL: When you're on the ground somewhere, whether it's Thailand or another country, who is on the ground with you?
MW: For filming, it's just us. My wife would film sometimes, and then sometimes I put the camera on a tripod. I like the flexibility of not having a crew. Of course, it would be convenient and helpful sometimes to have someone on a camera full-time filming, but I guess it's less intimidating sometimes if you're going around eating street food.
Sometimes the chef or the owner is surprised. ‘Oh, it's just you,’ and then they immediately feel more comfortable. That's one of the differences that you can show with online content or YouTube as opposed to TV, you get more of that natural, un-staged type of feeling. That's part of the reason why I just enjoy filming myself. I have also really grown to like that artistic process of filming, like getting different angles. It's kind of like a puzzle, fitting it all together.
SL: How much time are you spending in post-production? So everything that's not being done in the field, eating and filming?
MW: Up until recently I was editing everything, but about a few months ago I decided to have an editor. It's more of a team, not a single editor. I don't employ them directly.
SL: How long would you spend editing before you had a team helping out?
MW: I could edit one video in a day, maybe eight to 12 hours. Sometimes on a long, heavy edit it could take me two or three days for one video.
On Family & Wellbeing
SL: You have such a unique lifestyle and you bring your family along for the whole ride. I'd love to learn more about that, because there are so many people who feel they have to decide between big dreams and having kids.
MW: My wife and I started doing this together and I made the decision from the beginning. I do continually think about, ‘What's really the reason you're doing this?’ You start to lose track when you're only looking to grow towards a goal. It's like you forget that you actually are a person, that you have a life. And so I made the early decision that family is the most important thing. If I travel by myself and go to eat, it's actually not that fun, so I always want to travel with my family when possible.
SL: It must be pretty amazing being Micah. He must be the most well-travelled kid in the world. How about for you, do you have any really vivid early food memories?
MW: One of the revelations I had, I think I must have been, like, eight years old, was when an Ethiopian friend of ours invited us over to their house and I had Ethiopian food for the first time. My mind and taste buds were blown. I couldn't believe the flavors. You know a dish called doro wat? It's one of the most famous Ethiopian dishes, a stew. Mainly the sauce is all pure onions and chicken and eggs and they stew down those onions into a gravy with all the spices. I remember dipping my first bite of injera into the doro wot and it was like, this is something insanely special.
SL: There is such a fine line between your work and your hobbies. Do you ever switch off from documenting when you eat?
MW: Previously I never did, no. Like, I would record everything I did, but I think when I hit my mid-thirties, and also partly due to COVID, I had some time to calm down and think more and prioritize. Before COVID it was just like, go, go, go, go, go, with no end in sight. After COVID it was a good opportunity to take a break and prioritize what's important. From then on, I decided to not record all the time and spend time with people I love.
SL: How often are you in Bangkok compared to overseas? I imagine that that's changed a little since COVID and having a kid.
MW: Yeah, it has changed somewhat. Before COVID, we were just traveling continuously, maybe 75 per cent traveling. Now I think it's about 40 per cent traveling and 60 per cent at home. I think we're at a point though now where we're trying new things also. So we have a few other projects going on. And before I was younger and had more energy and could just go turbo, nonstop.
On Fans & ‘That’ Food Reaction
SL: You have nearly 10 million YouTube subscribers. Obviously a number like that has a huge effect on a business, big or small. What kind of things are you hearing from venues after you've been there and released a video?
MW: I definitely get messages from some of the restaurants. It’s just appreciation and gratitude. I remember one story where we did this video at a taco stand in LA and then my friend mentioned that from that they were able to buy a whole truck. It was just a stand on the road and they were able to buy a whole food truck a year or so after that. I'm really honored to have a platform like this where we really can try to help some of the people that are making really good food, to help increase their livelihood, or just show people where some good food is.
SL: Have you read the comments and Reddits about you? One said that you can’t possibly like everything so much and be so positive, that you must be super human.
MW: Oh yeah <laughing> I haven't read any for a while.
SL: They're all really positive.
MW: Oh really? Well maybe you just didn't find the negative ones yet. You should dig deeper.
SL: I like the ones that dissect your food reactions. As you're making those big movements, do you realise you're doing it? Are you exaggerating your body language?
MW: Well some things will have a stronger reaction, right? It's just trying to be myself. Just enjoying it.
SL: But would it be fair to say that you ‘caricature’ what you do a bit?
MW: I mean, yeah. I think that's safe to say. And like I was mentioning a little bit before, that is because food is so subjective. I've never wanted to criticize food. I've never wanted to rate it. Sometimes, some of those Reddits or some of those groups say, ‘Why don't you rate it one to 10?’ But that's not my style, because we all have different tastebuds. For instance, I don't really like sweets, but it could be the best chocolate cake in the world, and it would be ridiculous for me to give it a two out of 10 just because it's my opinion of sweets. If you you like the description, maybe give it a try. If you don't like the description, then you don't need to try that.
SL: Any last words?
MW: I think it's just great to be able to try a diversity of different food, and sometimes you never know what you might really enjoy, so just keep tasting.
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