It’s a very weird time right now. I don’t need to get into it (well, I did already if you want to read my thoughts), and you don’t need me to get into it. But at a time like this, we’re all trying to turn to things that soothe us, that take hold of our poor frazzled brains and gently caress them to calmness. Things that have nothing to do with coronavirus, or viruses, or pandemics, or death, or worry, or being stuck indoors.
For me – and I know thousands upon thousands of other people – the main thing that has been soothing my noggin is watching Bon Appetit videos on YouTube. If you’re already a fervent fan, you’re nodding your head right now in recognition of the calming properties of these slices of delight. Maybe a BA meme has just popped into your head. Maybe you’re thinking fondly about your favourite BA test kitchen member… imagining Brad Leone fermenting some garlic and ginger paste just for you, or Claire Saffitz handing you a homemade gourmet Pop Tart. Perhaps Chris Morocco is giving you some super-taster advice on that stir fry you plan to make tonight. But I digress.
For the uninitiated, Bon Appetit (BA) Magazine is a US-based food magazine which has a test kitchen where staff, as the name suggests, test recipes before they go into its pages (and these days, onto its many social media accounts, like the original BA one or Basically, its Insta for people who are learning to cook). In 2016, its few videos on YouTube were standard boring high-brow fare. But then they tried something daring with the first Brad Leone ‘It’s Alive’ video – which was put together as a joke, but really connected with viewers. It probably helps that though Leone is mercilessy manly in some ways and could probably create a log cabin with his bare fists, the videos make fun of how he reworks words with his New Jersey accent, and that despite being a font of knowledge, he frequently makes mistakes and then tries to carry on regardless. His enthusiasm for life and food is such that you’d forgive him serving you something that he’d accidentally knocked into the bin.
From that point in 2016, BA kept putting more of its test kitchen staff in front of the camera (the bulk of the videos are shot in the kitchen itself, in One Trade Center, New York) and creating stars out of them all. The biggest hit in its roster has been Gourmet Makes, presented by Claire Saffitz, a skilled pastry chef who sometimes looks like she wishes she hadn’t turned up for work that morning, like when she’s in the middle of trying to make gourmet Mentos. I’m not a fervent YouTube watcher and was only introduced to BA in 2019, when I asked my friend Eleanor why her t-shirt had ‘Carla Fettucine’ on it. Eleanor, an OG fan in the BA world, explained it had to do with one of the BA presenters, Carla Lalli Music, and that sent me off into the world of BA videos. Everyone who watches BA has their own list of favourites, but each one of the presenters has their own singular appeal.
About six or seven weeks ago, I went from casually watching the videos to needing to watch them before bed, on my lunchbreak, or whenever I just had to stop thinking about the horror show that is the world in 2020. The other night, I found myself watching a video where Carla, Chris and Sohla el-Waylly made three versions of carbonara. I hate carbonara – the smell of it makes me feel sick, I think pecorino is the vomity work of the devil, raw eggs give me the chills and I’m vegetarian so I can’t even eat it anyway. And yet I spent 32 minutes watching these three chefs blend egg yolks and fry guanciale (the jowl of a pig), and it was wonderful.
When asking the question ‘why are BA videos so soothing to us right now?’, the seemingly obvious answer might be ‘because they’re about food, and we all love food – duh’. But I don’t think it’s actually all about that.
For starters, I think our poor brains love BA videos because they are about process. The most popular franchise, Gourmet Makes, takes us through the process of creating a gourmet version of a popular snack food. Once you’ve watched a few, you know the drill: Claire shows off a huge display of the snack and introduces it, and you wonder to yourself ‘do the test kitchen staff get to eat those donuts after she’s done?’. She reads the ingredients (her favourite part, as she always says), and winces a little when she gets to things like Disodium 5′-ribonucleotide – but not in a very judgemental way, which I’ll get to shortly. Then she and perhaps a few other staff will taste the item, with that delicate little nibbling technique they must teach people on their first day working in the test kitchen.
Next, she Googles the item to find out more, at which point you wonder why she bothered googling as Google never seems to give her that much information. Or she watches snippets of How It’s Made and you make a mental note to watch more How It’s Made episodes. Then she starts the process of making the item, which can sometimes take her days. But no matter how many days, it’s always a series of measuring, scooping, melting, baking, being frustrated, failing, starting again, and ending up (usually) triumphant.
Watching her scoop items into a glass bowl while saying ‘so I’m adding the flour, corn starch, gelatin and a little less coconut oil this time’ has an almost soporific effect on me. I am required to do nothing but watch, and wait for the result, while this stranger does all the work. Wonderful.
In addition, each of the videos, no matter which franchise (there are several, with different presenters, and then regular collaborative videos like ‘Professional chefs blindly taste…’ or ones where the team try to create the best pizza) has a defined narrative arc. There is a beginning, middle, and end, and no matter how scattershot things are in between, we always know we’ll get a satisfying conclusion. So the process and narrative arc provide a lovely gentle hammock that we can mentally lie back on while watching.
The videos aren’t all sweetness and light, however, and that brings me to another reason why they’re soothing. People get things wrong in them all the time: trained chefs who know how to soufflé or sous vide and who probably butcher pigs for the craic at the weekend still manage to mess things up. For all of their knowledge, they are human too, and it is a hugely comforting thing to see the test kitchen chefs make what they think are solid decisions, and then have things go wrong. Because they never give up, even when they want to, and they find ways around their error (in the aforementioned carbonara video, Sohla accidentally dumps her pasta water, which actually made me gasp).
Claire is often set an apparently impossible task in her Gourmet Makes videos, and even when the task appears easy there’s still something that will go wrong. She shows us how much she hates this by going silent, or sounding very frustrated, or threatening to go home. She’s on record as saying she’s utterly baffled by how much people love the videos, and sometimes seems baffled herself as to why she’s standing there doing what she’s doing. And yet… she clearly does love what she’s doing. It’s just that having to create a complicated unwritten recipe in front of a camera is a hugely stressful thing to have to do, and she’s not going to pretend it’s not. On a very basic level, this is comforting. Seeing people admit things are difficult is one of my favourite things, because we all find it hard to say this. When I find something is difficult, I tend to want to drop it and walk away. But seeing experts fail and persist shows me that walking away isn’t always the answer.
In the cookery show world, it must seem more appealing to create a 10-minute recipe video where nothing goes wrong than a 25-minute one where the host feels like hurling her creation out of the 35th-floor window behind her. We all lapped up the Tasty videos, where disembodied arms made complicated-yet-simple-looking recipes in minutes. The BA videos are the very welcome antithesis to that. The BA videos have hosts who are all different, who come from different backgrounds and have different tastes, and who all approach things slightly differently. Those varying personalities and the angles they bring to standard recipes mean that each video or franchise has its own special spark to it. The fact they are all now cooking from their homes because of the coronavirus has added yet another twist to this part of the tale, and helped bring us ‘closer’ to the presenters because we get to see them in their home environments.
Moving beyond the individual personalities though, there’s a uniformity to their approach that I think is another reason why the videos are so beloved and needed at this point: they are just about loving food.
Food is not a neutral topic – it’s loaded with cultural, religious and moral baggage, depending on who’s eating what. It can be a deeply fraught or triggering topic for some people. It can be a source of joy or shame.
YouTube is rife with videos from similar-looking lithe fitness influencers telling us what we should eat to lose 40lbs. Yet in the BA videos, there is no shame around food. Even on Gourmet Makes, while the premise is that a ‘gourmet’ version of the snack food is created, it’s not because the original snack food is deemed unworthy. If anything, the videos show what an important role foods like Pringles play in our culture, and why we enjoy eating comforting snacks. Yes, sometimes the chefs will talk about how too many donuts makes them feel a bit ill, but the viewer isn’t made feel bad for wanting to eat the snack food.
There’s no talk of how many calories are in a dish, or how ‘guilty’ the hosts feel about eating certain things, beyond their own personal tastes. It is for the most part a judgement-free zone, in a world where the food police are hovering around constantly online, noting in their tiny notebooks how ‘clean’ your meal is. This is important, but I would argue even more so at a time when we are all spending so much time indoors, and having to cook for ourselves more.
BA recipes are about flavour and satisfaction, and so when you follow one you learn what ingredients like to hang out because they taste good together. You learn to savour the scent of garlic that lingers on your fingers after you’ve microplaned a few cloves and scattered them into a golden-green pool of olive oil. You read a BA recipe and decide that next time you will crush your canned whole tomatoes with your bare hands before adding them to your dish, like they recommend, because it will probably feel good. You feel a cannelini bean melt in your mouth and think – hey, I didn’t know these beans could do that. You try fennel for the first time, a vegetable you swore you hated because it reminded you of Black Jacks, and realise that you now need to keep the fridge stocked with the fronded vegetable at all times.
At a time when things feel unsure and unsteady, when we literally do not know what the next month holds – not just on a personal but a global level – the lessons the BA videos gently teach us go far to helping us feel better. And watching food being made inspires us to think – hey, what could I create in my kitchen today myself? When food is stripped of all moralising and fear, cooking becomes a project that you can return to day after day, and learn from every time. The very process of chopping and weighing, of salting and tasting, forces us to be in the moment at a time when ‘in the moment’ can otherwise feel like a scary thing. When being in the moment means taking care over a meal that will make you feel good, you’re happy to lean into it.
Food is supposed to be about nourishment, but nourishing ourselves means going beyond the basics of ensuring we’ve eaten enough protein for the day. It means nourishing our senses: see how the oil shimmers in the pan when it is hot enough? Smell the tang of that rice wine vinegar as it splashes into the soy sauce? Hear the sizzle of the red onion when it hits the oil? It also means nourishing our soul. Sitting down to a plate of the BA tomato and cannelini bean soup, with some garlic bread (and a glass of red wine, perhaps) is one of my favourite, most nourishing things in the world right now. I feel that way despite the fact my boyfriend makes a much, much better version of it than I do, even though we follow the same recipe.
But like the BA chefs, I keep plugging away at making that same dish. Because it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to burn the toast, to not heat the pot enough, to bake sourdough that doesn’t rise, to not bake sourdough at all, to drop that precious onion on the ground, because we’re only human and we can just try again. What I’ve learned from the BA videos is that the goal in the kitchen isn’t perfection – it’s enjoyment. It’s savouring the taste of crunchy toast, no matter if it’s a complex artisan sourdough or pillowy-soft white Brennan’s bread. Whatever brings you joy right now is something you should do, not for anyone else, but simply for yourself.