Fifteen years ago, a home cook looking to try her or his hand at making, say, gnocchi for the first time, might have had some trouble tracking down the proper advice. Maybe there was a cookbook or magazine article that described the necessary technique, or the home cook had recently seen a food show on PBS that demonstrated the correct way to gauge the dough’s moisture level. The thing that these home cooks could not do, unless they happened to live next to an Italian-cooking expert and were on good terms, was get thorough, detailed advice the instant they wanted it.
Now, of course, it only takes a few seconds to find detailed gnocchi-making instructions from Gordon Ramsay, Lidia Bastianich, or Jamie Oliver’s “Italian food guru,” Gennaro. If you want to get really authentic, you can even learn the technique from an actual Italian nonna. Or maybe you’re more in the mood for Parisian gnocchi? Thomas Keller will even tell you which tip size to use when you pipe your dough into the hot water.
Streaming sites like YouTube and Netflix didn’t invent cooking shows, of course, but their unlimited capacity for content, and the bite-size segment time of most cooking instruction videos, means there’s never been a time to seek out some simple dinner advice. Here’s why.
Anyone can learn to cook anything, anytime they want.
The benefits and convenience of on-demand streaming over traditional broadcast models are so obvious and ingrained in us by now that they barely warrant mentioning, except to say that while it’s cool that you can watch the newest episode of Barry or Big Mouth anytime you want, it’s absolutely crucial for cooking instructions — things that people tend to watch in a more active, information-gathering mode. It also means that the people who make these videos want to ensure that you, the curious home cook, will actually be able to find any kind of kitchen advice you could possibly want — and the most popular videos are often the videos that speak to a very specific need.
In 2016, for example, Bon Appétit decided to create an entire show about fermentation. Demystifying the skill behind trendy homemade foods (kimchee, miso, kombucha) wasn’t easy, so the video team basically just filmed the magazine’s test-kitchen manager, Brad Leone, brewing beer and lacto-fermenting peppers, then posted the results on YouTube under the fitting title It’s Alive.
Expectations were low. The show’s director, Matt Hunziker, remembers pitching a garlic honey episode. “We were asked, ‘What’s the process for that?’” he says. “We told them, ‘You put garlic in honey, and then you come back.’ They said, ‘That’s not a video.’” It was difficult for people to see how Leone would talk for five entire minutes about a two-ingredient recipe with no real skill required. Making things even more difficult: Leone’s first words in the video are, “People get concerned about botulism …”
The video has now been watched on YouTube nearly 2 million times, and the YouTube channel has grown from 30,000 subscribers to 3.3 million since adding targeted shows like It’s Alive and Gourmet Makes — a series where pastry chef Claire Saffitz attempts homemade Gushers, Cheetos, and Kit Kats. (Saffitz’s latest video, about Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, has tallied over 2 million views since it was posted yesterday.)
Bon Appétit, in fact, is essentially mimicking a model pioneered by Vice, promoting its own homegrown talent as cooking stars, and Vice’s Munchies brand — which launched in 2014 — remains a bright spot for the media company. Just last month, Salt Fat Acid Heat’s Samin Nosrat hit the Munchies test kitchen to make what is, basically, the world’s best-looking tuna sandwich, and racked up 400,000 views.
Speak of Nosrat, her own Netflix show is proof of what can happen when serious product budgets are applied to this model, too. Though the episodes are understandably less focused than single online videos, Nosrat herself has said that working with Netflix allowed her to “imagine something that looks totally different and feels totally different” from a show that would appear on traditional broadcast television.
In fact, even YouTube is filled with blockbuster cooking shows that are very hard to imagine airing on, say, the Cooking Channel: Cooking With Dog uses Francis the toy poodle to teach classic Japanese recipes. Binging With Babish, cinephiles’ guilty pleasure, deconstructs famous movie dishes step-by-step. Country Foods is a centenarian grandma, Mastanamma, cooking over an open fire in rural India. (Her channel remains active, though she passed away in December at the age of 107.) Then there’s Epic Meal Time, essentially the Spinal Tap of cooking shows. It mocks the genre by creating 500-pound Frankenfoods, albeit with recipes that 100 percent work. (Should you be in the mood to cook a burrito made out of 200 McDonald’s burgers.)
In other words, if you want to cook something — anything — there’s a good chance that you can instantly find 100 videos that will tell you exactly how to do it.
Flaws are part of the appeal.
In contrast to the polish of traditional television, hosts’ fallibility is often on full display in new videos. Leone regularly brain-farts on camera, and an upcoming episode of his travel series, It’s Alive: Goin’ Places, opens with him in the middle of a Texas bison ranch, struggling to enunciate “regenerative land management.” Saffitz’s videos, too, are sometimes as much about what she gets wrong as they are about what she gets right. “I had to adjust my attitude toward it,” she tells Grub. “At first I wondered, Why do people want to look at my mess-ups? I was concerned about looking like an expert, and didn’t understand how much people relate to that trial and error.”
John Mitzewich, better known as “Chef John” of Food Wishes, agrees. In his latest video, “My Big Fat Greek Baked Beans,” he accidentally didn’t soak the legumes overnight in enough water. The next morning, he had a bowl of what looked like small wrinkly brains half-submerged in water. So he showed viewers for themselves, and said don’t make this mistake. “I’ll probably get 100 comments about that,” he predicts.
“TV shows and food bloggers’ overly curated posts both tell the audience, ‘Look how effortless my cooking is,’” Saffitz says. “People don’t see the sink full of dishes. What I try to tell them is, ‘Cooking is really hard.’”
Cooking videos are about to be big business (probably).
Last year, Americans streamed an average of two hours of so-called “over-the-top” content (industry-speak for anything you watch on a device like Apple TV or Roku that bypasses cable) per industry research firm eMarketer. Research predicts that this habit will grow to 20 hours a week by 2020, and media companies see the obvious potential.
Having added 100 times more YouTube subscribers in two years, Bon Appétit thinks shifting to OTT content can leverage its catalogue of shows into household brands that compete against Netflix series Top Chef and other YouTube stars. Two weeks ago, the magazine launched a streaming channel for OTT devices. Leone was handed the reins to the magazine’s first travelogue series, the aforementioned It’s Alive: Goin’ Places, which debuts tomorrow. Saffitz will lend her baking prowess to a new show, Bon Appétit’s Baking School. A third series, set to debut in April, Making Perfect, will feature the entire test kitchen. “We’re getting people who didn’t think they should be in front of a camera in front of the camera,” Condé Nast’s vice-president of video Matt Duckor explains, adding that Bon Appétit’s editor Adam Rapoport “wanted an app that celebritizes the magazine’s own staff.”
YouTube, however, remains home to the internet’s original celebrity streaming chefs. Mitzewich’s Food Wishes was one of the very first. In ten years, he’s cranked out 2,000 videos with a half-billion views collectively. (A clip like his crispy onion ring recipe now pushes 6 million.) Years ago, Mitzewich sold Food Wishes to Meredith Corporation, which also owns Food & Wine, EatingWell, and Allrecipes.com, which freed him from sweating anything unrelated to cooking. “The reason I sold out,” he says, “is it allowed me to ignore the business side completely.”
Six years ago, Chris Young — a co-author of the seminal Modernist Cuisine, who also ran the experimental kitchen at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant — saw a hole in instructional food content. In that time, he’s produced online cooking videos as founder of Seattle-based ChefSteps. It turned out that his Modernist Cuisine co-alum Grant Crilly is great on camera, and their YouTube cooking videos now have racked up over 100 million views, spanning topics from baking naan and growing your own microgreens to making cold brew in two hours with a whipped-cream dispenser.
Despite the wealth of content, Young says they can’t rely on ad revenue from YouTube or Facebook; the volume of competition and low pay rate are simply too nuts. “David Kinch does a phenomenal job showing you how to make an omelette on Mind of a Chef,” he says. “But I can just do a YouTube search for Jacques Pépin and see grainy video of his technique immediately.”
Young points to BuzzFeed’s problems monetizing its own highly successful Tasty videos as an example; it was Facebook’s top content partner in 2018, yet generated no revenue from the platform. To avoid this bind, ChefSteps charges subscribers a onetime fee of $39. This won’t ever score staff a Netflix production budget, but it helps ensure that recipes only have to please customers, not whoever’s willing to advertise next to them — hence ChefSteps recipes like sous-vide squirrel bánh mì.
Young argues that the New York Times feels similar about a pay-walled future, and that’s why it created premium NYT Cooking subscriptions: “Do people wanna pay $5 a month to get the paper’s back catalogue of recipes? No, it’s to get access to the New York Times’ point of view on food.”