My Obsession With the Bon Appétit Cinematic Universe

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My Obsession With the Bon Appétit Cinematic Universe

My father got me into food thanks to his alchemic ability to turn a simple assortment of unappealing produce and expired dried spices into the perfect breakfast tacos that I remain incapable of recreating. Then came The Food Network, which was added to my family’s cable package in my early teens, and quickly led to a fiery passion for Ina Garten and Paula Deen (of which the latter has been extinguished). My sister and brother-in-law confirmed my love for the act of cooking, as opposed to just observing, in my late teens, when they kindly let me escape the misery of my dorm by welcoming me into their apartment on Sunday nights to cook an elaborate meal and watch Desperate Housewives.

But I was knee-deep into adulthood when I began watching and enjoying Brad, Claire, Molly, Carla, Chris, Gaby, Alex, Rick, Priya, Christina, Andy, Amiel, and to a lesser extent, Adam, cook, laugh, bicker and banter on Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel. Though they represent the newest addition to my web of amateur culinary obsessions, their videos hit the multi-purpose sweet spot between entertainment and education; I watch them because they delight me and because they help me decide what to cook for dinner.

Despite my fervent belief that Bon Appétit’s YouTube videos are a proper entry in the golden age of television (they’re not quite The Leftovers; more of a Russian Doll, in my estimation), there is no way for me to describe their videos in a way that will excite the uninitiated. I’ve tried repeatedly, each time finding myself wanting to stop a third of the way through, which is a considerable amount of time given my meandering approach of storytelling. But I will try again here, apologies in advance: There are these chefs who work at Bon Appétit, a legacy food publication you’ve probably flipped through in the checkout line of a grocery store that always features a single delicious-looking dish on the cover surrounded by headlines that can, for a few moments, convince you that your kitchen could get a Michelin star if only you start preparing your chicken breasts exactly like this and also if you embrace the bean this season. Some of the staffers are graduates of fancy culinary schools and some of them taught themselves via familial guidance or honed their craft with scar-inducing restaurant employment. This group of lucky people was selected to appear on camera in Bon Appétit’s attempt to expand their digital footprint on YouTube—because video content is great for business as long as the stars happen to align correctly.

In addition to featuring simple instructional 15- to 30-minute videos in which Bon Appétit recipes are prepared in a test kitchen, occupied by experts and filled with every necessary piece of equipment, the YouTube channel has expanded to become a robust Food Network-type destination with series centered around the hosts’ specializations. Among them are Brad Leone, host of It’s Alive (a show about dopiness and fermentation, mostly), Chris Morocco, host of Reverse Engineering (where he recreates a famous recipe from taste and touch alone), Claire Saffitz, host of Gourmet Makes (a show about recreating mass-produced candies and snack foods from scratch), Carla Lalli Music, host of Back to Back Chef (where Music teaches a non-chef celebrity how to cook a dish using only her voice), and Alex Delaney, host of Alex Eats It All (a show about Alex eating everything). Do you get it? Probably not. But maybe I’ve convinced you to give one of them a chance. (Start with Carla’s Sheet Pan Pizza, or maybe the one where Claire tries to make Ferrero Rochers.)

Or watch an early installment of Gourmet Makes in which Claire tries to recreate Skittles from scratch, which has been viewed over 12 million times. It’s 17 minutes of controlled chaos as the hero Claire, ever the anxious optimist, reads ingredients and melts sugar and tests all the candy shell concoctions she can think of until creating what is likely the best approximation of a Skittle one can make outside of a Skittle factory. Like most installments of Gourmet Makes, getting there isn’t half the fun, it’s closer to nine-tenths. To watch Claire try, fail, and then try again until concocting a final product that’s somewhere between “close enough” and “spot-on” is the perfect template for extracting humor, surprise, and actual learning experiences (who knew all things you can do with citric acid!) out of the BA staff.

It’s Food Network on Adderall, and there are never too many cooks in the kitchen. Take this interaction between Claire and editor Amiel Stanek, when he happened to walk by as she was maniacally pulling freshly cooked taffy into warm, sticky shreds:

AMIEL: Jesus Christ, Claire, what are you doing?
CLAIRE: I’m making taffy!
AMIEL: No you’re not!

And what did he do next? He started helping her out.

It’s so charming that it’s addictive, and the shows have earned legions of loyal fans (including a devoted meme account that boasts more followers than some BA staffers.) The videos frequently, if not regularly, enter the top 10 trending list on YouTube minutes after being published. People like me have push notifications set up on all their devices so gentle twinkles or echoey Brahms chime every time Bon Appétit publishes a new video. An upload alert doesn’t just excite me, it makes me wonder with bated breath about who the host of this one will be. *Ding* goes my phone, and my computer, and the inboxes of both: Bon Appétit has just uploaded a new video! Will it be Chris, blindfolded and sniffing a pile of meat? Will it be Brad, bumbling through the woods looking for a plant he can transform into something stinky with a long shelf-life? Or will it be Rick Martinez, teaching me how to make his latest recipe while also showing off his newest apron, fresh nail job, and maybe a little more chest than he did last time we saw him?

Will it be Chris, blindfolded and sniffing a pile of meat?

Bon Appétit is an atypically wholesome YouTube success story, unencumbered by the kind of drama that often befalls those without corporate oversight. Like many channels, it’s both personality and talent-driven, but unlike the Tati Westbrooks or Rosanna Pansinos or Jeffree Stars, the face of the channel is not one person, but a brand: Bon Appétit. BA. Senior Communications Manager Savannah Jackson told me that promoting the magazine in their videos has led to their biggest subscriber growth ever. (Italics hers.) The videos are simply too much fun to watch. One of the highlights of my summer was watching the entire staff guess styles cheese while blindfolded. In this day and age, doesn’t that feel impossible?

Take Gourmet Makes, perhaps the most broadly appealing entry in their catalog of recurring series. Each entry features its host Claire playing the part of a kitchen detective using whatever top-level methodology she can find in a quick Google search, and the suggestions (solicited or otherwise) from the multitude of staffers going about their days in the rows of workstations behind her. Her talent is the draw, sure, but so are those of her peers. She fights with Chris, the most patient of the crew who possesses the most trustworthy taste buds, about tempering chocolate; she frequently seeks the handiwork of her not-quite-mountain-man of a foil Brad, who loves whipping up cutters and extruders and mixer attachments that may or may not make her process a little easier; she requests the counsel of Gaby and Carla and Molly; she swats away the unsolicited advice of, depending on the video, Andy, Amiel, or maybe even Alex.

All of this results in a rewarding and overwhelmingly delicious-seeming product that is as much of a workplace docu-comedy as it is a low-stakes, one-sided food competition lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. (All of their videos have started getting longer, probably due to a desire to seem more traditional and legitimately “television” and the hunger for more ad dollars. No complaints here.) As in a real kitchen, the chef is as important as their sous, and nothing’s getting into the dining room without the tireless work of the line cooks.

In a television landscape where cooking shows feel as old-hat as the traditional three-camera sitcom, this slight deviation from the formula–focusing on a large and increasingly diverse group of chefs as opposed to just one with a single point of view–feels like a whole new world. Public broadcasting began conditioning viewers to expect and enjoy on-screen food content back in the 1960s, when Julia Child’s The French Chef was at its peak. Decades later came Food Network, the Cooking Channel, and food competition shows like Master Chef and Top Chef. Food content is everywhere, but BA has taken a little from every column that predates it to create what feels like The Office meets an early season of The Real World meets the latter episodes of a season of Top Chef meets an online cooking school I’d happily pay to attend for at least one semester.

When I was in the room with them during Bon Appétit’s Best Weekend Ever, a three-day event earlier this month, at a party where V.I.P. tickets cost at least $500 but were given to me free of charge by Bon Appétit, I felt not just starstruck but crazy. I mean actually deranged! As though my sense of celebrity and fame had been knocked out of whack after a year of watching approachable giggly people cooking in a skyscraper several times a week. The objectively more famous Keke Palmer–a person who looks, sounds, dresses, and carries around the intoxicating aura of celebrity–was mere yards away, but I was distracted by CARLA and MOLLY and BRAD and DELANY! Oh my, DELANY! These people could feasibly live on my block, and if they do, please don’t tell me.

The Office meets an early season of The Real World meets the latter episodes of a season of Top Chef meets an online cooking school I’d happily pay to attend for at least one semester

As BA’s YouTube stars mingled and took selfies with ticket-holding normals, I bopped around the room like a slow-moving pinball, gawking at all of my favorite people on the internet but feeling wholly incapable of stopping to introduce myself (“Bobby, huge fan”), while my husband, not a fan of Bon Appétit, felt nothing. To him, these people seemed utterly, painfully normal. Which they are, I assured him. That’s the whole thing! Or part of it, at least. They’re just like us, but not in a Us Weekly way! As we walked out the door to leave the party, I passed Chris, who has become my favorite of BA’s stars, and gave in to the urge to chat for a minute and, forgive me, request a selfie. What I said to him, I can’t quite remember, though I do know it involved making his “Best Chocolate Chip Cookies,” which I did the following night (for the second time in a few months). I watched the video for the third or fourth time to prepare myself for the baking process. They were the best chocolate chip cookies I ever had.

Expressing my love for these videos and the extent to which they’ve become integral parts of my daily life to people who have no idea what I’m talking about is a complicated endeavor because it requires me to convince them that I’m as enamored with the recipes and techniques I pick up from each as I am by the stars who share them with me. It’s one thing to say, “I like this Bon Appétit writer Molly Baz’s recipes! They’re easy, reliable, and oh so satisfying. I’ve made her cauliflower carbonara twice!” That sort of commentary makes sense, as does the general concept of “celebrity chef.” But to take it a step or ten further and talk about Molly Baz as one cog in the deeply nuanced and complex Bon Appétit Cinematic Universe by sharing deranged commentary-cum-fanfiction like, “Molly and Alex have so much chemistry it makes me uncomfortable because she’s MARRIED, but it’s fine because they’re CUTE about it and Molly LOVES her husband so much,” complicates the pitch.

I have found myself tempering my unwarranted embarrassment over being a thirty-something into YouTube by explaining that watching these happy people make a living doing what they love is either a source of much-needed joy or distraction from the depressing headlines. This is no doubt a relatable impulse, and I suspect many of you have done the same when explaining your love for a lighthearted podcast or mindless reality show or video game about a ruckus-causing goose. “My Favorite Murder,” I hear you thinking. “Anything to distract me from POLITICS!!” But, having watched nearly every Bon Appétit video released in the past year and enjoyed so many, so fully, that it may be the creative outlet with the highest success rate I’ve ever experienced (what’s the YouTube equivalent of “no skips”?), I worry that reducing its impact to the power of juxtaposition is unfair, if not a bald-faced lie.

A trapping of both formal and informal cultural criticism that’s gained traction over the past few years is to respond to good things, be they movies or television shows or viral videos or tweets or books or apolitical essays or even a great evening home alone eating takeout and watching an old movie, with a sort of melancholic surprise, as though these good things—or the mere act of experiencing pleasure—have become a gasp-inducing rarity. To be conscious in 2019 is to have every journey from point A to point B require wading listlessly through a pool of headlines telling you that things, by and large, are quite bad. But that crippling badness should not wholly negate its opposing force. There are good things everywhere, scattered throughout the otherwise barren and apocalyptic landscape like unsown seeds. To trample on them day after day and acknowledge their presence only when one of them happens to sprout thanks to an influx of attention is to devalue and perhaps even disrespect them.

I am not suggesting that we all ignore the ills befalling our peers and our planet and just focus on Claire Saffitz’s layer cakes, nor am I proposing the alternative, the gross and irresponsible naïveté exemplified by Ellen Degeneres. I’m just reminding you that the many delights found in Bon Appétit videos—or any source of silly, superficial joy—should not be diminished (or, for that matter, enhanced) by one’s guilt in finding them, or by the grim realities that creep back into view when you close one. These things are all around us, ready for mass consumption. And they’re not just good for making us forget (if only for a few minutes) how exhausted we might be by everything else.

Bobby Finger is a writer and co-host of the podcast Who? Weekly.

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