Zoey Gong is a chef and founder of Five Seasons TCM, an online platform for nutrition content and products based around Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Zoey and Five Seasons embody some very old concepts in very new packages: On any given day, Zoey may be shooting a mochi-stuffed jujube recipe for the site, writing an encyclopedic entry on the uses of jujube dates in TCM cooking, collaborating with other creators to produce elegant TCM home goods, or creating monochromatic, textured paintings using the dried jujube itself—also for sale. It might seem frenetic, but she has big plans: Over the most delicate ginseng tea (“you have to use the wispy ends of very young American ginseng”), we sat down to discuss her desires to upend the herbal import market, redefine healthy eating, and change the way outsiders think about China.

So Zoey, how did you get into TCM cooking?

I moved to the U.S. when I was 16 to attend high school, and all of a sudden I had so many health concerns, to the point that I had to change my diet drastically to just function normally again. Changing food changed my life, and I needed to figure out why food could do that.

In college at NYU, I studied nutrition and public health and did all the Western clinical stuff, and during my internship I worked for chefs cooking healthy California-style cuisine. But after two years, I was super bored. It felt like the more I studied, the more restrictive things started to get—you have to keep to this calorie count, your BMI has to be this—it just felt unnatural to me.

As a Chinese person, my immediate instinct was to look back to my own culture. I started buying recipe books because I’m more into cooking than straight-up medicine. It was just fantastic—how they wrote these recipes was so poetic. Yes, there’s TCM vocabulary in the recipes, but it’s really a whole philosophy of eating for happiness.

I took your body constitution quiz and your TCM Food Therapy 101 class. Everything you do strikes me as both really accessible yet not watered down. I’d been looking for this information for a long time because, as you say, nutrition and wellness in America feels so rules-based rather than coming from a place of enjoyment.

Absolutely, and there are so many misconceptions—this product can claim this, that doctor can claim that, and you can follow along, but you don’t actually learn what things are doing in your body.

For the three or four years I was studying public health, I was frustrated. So many initiatives are being implemented, yet we don’t see change. There was one study—they put all these fresh produce stores in the Bronx, but after five years they did not find an improvement in diet. That’s because people don’t have that foundation of education!

It sounds like the way you think about access is different. When we talk about food access or health care access, it tends to mean access to a specific thing, such as organic broccoli, or a therapist who takes your insurance. You’re talking about access to knowledge.

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