The secret sauce to YouTube’s viral food personalities — ‘they f— up constantly’

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Ruobing Su/Insider

  • Food videos are booming on YouTube – from mukbangs to challenge videos to recipes – and with media giants like BuzzFeed and Condé Nast pumping out mouthwatering content, the genre has become a staple of the average YouTube user’s experience on the platform.
  • Unlike the mainstream food channels and cult favorite shows like “Chopped” that showcase talented, professional chefs, a new style of food video has captured YouTube’s attention – amateurs, many of whom are just figuring out recipes as they go along.
  • The appeal of amateur chefs, many of whom deliver end products that would send Gordon Ramsey into a rage, are on display in wildly popular series like “4 Levels,” produced by Condé Nast’s Epicurious brand.
  • Matt Duckor, who oversees the videos on both Epicurious and Bon Appétit, told Insider that the “relatability” of chefs who make mistakes is the secret sauce to success and that the future of food on YouTube lies in conveying that relatability to viewers before they even start watching.
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If you watch and rewatch videos of people making and eating food on YouTube for hours on end, you’re not alone. Food videos have been a popular aspect of media since Julia Child’s debut in 1963. But what grew into a highly produced and profitable industry on traditional television was revolutionized by the internet.

With the rise of online content came disruption of what had become a narrowly tailored genre on TV. Self-made and uploaded videos of amateur chefs and consumers went viral, and angles that had gone unexplored, like Hannah Hart’s “My Drunk Kitchen” series, found wide-ranging success for their entertainment value.

Now, YouTubers who never cook capitalize on food, with drive-thru challenges and ASMR mukbangs being just two of the millions of ways people watch other people eat.

In 2015, BuzzFeed’s Tasty pioneered the addictive closeup videos of other people making complicated recipes in minutes and was one of the first new-media operations to find wide success through innovating on food content.

Now, large traditional media is catching and cleaning up in the food video space. Condé Nast properties Bon Appétit and Epicurious have found viral success with video series that spawn their own memes, fandoms, and communities (many that revolve around the Bon Appétit chef Claire Saffitz).

The secret sauce in viral food videos

One of the most popular Epicurious series that nets more than 1 million views per episode, sometimes reaching more than 10 million, is “4 Levels.” Each episode takes a common, customizable food, like hamburgers, tacos, grilled cheese, pancakes, or spaghetti and meatballs ,and has three different chefs at different skill levels attempt to make them. A food scientist discusses the different methods afterward for the fourth level.

What’s appealing about the “4 Levels” show isn’t just the engaging format and playful editing, although both of those elements are a must for almost any successful YouTube series. As the comments section of “4 Levels” shows, a huge draw of the videos are the wholesome chefs and their personalities.

Unlike the trained chefs like Saffitz on Bon Appétit or the professionals who showcase their talents on cult favorite cooking shows like “Chopped,” the chefs who emerge as strong fan favorites on “4 Levels” aren’t even really chefs.

Inside jokes that pepper the comment sections often reference Emily Duncan, one of the original Level 1 chefs who became an instant fan favorite for her use of ketchup (she put it on french toast once, and almost every comment section for every “4 Levels” video references it, even the videos that don’t feature Duncan).

Some of the top comments under the

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Some of the top comments under the “4 Levels” hamburger episode that showcase the wholesome fan engagement with the chefs on the series.
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Screenshot YouTube/Epicurious

In an email, Duncan told Insider that she does comedy and a little acting, which is how she got involved in the casting process for “4 Levels.” Her first episode, “4 Levels of Hamburgers” published in March 2019, has over 18 million views. She says she’s had a few people recognize her in public because of it – and she does read the comments.

“The biggest surprise is definitely that people have reacted so positively to me, despite my unconventional condiment choices,” Emily said. “Sometimes I screenshot the really funny or nice ones, I have a few saved to a Bad Day folder. Sometimes if people say something really mean about me I’ll respond agreeing with them, but I don’t think anyone’s picked up that it’s me.”

As a channel, Epicurious is angled toward home cooks. Matt Duckor, the Vice President of Condé Nast Entertainment’s Lifestyle Division, told Insider that the channel “is speaking to people who get dinner on the table five nights a week,” and that the relatability aspect of having chefs like Duncan reflects that service-driven angle.

“It was super important that all the cooks be relatable. Especially having that Level 1 and 2, the ‘that could be me,’ that is really, really important,” Duckor said. “We do have a kitchen of professional chefs at Bon Appétit, but I think the best thing about them that people gravitate toward the most is that they f— up constantly, and not like too much, but we show the relatability. We keep the mistakes.”

Even the more advanced Level 2 and Level 3 chefs maintain some semblance of relatability, which is acknowledged heavily in the comments. Lorenzo Beronilla might be the star of the series in that regard, since every video featuring him is loaded with comments about his “dad” and “uncle” energy, his enthusiasm, and how good his dishes end up looking. In videos that don’t have Beronilla, or other favorites, people ask for them back.

Beronilla told Insider in an email that he doesn’t read the comment section, but that he does get stared at a lot, especially in grocery stores, since he started making appearances on “4 Levels.”

“It’s humbling and a little strange when I really think about it,” Beronilla said. “I never really thought I would be on a cooking show. In my mind I just shake my head and think I’m just a guy who always cooked.”

The comment section under the Epicurious

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The comment section under the Epicurious “4 Levels” video about spaghetti and meatballs.
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Screenshot YouTube/Epicurious

If Beronilla did read the comments, he’d see a lot of fans clamoring for him to have his own cooking show, along with those praising his “Level 100” personality and skill level. With some view counts in the tens of millions, the “4 Levels” show can definitely hold its own among actual full-fledged network TV show audiences.

In 2014, “Chopped” averaged about 700,000 viewers. On YouTube, The Food Network has fewer than 1 million subscribers, compared to Epicurious’ 1.58 million and Bon Appétit’s 4.65 million.

The future of food videos

Emily, Lorenzo, and a Level 3 chef Frank pictured side-by-side.

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Emily, Lorenzo, and a Level 3 chef Frank pictured side-by-side.
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Epicurious

Big-name chefs aren’t going away any time soon, but YouTube only continues to grow as an entertainment platform, especially for Gen Z, which watches it more than regular TV already. The direction of food entertainment and “chefs” on YouTube is drifting toward people like the stars of “4 Levels” and YouTubers who partake in amateur cooking, or even just amateur eating.

As national surveys show young people have less time to cook, and are less likely to have a family unit to cook for – turning their attention away from the burner toward food delivery app – it’s easy to imagine the appeal of watching normal people make a recipe from scratch like mom or dad used to.

That’s a positive for companies like Condé Nast, which has pivoted a lot of its attention toward its entertainment division.

“Take Bobby Flay – his whole shtick is that he’s a professional chef. I think there’s very little to relate to there. You’re not like ‘Oh, I see myself in Bobby Flay as a chef,'” Duckor said.

“We win in that we over-deliver on what the expectations were, so we give you a video with the most relatable people and you learn something new.”