‘When I’m on camera there’s such a spark’: YouTube cooks leave TV chefs behind | Television
JTraditional TV cooking shows aren’t really about cooking. It’s about watching, seeing high production chefs or Gordon Ramsay swearing at people. Despite many to-watch lists in 2022 that featured Netflix’s Chinese food series Flavorful Origins or the BBC’s Nadiya’s Time to Eat, it’s rare that you actually feed off the back of one of them.
Not the same with someone strapping a GoPro to their forehead so they can show you how to make amazing scrambled eggs. Modernist culinary prodigies like Kenji Lopez-Alt use YouTube to create videos that are as immediately instructive as they are entertaining. Despite all the talk about so-called FoodTok luminaries attracting millions of followers and earning six-figure incomes, it’s YouTube’s foodie chefs who make the best food videos. They are not limited, as TikTokers are, by platform length or (like TV chefs) dictated by viewing schedules. They can take their time; they can shoot whenever they want. No one tells them what to cook or what to say. No wonder there are over a million food chains. Meet five of the best.
Launched in the summer of 2017, this channel serves as a diary of London cookbook author Rachel Ama’s vegan journey and every dish Ama tells you about is one you want to try. Which isn’t surprising, given that she explains her reason for starting the channel as follows: “I became vegan overnight and it was such a good feeling, I wanted the people I loved also experience it.”
Ama mixes the Caribbean cuisine her grandmother from St Lucia cooked and the traditional British dishes she grew up with in North London with restaurant dishes from her travels in Spain, New Orleans and Colombia. She says she’s always awkward in photography, but in video, she’s been magnetic since day one. In the second video she’s ever made, that boundless excitement erupts when she realizes, onscreen, that the fake tuna she’s just shown might actually turn into melted fake tuna – the first she’s will have since becoming a vegan. “Let’s go, guys,” she gasps, and there you are with her and that packet of vegan cheese she’s holding in pure, improvised triumph.
A particular highlight is the protein-packed vegan Caribbean feast she released a few years ago, including lightly sweetened jerk lentils with maple syrup and a beautifully creamy cashew-based macaroni and cheese. The food is so good that after she sets it up, she forgets about herself and eats most of it before realizing she didn’t film the tasting.
As YouTube cooking channels go, Maangchi is up there with the most famous, a staple on Top 10 lists. And yet 14 years after first cooking a dish on camera (ojingeo- bokkeum, sautéed squid), host Emily Kim doesn’t have a PR, sound or television niche. She always does everything herself.
Maangchi has become the go-to guide to authentic Korean recipes in English, from bibimbap (12 million views) to traditional kimchi (23.5 million), and everything in between – fluffy red bean buns, steamed eggs, donuts twisted, garlic green beans . She is a great instructor, explaining what to buy, how to clean it, when to chop, stir or cover and how long to wait, in clear and simple terms.
Kim films from her immaculate but otherwise ordinary kitchen in Times Square, wearing fabulous outfits such as a green pillbox hat, pink wig and faux grape earrings. A veritable legion of fans around the world agree with her son that she is the best cook in the world and their own adoptive mother. Headlines and tweets describe her as the Korean mother of YouTube, the Korean mother of the Internet, and “Maangchi is my mother now.” The love is mutual: “My viewers keep sending me messages saying ‘Maangchi, I made your chicken and it was a big hit and I was proud of myself’ and I tell them ‘I am proud of you’ and even though I can’t see their face, I’m still happy, you know.
Fried rice, flavored rice, things on rice, homemade dim sum, all the noodles: every new video here feels like an invite and feels like lunch. Led by a Chinese, Stephanie Li and her American partner, Chris Thomas, based in Shenzhen, China, this channel does exactly what its name suggests. “English-language sources seem to both overestimate and underestimate Chinese cuisine,” says Thomas: they try to imitate restaurant techniques, but fail to properly explain fundamental ingredients to a Western audience.
Li and Thomas’ videos are usually less than 10 minutes long, carefully edited with a quick intro and cooking demo on their balcony – if they take you inside they’ll tell you why, and it’s all part of this which makes them so useful. The viewer’s own culinary restrictions are always a priority: they’ll often give you options for method (whether you have a wok, a gas stove, or neither). They come together with a clear sound, to make sure you understand what tiger eggs look like when fried, or exactly how fast to turn your scrambled eggs to make them true Cantonese style. For added sweetness, the couple’s dog, Hayek, sits in a chair next to Li as she cooks for the camera. “He’s an intense air licker when he gets angry,” says Thomas.
Chef and baker Jocelyn Delk Adams is a longtime blogger, cookbook author and American television regular with appearances on the Food Network and Good Morning America. She is known for her very pretty pastries in pastel hues and her videos look exactly like those treats. On screen, she favors pretty knits and ice colours; she presents sour cream cakes, buttered cornbread, and perfect pie crusts with the uncomplicated, welcoming demeanor of an eminently competent host. From the creamy oatmeal to the prawn scampi to the reddest, crispiest, spiciest fried chicken – well, it’s just gorgeous.
“When I’m in front of the camera, there’s such a glow and a spark, a pleasure,” she says. In one of her very first videos in 2013, she returns home to Winona, Mississippi, to bake cookies with her grandmother. You watch Delk Adams on the stove with Big Mama Maggie, as everyone called her, baking cookies like she had done every day for decades. It’s an incredibly real and intimate moment – the kind that chefs love to write about in cookbooks, but no one ever really gets to witness first-hand.
“I think about my grandmother all the time,” she tells me. “She’s 100% the reason I created my whole brand, I just wanted to pay homage to her.”
The four Hertfordshire lads who started Sorted Food – Ben Ebbrell, Mike Huttlestone, Jamie Spafford and Barry Taylor – have been laughing over lunch since they were in Year 7 together. In 2010, during a drunken weekend in Cornwall, they had the idea to shoot cooking videos for friends who hadn’t been able to make the trip. Shortly after, they posted a follow-up to YouTube — a lasagna tutorial that, to their surprise, garnered, as Spafford puts it, “comments from people we didn’t know.” Some blamed them for not adding milk to the stew, others for not preparing the dish as their grandmother would have done.
Every video created since has been a similar community effort: burger battles, chocolate challenges, blindfolded taste tests, the four of them often joined by guest chefs and occasionally celebrities (Emma Thompson arrived in December with her daughter and a Christmas sweater).
“They’re buddies hanging out, who can cook and eat great food with each other,” Spafford says. Only Ebbrell is a skilled leader, which means any given episode usually involves him saving whatever damage the “normal” three have created.
They’ve toured the United States for NBC’s Today show, published 14 cookbooks, launched an app, summoned a community of 2.52 million people, and they still read every comment. “It doesn’t make much sense commercially,” they agree, but being there for their fans, like they are for each other, is really what they do best.