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The strange and irresistible pull of the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen

By February 16, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments

The relationship that millions have with the BA Test Kitchen cooking channel is hardly about the food at all says Sarah Griffin, as she explores the unprecedented popularity of this moreish YouTube phenomenon


This morning I woke up, and I watched Claire Saffitz on Gourmet Makes prepare gourmet Butterfingers – an American candy bar I have never tasted – from scratch. The Bon Appetit test kitchen (where Gourmet Makes and a host of other shows are filmed) is bright, airy, busy. I am so used to looking at it that I have the distinct feeling that I’ve been there: that I can sense the scale and layout of the vast culinary laboratory. Saffitz is buoyant, confident in her task. Other Bon Appetit staff mill around her, encouraging her, and towards the end, aiding her in her least favourite task – tempering chocolate. The tension present in some of winter’s episodes of Gourmet Makes is absent. Saffitz doesn’t feel, this time, as though she is being held hostage to a joyless exercise. She doesn’t visibly have a terrible cold, she doesn’t make a kind of pleading eye-contact with the team behind the counter as she counts how many days she has left to work this recipe out. She is not marionetted by the risk of catastrophic, meme-able failure this time. She makes the bars, they are delicious, if not better than the real thing. Brad Leone (another host at the channel and maker of frequent cameos in Gourmet Makes) appears briefly, though less energetic and playful than he was before the Leone/Saffitz erotic fanfiction started cropping up. There is a brief break for queso. She only has one forgotten ingredient, start over moment. She isn’t forcing charm, or trying to conceal her annoyance – Saffitz truly is just doing her job, living. Every time I watch her, I wish with all my heart that they would let her swear. Just once.

 Left, Claire Saffitz; right, Claire with Brad Leone, image from   Bon Appetit  YouTube

Left, Claire Saffitz; right, Claire with Brad Leone, image from Bon Appetit YouTube

By the time I make it to the video, over two million people have viewed it. There are 5,553 comments at the time of writing. “You know you’ve watched too much Gourmet Makes when the first thing you do is check the length and think ‘oh this is only 29 minutes?’ I’m glad Claire isn’t going to suffer too much’ before even hitting play,” says Josh Creter. “That moment Brad tells her he’s proud and her voice crack. It’s just too much…<3,” says Jurriaan de Jongh.

The Bon Appetit test kitchen is, as the magazine staff and video team have told media outlets like Buzzfeed and The Daily Beast, a phenomenon of almost accidental success. The chefs lived and worked in a closed world of recipe testing until comparatively recently, but the opening of their world to the internet has cultivated a fandom of both shocking proportion and dedication. 

It is the first YouTube channel that I realised I had in common with others: the first one it feels like other Millennials are watching routinely – even devotedly. YouTube is not lacking for cooking channels: any user of social media is familiar with the anonymous hands of Buzzfeed’s Tasty, for example, assembling and disassembling contextless – sometimes surreal, sometimes grotesque – dishes, snacks, cocktails, pulled pork quesadilla pizzas deep-fried and served with ranch. Tiny Kitchen, a future subject of this column, prepares miniature dishes at an awe-inspiring level of detail. Binging with Babish features largely, just his hands, the food, and his very pleasant voice.

  Image from    Tiny Kitchen

Image from Tiny Kitchen

The BA test kitchen, however, is a fully-operating other realm, populated by chefs and kitchen managers and magazine editors who are not just demonstrating recipes or engaging in challenges or learning new skills for the camera – they are also, somehow, while being entirely themselves, forging deep (one-way) connections with their audience. I can feel myself being part of the wave of viewers who find themselves oddly attached to the cast: I put Chris Morocco or Carla Lalli Music or Andy Baraghani or Molly Baz on in the background as I prepare far more lacklustre meals myself at home. They cook, I cook. We cook together. My knives aren’t as good as theirs, my kitchen narrow and rented and old, my pots and pans Ikea relics, but there is something almost ineffable about the portal of YouTube opening a connection between my food preparation and their’s. I crush garlic with the side of a knife to release the allicin like Brad insists is vital. I salt my pasta-water with Molly’s enthusiasm, and use it in sauces like liquid gold, as advised. 

On one hand, it is very normal to watch TV or listen to the radio when you are preparing food. The garlic crushing and the pasta water are two very standard cooking tips. Chefs delivering cooking demonstrations directly to the viewer without a fourth wall is not at all uncommon. But the relationship that viewers have with the Bon Appetit test kitchen staff is different: it is, in my experience, barely recipe-focused at all. The food that they are preparing seldom seems to be the focus of the fandom’s interaction either: from the comment section all the way over to Meme Appetit, the fan-run Instagram with 255k followers and rising. The focus is on the people – the characters. 

  Memes from    Meme Appetit

Memes from Meme Appetit

In Haley Nahman’s thorough deep-dive on Gourmet Makes over at ManRepeller, Saffitz tells Nahman, “I think there’s something about watching me go through a stressful process that’s stress-relieving for people.” I wonder, is she right? Does her frustrated energy when faced with the ludicrous task of recreating American sweets from scratch somehow ease something in the viewer? Perhaps hyper focusing our own tensions and tasks into a three dimensional, more tangible metaphor. Saffitz becomes part of the grand mirror of YouTube – she is relatable, though none of us know her and certainly none of us spend four days a month preparing circuitous, complicated recipes for show and spectacle.

On a platform densely populated by people pouring their truths and performances and lives down the channel of a camera straight into our eyes and minds – on my homepage alone there’re Trisha Paytas, Tana Mongeau, Emilia Fart who all make careers of reaching into the internet in order to relate to people – Claire Saffitz and the rest of the cast/staff of the Bon Appetit test kitchen do it by accident with their interplay, their mistakes and their linguistic tics.

Molly Baz might be preparing a Caesar salad, but she’s abbreviating every second word, a contagious, playful pattern of speech that I’ve since found in my own. Caesar salad. Cae Sal.

Carla Lalli Music might be teaching a celebrity to assemble a meal without giving any visual cues, but her soft encouragement to Natalie Portman or DeAndre Jordan feels like it might, somehow, extend to me. Extend to us

In 2001, every evening during the run, I would sit down with my mam to watch Big Brother. It was new. A house with eleven people living in it, being watched 24-hours a day by cameras. Their goings on were edited together and broadcast from Channel 4 every single day for 64 days. I know, how silly it sounds to explain how Big Brother works, but this was the first show of its kind: it redefined television, redefined documentary. In recent years, so much of reality television is wrapped around the behaviour of people who actively perform themselves for the camera. They pantomime likability, quirk, social dominance, confidence, to say nothing of beauty, or the beauty culture that reality television spawned. My mam, one night pointed to the screen, showing the housemates – who were standing around the prominent fish tank in the kitchen. “Do you think they’ve noticed yet?” she asked me, “That’s them. They’re our fish in the tank.”

And I think Bon Appetit has something in common with BB1, in this way. Starkly different to contemporary, explosive reality TV (which, please don’t get me wrong, I am fascinated by – Terrace House is my bread and butter) or the culture of self-performance that governs much of YouTube – the people we watch in the test kitchen, though performing and aware they’re being watched, are just getting on with their jobs. It works because it’s not trying to work. The goldfish are just swimming around in there, interacting with each other and their environment, living. They aren’t courting our parasocial connection or our admiration. They quietly swim on, become part of the furniture. Right there on my kitchen counter, just behind a thin sheet of glass. 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


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