I’m sick of chef culture.
If you like to cook and you are very online, chances are that in the last few years you have abandoned tv’s cooking show offerings (because, really, what the Food Network does now can hardly be called cooking) and fled to youtube. And upon your arrival at youtube, you have probably found a delightful little show called Binging with Babish. The eponymous Babish is a man named Andrew Rea, who started the show based on the idea of making the food that jumps of the screen of movies and tv shows. Originally, each episode followed a 2-part format: in the first part, Rea would do a faithful recreation of the dish based on any instructions or hints given in the original show or movie, and then in the second part he would go back and tweak the recipe (sometimes creating something entirely new) into the best version of itself. As the series gained popularity, Rea was able to quit his day job in visual effects and become a full-time online video host. Paired with that switch, Rea started a second show, Basics with Babish, and eventually a third show, Being with Babish. As Rea branched out, his perspective changed from offering real-world versions of fake foods to teaching people how to cook, and his more recent videos have mostly used the original food as an excuse to make one particular basic item. And that’s when I stopped watching.
It’s not that I disagree with Rea’s aim in switching to a more educational format. In fact, I think that’s great – cooking is still intimidating to a lot of people, and there should be more resources out there to teach people to cook. The problem is that Binging with Babish isn’t doing anything to make cooking less intimidating, because Rea has completely bought into chef culture, and the methods he instructs are the same overly particular, complicated, difficult, and requiring-special-equipment ones that make food preparation intimidating to begin with.
I don’t mean to pin this all on Rea himself, because chef culture has taken over home cooking in recent years. It’s come from all sides, but I think the biggest offender must have been the Food Network. When Food Network began to rise to prominence in the late 90s, its aim was to offer educational programming with charismatic hosts who would help teach its viewers – mostly housewives – to cook more interesting foods. Each of its hosts offered a different perspective on that message, and the network really rode on the personalities in front of the camera, more than on offering any particularly innovative or interesting food. These personalities became the basis for food cults among home cooks – people have very strong opinions in their attachments to Ina Garten or Alton Brown, who each offer a very particular philosophy of food and approach to cooking. As the network built on this cult of personality, it expanded its talent pool to offer different stars that could be standard bearers for different demographic groups.
That’s probably where the network started to stumble, especially when it became clear that it had a race problem. One of the network’s most popular personality, Paula Deen, was disgraced when it became clear in a 2013 lawsuit that she had no issues using the n-word. The network’s attempts to improve its image by hiring black hosts mostly resulted in shows that did little more than offer stereotypes of African American culture. Executives at the network eventually realized that their key to future success was in acquiring the rights to a cult favorite Japanese competition show that was currently airing reruns on late-night programming: Iron Chef. When Food Network created its own version, Iron Chef America, it was literally putting professional chefs on a pedestal in viewer’s homes in primetime. Soon, most of the network’s primetime programming (and even its reruns) fit the format of either professional chefs competing with one another, or a professional chef traveling to other chef’s kitchens to watch them prepare food.
When Food Network traded its home cooking focus for professional kitchens, it tapped into an aspect of the gourmet food world that had been reserved for a foodie upper class, and brought it to the mainstream. Iron Chef introduced home viewers to expensive, exotic ingredients in full detail, as well as the facilities of professional kitchens that were totally foreign to home cooks. When Iron Chef eventually made way to Chopped, the outlandish nature of the ingredients became the focus and the complexity of professional kitchen gadgets became the real challenge. Home cooks could now delight in the finicky particulars of ice cream makers and blast chillers. And because this food prep was entertainment, the idea of actually reproducing results in a home kitchen was completely pushed aside. These shows replaced the idea of housewives producing carbonara with middle class American families seeking out gourmet restaurants whose chefs had appeared on tv.
Of course, Food Network isn’t the only food media game in town. Other food media outlets were already on board the gourmet train, including, of course, Gourmet Magazine, Food and Wine, and Bon Appetit. The only other food media with a serious following was America’s Test Kitchen, which seemed like the lone standard bearer for home cooking until Christopher Kimball, its founder and host, left the show in 2015 to start a new, more exclusive outlet in Milk Street. And of course, there’s Martha Stewart, who always simultaneously occupied the space of gourmet and home cook, making for an intimidatingly perfectionist combination that only really appeals to a particular subset of Type A women. When, in the mid-2010s, all of these outlets were pushing gourmet cooking, traveling to high-tier restaurants, and profiles of the chefs pioneering those things, there largely ceased to be a resource for learning the basics of home cooking. On tv at least.
But of course now we live online, and if there is a demand, something on the internet will pop up to supply. Amazingly, we probably have Buzzfeed’s Tasty to thank for a real resurgence in educational cooking videos. The – what do we call them, even? brand? – pioneered the now ubiquitous format of short instructional videos that focus on a user’s eye view of just hands and cooking equipment, with actions sped up to keep the videos short, and no significant story or narration, just captions labeling ingredients and instructions as they appeared on camera. The popularity of these videos came from two things: 1) they fit the medium of the internet, with appealing visuals and an easily consumable (and shareable) format; and 2) they satisfied the millennial anxiety over “adulting”, by breaking down simple methods for performing tasks that seem prohibitively labor-intensive. This new genre of food videos rode that same millennial anxiety the same way most internet startups do – millennials have very particular desires and want quality products that anticipate their needs, but they also want to feel they’re getting value and not being wasteful, both because they are unlikely to be flush with cash and because they have been accused by the older generation of taking up space. So successful millennial-targeting businesses present minimalist, customizable products in aesthetically-pleasing packaging.
Binging with Babish rose to popularity in the mold of Tasty videos, but with a chef-adoring flair. Rae’s videos largely cut out his face, instead only focusing on his workspace and hands, with the addition of a soothing voiceover featuring his resonant baritone. They suit a millennial perspective perfectly – each video focuses on a show or movie that millennials have probably seen already (or is obscure enough to convince them that they should see it) and it follows Rae’s thought process and his mistakes, bringing the viewer along in a way that feels personal and friendly. Because Rae’s professional background is in film and photography, the presentation of the videos is beautiful – unlike a lot of other homemade videos, there’s no clutter in the background or bad lighting or funny sound.
But, importantly, Rae is not a chef, and doesn’t have a background in professional kitchens. He just looks the part. He appears in a crisp gray apron in front of a slab countertop with stainless steel cookware, all of which only became more professional and chefy over time. He advocates for chef mainstays, like adding plenty of salt and walking halfway across the city to source the right ingredients. Even his bare forearms, the most visible part of him, become more chefy over time as he adds tattoos, including one of a whisk. Like hipsterism itself, these features that seemed like a tongue-in-cheek part of the schtick eventually became the sincere purpose of the videos. When Rae first started making frico (a baked cheese crisp) as part of his episode on burgers from Parks and Rec, it was in line with the joke of the episode – to mock the character Chris’s excessive fussiness in making a gourmet and healthy-ish burger that ultimately can’t hold a candle to Ron’s “beef, on a bun, add ketchup if you want”. But now, every time he makes a burger, it must include a frico disk, because he genuinely thinks it’s the best way to put cheese on a burger. He unironically and unapologetically pulls out an immersion circulator to sous vide a steak.
But it’s not the gourmet turn of the show that bothers me – these are valid methods of cooking and it’s both fine for him to prefer them and fun for the viewer to see them. It’s that because Rae has learned to become a chef over the course of making the show, the show has both lost its unique perspective and begun to push these chefy methods as the “right” way to do things. In short, it’s just like every food media outlet that already existed before. Because Binging with Babish is so accessible, both in format and presentation, it’s able to worm its way into a corner of the food media audience that had already been scared off by bigger outlets advocating these complicated methods. Rae’s unquestioning promotion of these methods sends the message that there is no escape from gourmet preparation, because it is the only way to do things. But from the perspective of someone who already knows how to cook, I find this frustratingly misleading. Because Rae is not a particularly knowledgeable or original cook. Certainly he knows his way around a kitchen. But he often acknowledges that his actual recipes are from outlets that focus on educating home cooks, like Tasty or America’s Test Kitchen, or cookbooks. And so when he offers these methods, it’s not because he knows from experience that they are the best way to get the job done, but because the media he consumes has told him that they are the correct way of doing things. The tv and movie clips at the beginning of each video have just become window dressing on a laborious method for making bacon, rather than the start of an adventure into how to make a breakfast that looks as damn enticing as the one from Howl’s Moving Castle (come on, he doesn’t even slice the bread with one hand – that’s the best part!).
What drew me to Binging with Babish in the first place was the tireless creativity in figuring out how to make things like the monster cake from Breath of the Wild, which resulted in the ingenious and thematically appropriate addition of ube. It’s not just that his videos are aesthetically pleasing, or that his voice is easy to listen to, but that there was no right way to do anything. He took the instructions of the original medium as literally as possible, in a sort of absurdist deadpan, and then approached them a second time as your fun but dedicated neighbor who just wants to make something in his home kitchen that tastes decent. But now his home kitchen is a restaurant kitchen. That whole premise of home cooking is basically gone. It was a ridiculous stunt when he tracked down alligator meat for the every-meat burrito, but now it feels just as ridiculous for him to trek out to the suburbs to use a grill that is completely inaccessible in his normal NYC apartment (a point he made all the way back in the burger video, his first one).
And while these new facilities certainly have the potential to bring better quality instruction, even when Babish is teaching basics, they don’t make up for his lack of real cooking know-how – if anything, they highlight it. His instructions for the basics of breadmaking, for instance, call for bread flour, parchment paper, a cast iron dutch oven, a spray bottle (sounds simple, but do you currently have a spray bottle in your home that’s no filled with a chemical you shouldn’t ingest?), and a stand mixer, but don’t explain how to knead by hand or how to know when bread is done baking.
Essentially, he is a conduit for information about cooking that’s already available from major outlets with an advertising budget. His success, certainly, is in his ability to reach a millennial audience with a more serious approach than Tasty’s pastel videos. And this has definitely not gone unnoticed by Bon Appetit, which has made its own foray into internet videos and even featured Rea in a couple of them. But at this point I actually prefer Bon Appetit’s video’s to Babish because even for all their gourmet chef loving, they have the experience and lack of patience for time-wasting nonsense to offer real insights and helpful tips that actually make home cooking easier. They can explain why what they’re doing makes sense because even before they tested the crap out of the recipe they had years of working full-time in a kitchen to know the mechanics of cooking. I learned how to prevent fish from sticking to a stainless steel pan from this 3-minute video, something that I had never figured out how to do even after a decade of being a studious home cook. And yes, this video is not the most accessible in its presentation, but Bon Appetit has really improved on that, with new content in serial formats that have gained an actual following.
What my complaint comes down to is my entire personal philosophy of cooking: I think that cooking is about understanding why something works, not being able to follow instructions. I have always been frustrated by all the extra gadgets (yes, a stand mixer is a gadget) and finicky techniques that make cooking inaccessible and pretentious. That’s why I loved Alton Brown, who invented the term unitasker and made sure that anyone could make his recipes. Or Ina Garten, who doesn’t think of herself as a very knowledgeable cook and just appreciates not screwing up good ingredients. Or even Giada De Laurentiis, who, despite having been a food stylist and personal chef, built her career on introducing people to the many uses of mascarpone outside of tiramisu. These people were part of a movement to help people feed confident in their kitchens even when they didn’t have any money or space. Tasty continues this tradition, maybe in a cutesy way, but with undeniable ingenuity, like their famously brilliant technique for making tacos al pastor. What Babish does now is a bait and switch – promising home cooking but delivering restaurant methods. How many people who try those recipes continue to cook or bake after that first attempt? Cooking should be simpler. Barebones or bust.