Karyn Tomlinson could really use a cameraman.
The first time she filmed herself cooking at home, the acclaimed Minneapolis chef — whose roommate is a cat — propped her phone against two cans of whole peeled tomatoes, holding it in place with a rubber band. After a few tries, she broke down and bought a selfie stick. “It’s the cheapest tripod you can find,” she said.
She positioned it next to her stove. One of the feet melted.
Such are the challenges of becoming a self-made cooking show star during quarantine.
With their whisks tied behind their backs by social distancing, chefs are facing an existential crisis: How do you cultivate an audience when your stage has gone dark?
While restaurant dining rooms and bars remain closed during Minnesota’s stay-at-home order to combat the spread of the coronavirus, many local chefs (and mixologists, too) are using virtual platforms to share their talents. Shaped by cooking programs from Julia Child to the Food Network, they’re hosting their own instructional shows right from their personal kitchens. Uploaded mainly to Instagram, these home videos help chefs reach new audiences, even as some of their restaurants sit idle. See: Our guide to the best cooking videos with your favorite Twin Cities chefs.
And it’s happening everywhere. Some of the biggest international culinary names are bringing their fans into their homes via video. Aided by his daughters in the kitchen, humanitarian and chef José Andrés posts simple “Recipes for the People” in between videos of him delivering hot meals from his World Central Kitchen to those who are hungry.
From Italy, Michelin-starred chef Massimo Bottura is posting daily “Kitchen Quarantine” lessons on cooking with leftovers or making chocolate chip cookies. From his Parisian apartment, American chef David Lebovitz is mixing classic French cafe cocktails almost daily.
Whether they first came to it out of a sense of duty or a sense of boredom, whether they’re using it as a marketing opportunity or a way to bring awareness to a cause, most of these budding home video stars say they are driven by a devotion to their craft.
“We don’t only cook because it’s our jobs,” said St. Paul restaurateur Justin Sutherland, a natural on camera thanks to his time last year on “Top Chef.”
A love for cooking, Sutherland said, “is what drives us to share our food with people, and now that we’re unable to do that in an intimate setting. The internet is the new way.”
In Tomlinson’s case, the restaurant she was planning to open has been put on hold. Her videos, which she calls “Karyn’s Quarantine Kitchen,” help fill that void.
“Whenever we’re in a spot that we’re kind of stuck in, we should do what we can and trust that something good can come of it,” she said. “This is something to do and it fills a need.”
By putting themselves online, chefs are hoping they don’t become forgotten amid a pandemic that spells a grim future for the hospitality industry. While most videos are free, some chefs are using them to recoup a little of what they are losing during state-ordered closures by selling companion ingredient kits, or promoting specific brands in sponsored videos. Or they’re calling attention to causes, such as the North Stands, which is raising funds for Minnesota hospitality workers.
Most important, these food and beverage professionals are staying in the public eye.
“I needed to figure out how to connect to the people we used to make drinks for,” said Nick Kosevich, co-founder of Bittercube, a bitters and cocktail consulting company that lost 85% of its business when bars were ordered to close. Kosevich now hosts live classes on Crowdcast every weekend that involve recipes and video interviews with experts on the history of cocktails. The classes cost $10, and home viewers can play along by purchasing spirits from partnering liquor stores.
North Loop restaurant Smack Shack sells out each week of kits that people can use to cook along with chef Josh Thoma on Saturdays during a Facebook Live video.
In a recent Instagram Live video, Sutherland promoted everything from the North Stands to distillery-made hand sanitizer to Spam. (The video was sponsored by Hormel.) Tomlinson recently partnered with New Belgium Brewing for a video of her cooking pork belly and beans.
It would be a stretch to call the lo-fi, lo-res videos moneymakers, however. Their main form of currency is visibility, and the most popular videos could give chefs a glimmer of celebrity status. Sutherland’s “Top Chef” co-stars have stopped by in the comments section during his videos, while his TV-world fans have commented on his looks.
At the same time, the videos bring their stars back down to earth, equalizing them with home cooks, who get a voyeuristic peek into chefs’ homes. Just like everyone else’s, their kitchens are filled with families and dogs and dirty dishes, and devoid of a team of professional cooks to do the chopping.
“With very little equipment, no dishwashers to clean up after you, no prep cooks — it sucks, I hate it here,” joked World Street Kitchen’s Sameh Wadi, one of the most prolific of the Insta-chefs, who has posted 17 “Social Deliciousness” videos in the past month.
Minneapolis chef and restaurant owner David Fhima gets his whole family involved in the production of his videos. His wife directs, signaling him with looks that tell him how he’s doing. “If you see my expression changing on the video, that means I just got yelled at, but you don’t hear it,” Fhima said.
His daughter, a journalism student home from college, “looked at [the videos] and thought I was an amateur,” he said. Now, she does the editing for him.
Thoma’s mother calls in with questions — and critiques — during his live videos from the Smack Shack kitchen.
Many chefs film their videos in advance of posting, giving them a chance to skip over faux pas or just speed up the cooking process. (One thing many of them don’t usually cut out is foul language.) Suddenly, film editing skills have become an unexpected commodity for people who are more skilled with knives than editing software.
Tomlinson edits her videos on the tiny screen on her phone because her laptop is “too vintage” to run iMovie, an editing program. “My eyes are red at night,” she said.
Pastry chef and cookbook author Zoë François hosted online baking videos for years, but they were always prerecorded. Now, with the stay-at-home order, she’s become hooked on the live format. It’s a way of connecting more with her followers, as well as her family. Her son, Charlie, reads questions from viewers while he focuses the phone camera on François’ south Minneapolis kitchen.
“I just love that he’s willing to do this with me,” she said. “I’m trying to come up with excuses to make more and more of them so we spend more time together.”
In a recent video on brioche, Charlie zoomed in on François’ kitchen scale. As she measured flour, white dust landed all over the scale’s display. François brushed some of it off and laughed. “This is a little too much reality,” she said.
But it’s the reality, she says, that makes videos like these authentic — and useful.
“You don’t do anything the first time and it comes out perfectly,” she said. “That’s what television says will happen.”
It’s already rare for a restaurant-goer to see a professional chef cooking up close. Now, people get to zoom in on a chef doing his or her best — or just making a mess. That’s something traditional television cooking shows always cleaned up.
Wadi grew up watching Emeril Lagasse, Julia Child and other chefs on television. Lately, he’s been spending hours glued to YouTube, watching highly theatrical cooking videos from Turkey. That’s what inspired him to experiment with his first video, of a Turkish recipe for kofta meatballs. As people began to respond, asking questions about his methods and even suggesting future video subjects, it became something more.
“I realized very quickly after the second or third recipe that a lot of people needed distraction,” he said. “It struck a chord with me that this is a part of my duty as a chef, and as a culinarian, to bring joy into people’s lives.”
Wadi only lightly edits his 15-minute videos, and he leaves some of the errors behind for viewers. His seasoning was off, he didn’t add enough stock, the heat was too high.
“It’s gonna happen to you,” he said. “It’s human. It’s cooking.”
François might be the local chef with the largest following. Her nearly hourlong videos rack up close to 100,000 views. Many viewers post photos of their versions of her recipes afterward.
It’s a new format she plans to stick to, even post-quarantine.
“Instagram is instant gratification,” she said. “You put a cookbook out and you have no idea if anybody is using it or not.” Now, she has proof that people are learning from her.
Fhima, too, is proud that his tips, based on years of experience in restaurant kitchens, are making home cooks better. “Why olive oil is something you flavorize with and not cook with; at what point do you add your spices, beginning or end?” he said. “If we can give people these tricks and then they can have a great dinner, I think that gives a lot more value to somebody watching.”
But could giving away all this free knowledge backfire? Do chefs worry that this new generation of restaurant-caliber home cooks won’t feel a need to return to dining rooms once they reopen?
No, Fhima says. “At the end of the day, we all want to go to a restaurant that has crazy chefs screaming and yelling a bit,” he said. “What a chef does more than anything else is entertain.”