Writers and editors have been appearing on SXSW panels since the beginning. But if they pack a room, it’s usually full of other journalists — or a genuine celebrity is also on the dais.
Not so with SXSW 2020’s Hot Takes from the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen Featured Session, the first time that the Test Kitchen crew will assemble on a stage outside of New York City. The editors and cooks turned “cast members” of Bon Appétit’s wildly popular video series are massive online stars, drawing millions of YouTube views, social media tribute accounts, and fervent fans who aren’t even interested in cooking. “It’s insane how intimately they know the interpersonal relationships of everyone in the Test Kitchen,” crew member Molly Baz drily notes.
As with the old joke about Paul McCartney (“Did you know he was in a band before Wings?”), there are now people who might say “Did you know Bon Appétit is also a magazine?” Never in the usually dubious history of “pivoting to video” has any publication done it so perfectly. It just took a little time.
Early efforts to do video online, in 2015, were “too stiff … too professional,” says Bon Appétit Editor-in-Chief Adam Rapaport. “We wanted the viewer to feel like they were hanging out with us in the kitchen — kibitzing, arguing, and eating. But cameras on tripods and hair and makeup and all that didn’t help.”
“I’m not sure that people fully understand that not a single one of us is a trained actor.”
An instructional video of Rapaport making bacon in 2016, shot with creative director Alex Grossman and cameraman Vincent Cross, set the template for a more informal vibe. Then came Brad Leone. As the actual test kitchen manager, Leone was basically “the guy in the kitchen who did the dishes and ordered the groceries,” says Rapaport. “But he was such a character — so passionate and knowledgeable about not just food but woodworking and archery and fermentation, you name it. So Vincent just started following him around as Brad did Brad things.”
An oddball star was born, with Leone’s “It’s Alive” becoming the Test Kitchen’s first big online hit, along with Clare Saffitz’s “Gourmet Makes,” in which the pastry chef with a streak of silver hair attempts to recreate commercial junk food. Other favorites include Chris Morocco’s “Reverse Engineering,” in which the supertaster recreates dishes he can only taste while blindfolded; Carla Lalli Music’s celeb cook-off “Back-to-Back Chef;” and Baz’s “Molly Tries,” which has found her cooking everything from ostrich eggs to dog food.
Molly Baz – Photo by Alex Lau
It’s the cooking show boom all over again, but online. As Morocco notes, 10 years ago “you had to be on TV to have the same combination of visibility and reach that we now get through YouTube.” It may not be a cinematic universe — “there aren’t any action figures of us yet (that I know of, anyway),” says Morocco. But the BA folks are now as much reality TV personalities as cooks or editors.
“It feels like we are reality TV personalities to a highly specific group of people,” says Baz. “I’m not sure that people fully understand that not a single one of us is a trained actor.”
“My kids do an amazing job of keeping my ego in check by eating very little of the food I make,” Morocco adds.
Like Morocco’s kids, much of the test audience isn’t even into food, or at least, not cooking. They just want to hang out with their favorite so-called characters. “That actually blows my mind,” he says. “I know people watch food TV without any intention of cooking themselves, but my personal drive in my career has been to try to teach people to cook. So the idea that people are watching our channel for entertainment? I mean sure, we are goofballs and like to have impromptu cream-whipping competitions, and Brad likes to make me try his fermenting experiments that will almost certainly kill me one day … but still.”
Chris Morocco – Photo by Alex Lau
Most of Bon Appétit’s video “stars” still have their day jobs. During nearly every Test Kitchen video, there’s also actual cooking and recipe-testing for the print publication and website going on. Morocco, whose official title is Deputy Food Editor, says he spends maybe 20% of his time on the videos. Associate Editor Christina Chaey says, “Most of my day is spent at my desk editing text, reading story proofs, and meeting with the art and photo teams.”
Such is the new media universe, where the videos, the web, social media, merchandise, and events are all on equal footing with the flagship magazine. “Business-wise, what began as a sliver of the pie — video, and our YouTube channel, in particular — is now a major chunk of it,” says Rapaport. But magazine subscriptions are also up, with record-setting numbers coming in the wake of Bon Appétit’s traditional November/Thanksgiving cover, which, instead of offering the usual sexy turkey shot, did eight different sexy turkey shots with eight different test kitchen personalities featured.
“At the end of the day, the entire brand needs to be strong, and each platform needs to propel and feed each other,” says Rapaport. “And that’s where Bon Appétit is in 2020.”
Photos by Alex Lau: Andy Bahagrani, Molly Baz, Chris Morocco