In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Helen Cho.
Helen Cho didn’t originally set out to work in food television, but not long after she left film school, she found herself working on some of the industry’s most important docu-travel shows. Over a decade, she took on every role possible at production company Zero Point Zero, eventually contributing to several landmark series starring the late, beloved Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, The Layover, The Mind of a Chef, and CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. She continued on to producing and directing roles on W. Kamau Bell’s The United Shades of America and My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman.
For some, working with Bourdain, Bell, or Letterman might be the peak of a career, but for her next act Cho broke new ground. She became showrunner and executive producer on the new HBO Max series, Take Out with Lisa Ling, which premiered in January 2022. It has been heralded as a powerful series, not only for presenting a historical look into Asian American communities and cuisine, but also for the crew that brought it together. Along with Ling, a renowned Asian American journalist, as host, Cho hired Asian Americans to fill a majority of key creative roles behind the scenes. It allowed the show to tell a richer story about Asian American experiences — and it may not have been possible without Cho’s years of professional grind and experience, which showed her the need for representation in front of the camera, and behind it.
In the following interview, Cho discusses working her way up, the importance of great mentorship, and taking action to change how stories are told.
Eater: What does your job involve?
Helen Cho: At the heart of my job is really telling stories. It involves being creative but also working the logistics of the series: pitching stories, hiring staff, making sure we’re within budget and on schedule. My approach to showrunning is very hands-on. I manage teams both remotely in the office and in the field. Along with that comes collaborating with the network and talent and production companies. [You have to] have the vision for the series and just make constant decisions that align with the vision: What does it look like? What does it feel like? What music should we use for this? Do we have the money for this? [You have to] be ready for both when things go right and wrong.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My first job was peeling carrots and squeegeeing refrigerators for my parents’ fruit and vegetable store in Brooklyn. I had to make phone calls for my parents when I was around 6 or 7 years old because I spoke English fluently, and I helped them take care of their bills. After that, I was working all through college in windowless basements slinging laptops to students. I was always a hustler since I was younger, but this all helped set me on the path to become a producer.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
I don’t know exactly what I wanted to do, [but] I learned that documentary filmmaking was a way to gain a lot of experience. When I was in high school, I went into this free media arts program, DCTV [Downtown Community Television Center], in [New York’s] Chinatown. I learned how to put stories together and edit short films. When I was 16, they sent me to Mexico to shoot something for a month and a half by myself. I just knew from that experience to connect with locals and meet people and connect with their stories. It just made me see something like this could be possible.
Did you go to college? If so, would you recommend it?
I went to New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I’d recommend it if you can afford it. School offers a place where you can find community, but I struggled in college. I felt out of place, because a lot of the people I went to school with were wealthy and dropping 80 grand on a seven-minute, 35-millimeter film and I just couldn’t do that. I ended up producing someone else’s film for my final thesis. It’s so expensive to go to film school, but there’s still no guarantee for a job.
Student loans are such a part of the conversation around higher education right now. Has your career trajectory been impacted by debt in any way?
I have tons of student loans, and that was a big part of why I stayed at one company for so long. I think a lot of children of immigrants deal with taking care of family. It seems on paper everything is fine and you’re doing well, but there are all these other things that factor in. I wonder if I would have taken more risks in my career had I not had all this stuff hanging over my head.
How did you get into the TV industry?
I applied to Zero Point Zero, back when they were really small, for an internship. They ended up offering me a production assistant position instead. From there, I just worked my way up into different aspects of production. I was [on] staff for many years, and only recently went freelance. I definitely learned a lot.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
In the beginning, what was difficult was really just not seeing someone that looked like me in the roles I was aspiring to.
I remember when I was doing digital and social media jobs, I wondered why I was stuck doing this at a TV production company. I saw certain people with less experience immediately get directing or producing jobs, when I’d been fighting and working so hard to get to those places. I thought something was wrong with me. It took a long time to figure out that it wasn’t me, but the standard in the industry.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
One of the turning points was when W. Kamau Bell gave me the opportunity to direct an episode of his show. I had kind of given up on directing, because I figured I was good at producing. I saw no one like me in [director roles] and I internalized it. Once I did [direct], I started realizing that I’d actually been doing it all along. [Bell] took a real leap of faith. He didn’t know me personally; he had only seen my work. In a similar vein, Lisa [Ling] and HBO gave me the chance to be a showrunner. She didn’t have to give me a shot, and for her to take a chance on me, it encouraged me to see what’s possible.
Is there a time you remember when you felt successful?
There’s different kinds of successes: success from the network with ratings and numbers, and reviews saying how great the show is. With Take Out, I felt successful in that it was a show that hadn’t existed. I was able to build my own team, and execute what Lisa and I had envisioned. We were able to capture these conversations [about Asian American experiences] on camera and build this community of creatives where we could share our experience.
What were the most important skills that got you there?
As a showrunner/EP, it was invaluable that I had done all the work I had before in my career: production assistant, production management in the office side, paperwork, working in the field, graphics, archival stuff, assistant camera work. Going through all that helps you recognize talent and also recognize when there’s a problem. It gives you a better sense of managing a team.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love collaborating with people in different fields: illustrators, musicians, artists. I can dip into these worlds I never would have access to. I would never have thought I’d find myself on the side of a mountain in a cheese cave in Spain or see Lewis Hamilton test his Formula 1 car on the Silverstone Circuit racetrack. I learned how to hunt. I was able to go to Korea as an adult with Tony [Bourdain] for Parts Unknown, and meet my grandfather for the first time as an adult. Even to just meet Lisa, who’s such an important figure in our community and a pioneer and leader for Asian American representation.
How do you think you are making change in your industry?
There’s a lack of voices and perspectives, and creators of color don’t get the opportunities. I hope to use my power to hire people who have the talent but never had the opportunity to work. Lisa pushed to put my name as an executive producer before hers. Having had to fight for my credits or been demoted in credits in the past, it just makes a big difference. Making changes in the space is not just [about] being able to tell these stories, but also changing things behind the scenes to see who else can help make these decisions.
Do you have, or did you ever have, a mentor in your field? How has that made a difference?
No formal mentorship, but I gravitated towards people, whether it was Tony, or Lisa, or directors at ZPZ who took me under their wing. Being Korean American, I just felt like there was something I didn’t know. Mentorship is very important, especially for a person of color who’s trying to find their footing in the industry. We’ve got to be here to share our knowledge and answer the questions that seem so daunting. Otherwise, we’re just going to keep seeing the same stories. I would love to one day have my own mentorship program. The high school program I had was crucial for me, but also for my parents to see what I was doing.
Is there anything you would have done differently in your career?
I wish I had pushed myself to ask for the things that I wanted earlier. If you don’t advocate for yourself, nobody will do it for you. It’s still something I struggle with. Also, I think I would have focused more on mental health and self care. I would’ve told myself to take the walk, go see your friends, go to the show, do fucking nothing for five hours. Burnout is so easy, and more interesting ideas will come when you give yourself that time.
What are the best pieces of career advice you’ve been given?
Sometimes I felt in places that I had to be lucky to be there, but I was told to remind myself that I belonged there. Bet on yourself, and don’t let someone else dictate that. No one has your story or your unique perspective.
Do shit that makes you feel uncomfortable because that will help you grow and get you to unexpected places.
Show up for the people who show up for you.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
Truthfully, in general, be kind. Production is so fucking hard. Come at it from a place of empathy. You never know what people are dealing with. Just because you’re an asshole doesn’t mean you’re a fucking genius.
Pay attention to the things you care about, because it will help you focus on what you want to do and what kind of shows or stories you want to tell.
But, a big part really is the importance of cultivating and building your own community, finding a safe space to work out ideas, and having people you can show work to and be creative with. Production is a collaborative thing, you can’t do it alone.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.