As the host of "Strictly Dumpling," the food reviews YouTube channel that has nearly 2.6 million subscribers, Chen, 38, regularly attracts millions of viewers per post with videos showing him trying foods around the world, from "legendary" ramen in Japan to McDonald's in India or Vietnamese street food.
Chen, who started making YouTube food videos six years ago, actually runs six different YouTube channels, with more than 5 million followers overall, including "Beyond Science," where he explores "food, news, Chinese culture and mysterious phenomenons."
Born in China but raised in the U.S., Chen is a former Morgan Stanley financial analyst who left that job after a year, in 2006. He then worked for the non-profit media company NTD Television, where he served as the head of digital strategy, until 2015. Chen tells CNBC Make It that he started making YouTube food videos in 2013, "because food is the love of my life."
"I've always felt that the best way to explore a new culture is taking a bite out of it," Chen says. "Everywhere in the world food is both historical and modern and encompasses the people, the land and the essence of its cultural identity."
Recently, Chen sat down with CNBC Make It to talk about his favorite hacks for finding great food while traveling, and the best and "most expensive food day" of his life in 2017, when he spent nearly $1,000.
CNBC Make It: What's the best meal you've ever had?
Mike Chen: It's the best meal I've ever had, it's just purely because it was the first meal I've ever had of that particular dish. And it was so mind-blowingly good. I will never forget the day I had an A5-grade Wagyu steak in Kobe, Japan.
I mean, I had that thing for lunch, and it changed my life. It changed my everything. I mean, my soul is like different now, because the Wagyu did stuff to it that is just miraculous. And then after lunch I said, "You know what? For dinner, I also want Wagyu."
That day, that was the most expensive food day of my life and I have zero regrets because every single bite of that thing was just like somebody socking my brain with a bag that says delicious on it. And to this day, every time I think back to my greatest food day, that's it.
When you're traveling, how do you know the best places to eat?
When I'm traveling overseas, I don't rely on the typical ratings sites like Yelp.
I reach out to local sources every time before I go. I mean, that's what I trust....
I remember going to Paris and I utilized Yelp to find what it said was the most amazing French restaurant. And I was sitting there and all of a sudden, the couple next to me, they're saying, "Oh yeah we're from Brooklyn." And I'm like, "Hey, I'm from New York as well!"
Then, all of a sudden, the third table's like, "Where? I'm from New York as well!" Then a fourth table's like, "Me too!" Everybody was from New York because everyone used Yelp...to find this place that was "authentically French."
Now, before I go [somewhere], I always ask locals, "Give me your top 10 places." And I ask multiple people this so I can have a good list and I can research it.... I really try to find places that are not just tourist traps or anything like that and try to find authentically delicious places.
Or if I really can't, there's food tours everywhere, local food tours led by locals, and often they're very good. So, those are things I lean on.
Update: This article has been updated to show that Chen left NTD in 2015.
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