WHEN I met Antoine Bunel he had just arrived in Beijing from Shanghai. The previous week, he had been in Shanghai for an open audition for Chef Nic, one of the most popular reality shows in China hosted by famous Hong Kong actor Nicholas Tse.
“I don’t really like contest shows very much. I’m not a professional chef, but although my cooking skills aren’t the best, I’m good at introducing Chinese and Western culture through food,” said Antoine. Though he was eliminated and did not advance to the next round of the competition, Antoine did not seem daunted as he believed he was “already popular enough” in China.
Delicacies from Provence
On the morning of August 18, China Today followed Antoine to a restaurant in Beijing’s West Fourth Ring Road, themed on the imperial cuisine of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Antoine was about to cook and speak to his audience through a live video streaming platform.
This was part of the promotion of the 2017 Beijing International Youth Tourism Festival. Antoine was invited due to his popularity in China. The festival is aimed at introducing Chinese food, culture, and tourist attractions to the world. Antoine was the ideal person for this task.
“My Chinese name is An Naonao. I’m from Provence, France, and I worked in the U.K. for 10 years. Now, I’m settled in China. I like art, gourmet cooking, music, and making videos.” This was Antoine’s brief self-introduction to China Today. Antoine has 120,000 followers on Sina Weibo, the most popular micro-blogging platform in China, making him a true “Internet celebrity.” He has posted over 1,100 posts since April 2012, when he first opened the Weibo account. In recent years, most of his posts have been about food. He has become famous online for posting video clips in which he cooks, does sales promotions, and participates in live events.
As a result of his popularity on Sina Weibo, Antoine has received many work opportunities which have filled his schedule. He works as a television anchor, and participates in commercials and online programs. He hired an assistant this year to help with his daily work. Antoine has a clear plan for his future: he plans to sign a contract with an entertainment company in order to become much more famous in China.
Antoine has many resources to expand his career thanks to his growing popularity in China. In 2016, his French restaurant JoMi opened in Beijing. Jo comes from the first two letters of his father’s name and Mi from his mother’s, so showing gratitude to his parents for their guidance in cooking. JoMi features homemade French dishes, but Antoine has also adjusted menus to local tastes to woo more Chinese customers.
Cooking for Love
To everyone’s surprise, Antoine was a programmer before coming to China. “I majored in computer science in college, and after graduation, I left France and went to the U.K. to develop software for a company.” He was sunny with happiness and smiles when talking about his life in the U.K. It was there he met his wife, a cute, elegant Chinese girl, and in 2012, they came to Beijing.
With her help, he adapted to their new life in Beijing pretty quickly. He applied for a Sina Weibo account, and posted many pictures and videos of himself cooking French meals. Antoine said he has loved helping his mom in the kitchen since he was a kid. Gradually, he learned how to cook traditional Provencal food. In order to make meals appealing to his wife, he spent a lot of time learning how to make authentic Chinese food. Cooking for his family and posting food on Sina Weibo soon became a habit. But it never occurred to him that he could become popular for this. “Handsome is the man who cooks! To make it more romantic, he’s a French cutie!” posted by Theriverside, a netizen who revealed what most of his Chinese fans think of Antoine.
Though super busy at work, Antoine spends a lot of time with his family. His wife and their three-and-a-half-year-old son are the most important parts of his life. “I’m blessed that my little son likes keeping me company in the kitchen and sharing his ideas with me. You know what the cutest thing is? He is not afraid of cutting cucumbers, his favorite vegetable!” Antoine inherited not only his mom’s cooking skills, but also her attitude towards life. When it comes to the education of his son, he said, “We give our son the best we can offer. We do our best to prepare him for what may happen in the future and teach him to cherish his life and be brave!”
In 2015, Antoine made a big decision. He quit his job at the LightInTheBox, an international online retail company and put all his energy into operating his Weibo account. Owing to his previous experience in Internet marketing, he knew how to utilize the Internet to promote himself, and as such, many TV stations have asked him to collaborate on projects.
“I quit a job which gave me a satisfactory salary in order to have more time to focus on my passion for cooking. Not everyone would make such a choice. It’s not easy. It requires a lot of effort, support from friends, and opportunities,” said Antoine, who is pretty satisfied with his status quo. “I don’t think of myself as any kind of celebrity. I’m just doing my job.”
Innovation Is Everywhere
On the day of the Beijing International Youth Tourism Festival, Antoine’s online live broadcast received 20,000 views on Sina Weibo. He told me again and again that the emerging Chinese market gives him enough room to grow. “China’s development is really fast. Life here is much more convenient, and there are more opportunities,” said Antoine. He gave one simple example. Every day, he can use a smart phone to pay for just about any of life’s necessities. In Europe, mobile payment still has a long way to go, which causes him great inconvenience each time he returns home.
In the past five years, Antoine has witnessed the amazing changes taking place in China. He owes his small success to China’s innovation-driven development. It has given him the chance to hitch a ride on the Internet economy as a French gastronome.
“I have around 4,000 friends on WeChat (the most popular communication app in China). They are classified into different groups. Most of my work opportunities came about because of them,” said Antoine. He knows how to make use of the new media and new technologies to promote himself. His experience in China and his familiarity with Chinese people also make him a savvy businessman. “Resources” is one word he mentions frequently. The maturity of social networking platforms in China helps to reduce language, culture, and living habit barriers for him. Instead, being a foreigner becomes an advantage.
As an official activity held by the Beijing Municipal Commission of Tourism Development, the Beijing International Youth Tourism Festival is looking for various ways of using new media to promote itself. Wang Weiwei, who is responsible for organizing this festival, found Antoine through WeChat and invited him to endorse the activity. “In an interconnected era, a more effective approach is expected to do government PR work,” Wang told China Today.
The festival organization committee works with live streaming platforms to show young people from home and abroad how tourists in Beijing can better explore the city in new ways. For example, Antoine and several young people from other countries used apps on their smart phones to unlock shared bikes and cars on the street for a tour of Beijing’s hutong. Online promotion by Internet celebrities makes it easier for more people to savor the advantages of this new way of travelling. Antoine sighed, “Beijing is a city of tradition and modernity. Its various amazing innovations are magnetic. I bet you there will be more and more people from other countries wanting to come and experience them firsthand!
By staff reporter HU YUE