Quarantine Came And J. Kenji Lopez-Alt Kept Cooking
An actual chef re-commits to food YouTube with glorious results
J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is an unassuming presence at first. He is, of course, an accomplished professional chef, food scientist, and food writer. Binging with Babish mentions him and uses his recipes more than any other chef. His writings on classic kitchen conundrums and myths are passed around in cooking circles like holy texts. But on YouTube, you might have just thought he was an enthusiastic home cook.
In contrast to the rest of his contemporaries on the food side of YouTube, with their fancy cameras, producers, and production value (which in some instances exist to make up for lack of true kitchen mastery), Kenji’s uploads, from as far back as four years ago, have been simple and understated pieces — minimally edited, and sometimes even minimally instructional. Titles were self-explanatory, like “Egg Quesadilla” and “Late night grilled cheese” (he uses both mayo and butter, and toasts both sides of the bread, and grates chorizo through a cheese grater. You gotta see it.)
These videos were almost entirely uncut, and shot from a distinctive point-of-view perspective. He clearly had strapped some instrument like a GoPro to his head. And in most of those videos, Kenji opted not to talk at all (probably so as not to wake up his family during late nights). As a result, the videos were calming, and meditative, and fascinatingly instructive. With their unedited nature, they allowed the viewer to watch a cook’s process uninhibited, the “boring” moments left in.
You were able to notice the little tics that a many-years professional chef might have developed—lightly touching objects in the kitchen and absent-mindedly moving them around as he thinks in the seconds between moments where his attention is needed. Frequent trips and return trips to the fridge (Kenji’s is gloriously stocked, as one or two YouTube commenters an episode will remind you). And of course, a deeply-felt deftness with kitchen equipment and knives, which lead to impressively quick but not show-offy ingredient prep. And it was all rewardingly at a real, human pace.
Commenters remarked how refreshing the realism was in this age of over-produced and over-glitzed cooking videos. Gone were the hot-swapped meals and already-prepped ingredients in their own little perfectly-sized glass ramekins. Kenji just made piles of ingredients on his cutting board as he chopped them. He occasionally got distracted. When afforded a spare moment, he’d dig through the fridge and pull out some variety of brown alcoholic drink and sip it. Sometimes his gas burner would give him trouble and he had to jump start it with a piece of paper towel. A guy probably named Steve commented “I feel you on that burner, man. I have the same problem.”
If you didn’t know who this guy was, he could have easily just been an enthusiast, or even just A Guy With A Kitchen. He gave no pretenses about who he was or what he might know — to this day he still rattles off bits of information like they’re just simply interesting facts, not like “I went to culinary school and then I went to a professional kitchen where people yelled at me, so listen up.” He was calm and workmanlike — only chopping as fast as he could and needed, which was very fast, but not needlessly, aggressively so.
Before the quarantine, videos from Kenji were a random and pleasant surprise. They would come infrequently, and often uploaded at 2 or 3am PST, presumably after he got home from a day at the restaurant and wanted to whip up something quick. That lightning-fast turnaround speed indicated he probably didn’t even edit them. He just filmed, ripped them from the GoPro, and pressed upload on YouTube, all while eating the cacio é pepe he had just made or whatever.
These videos were never going to be his day job. He never had to stress about that. He didn’t worry about consistent uploads, or reminding viewers to “like subscribe and comment below.” The guy owns a restaurant and has written multiple books and has edited respected food publications. Consider it a fun side diversion. He’d probably upload all the same if no one was watching.
But then the quarantine started. Restaurants across the country, like Kenji’s Wursthall in San Mateo, CA, summarily shut-down operations outside of take-out and delivery. Wursthall even nobly started an effort to donate meals to organizations in need but even so, Kenji just couldn’t keep everyone on staff. Things stopped hard, and then built back up to slow.
A few days into lockdown, Kenji uploaded a video. It was a standard Kenji-style upload, this time featuring him cooking in his restaurant late at night, alone, using pinches of their bulk ingredients to reheat a slice of pizza.
What wasn’t standard though, was the next day when he uploaded again. And again the day after that. Initially all the videos were in that same setting, alone at Wursthall. Commenters theorized, only half-jokingly, that Kenji had taken to quarantining alone in his own closed-down restaurant.
He was soon seen back in his home kitchen, but the uploads continued: once a day, sometimes twice a day, and once even three times in a day, for something like 76 days straight. No weekends off. He finally started to slow down sometime in June, when he scaled back to only uploading three to five times a week. By that point, the work had been done. His YouTube channel took off like a rocket.
It seemed like a no-brainer. These videos were likely among the cheapest and easiest to produce in all of media, everyone including and especially restaurant owners had more time on their hands, and people at large were both bored in their homes and two days away from caving and buying the ingredients for a Sourdough starter.
Importantly, he has never mentioned the virus, or anything extraneous really, besides the food he was working on in that moment. Besides frequent stops to wash hands, if you lived under a rock you would be none the wiser why he started to up the frequency.
But there was a subtle feeling in those first few days and weeks of lockdown that, simply, it was awfully good of Kenji to make this content at that time. If you remember those first few weeks, things really did feel scary. Worse still, you couldn’t avoid seeing mentions of the pandemic or thinking about it. Every stupid little show or podcast or Instagram feed you consumed was shifted, or altered, or aware and PSA’ing about the situation.
But here was Kenji, making the same kinds of videos he always made. Not newly necessarily stuck behind a Zoom webcam, not obligated to mention the situation or create content in the context of it. This was just a guy cooking in his home. He was home a lot more than usual, but that was all.
As I, like many of us during lockdown, have gotten into cooking, I’ve started to feel myself mimicking Kenji — not solely because of some monkey brain copying instinct (although I’m sure that’s a factor) but because it truly feels like that’s the right way to go about things. Gather your ingredients from their various sources. Prep them all one-by-one, either before starting anything or as you wait for water to boil or an oven to pre-heat. Keep a waste bowl for any and all scraps. If you’re working with a low volume of ingredients, clean up and trash and compost items as you go. Wash your hands.
There’s a lovely feeling of calm that washes over you as you work, intertwining with your newly heightened focus to keep your mind clear. For me at least, the self-knowledge that I will never be a professional chef or anything close to it takes a lot of the pressure off and makes it more pleasurable. It’s an opportunity to have a real honest to goodness non-monetized hobby in a time when those are rarer and rarer.
Kenji will set you straight on the basics of reheating a bagel, of grilling burgers, and of boiling your pasta (you don’t need to have the water at a rolling boil before you add the pasta, and you also don’t need to have a ton of extra water — Kenji uses a high-walled wide skillet — less water creates even starchier pasta water for use afterwards.)
He’ll show you reverse searing a steak. Gazpacho. Caprese salad. No knead homemade bread. A tortilla española with Funyuns inside for some reason. Carbonara french toast. Recently he’s been cooking late night fried rice in a wok outdoors over a butane-fueled open burner that bears a bit too much resemblance to a jet engine. The dude’s insane — in the best way.
And you just have to see this one pan egg sandwich. The little hacks he uses blew my mind. Then when I recreated it, I thought I had transcended to another plane of existence — one where I was somehow good at cooking.
Because the microphone on the GoPro is literally attached to his face, we get unique access to the sounds of someone centimeters away. Eagle-eared viewers are now able to differentiate respective chewing sounds, as he takes a bite from the dish at the end of every episode, from crispy to chewy. (It’s like that sound where you feel like you’re inside someone’s head.) Another commented the other day that his unconscious grunting and sighing sounds only increase in frequency and fervor the closer he gets to plating a carb-heavy late-night meal.
While the content upped in frequency, it didn’t change in tone, or presentation. Videos were still titled “How to fry an egg” and “First Person BLT.” He didn’t even worry about giving the “show” a “proper name” until a month or two in to the new schedule. Even then, it was simply dubbed Kenji’s Cooking Show. It took a couple videos after that for thumbnails with information and the show name to be added.
Gradually, he’s added more GoPros. One is attached to the handle of the pan, stabilizing the shot so when he flips items around in it, the rest of the world shakes instead of the pan itself. One is placed in front of the oven for timelapses. And gradually, videos have begun to be just lightly edited — cutting between those cameras, sometimes doing a picture-in-picture with a real-time shot of an item roasting in the oven. One time he tried out a cheeky transition from the GoPro cam into the pan-handle cam.
Now final frames of videos show this randomly 80’s-inspired closing title graphic. So don’t worry: he’s still not taking it too seriously.
Most importantly though, it’s this new schedule that has exploded him onto the scene. YouTube’s algorithm has vaulted him into the feeds of significantly more viewers, which only leads to avalanching of visibility and return viewers.
On YouTube, consistency is the name of the game. If you can upload weekly, great. Daily? Better yet. Then, if you can, worry about the length of your videos. Put simply, the longer your video, the more money you can make. And then, hope that you have nothing offensive in the content you make.
This is the landscape of YouTube in mid-2020. It’s hurt creators that report on sometimes-heavy news, creators that say curse words in their conversations, and now even creators that simply mention the coronavirus, even in passing.
Food channels, though, are nearly bulletproof, due to their simple, inoffensive nature. The money keeps flowing, unless you have a Gordon Ramsay-style meltdown or something. Viewers and subscribers just continue to accumulate. And food shows have an infinite-ness about them that other genres lack — there will always be more people learning to cook, or learning more dishes and techniques, or just finding food idly interesting. (I found myself in a food video rabbit hole and watched for months before I thought to try anything myself). Pretty good niche if you can find it. And as Kenji proved during his 76 day/83 video sprint (where he really only covered the basics of his dishes), there is no end to the topics he could cover.
In making this move, Kenji has pulled off a few things I’m sure he didn’t intend when starting out. He’s probably created a seriously profitable and maintainable income source, when anyone in the food community can’t be feeling too comfortable. He’s carved out a loyal and interested audience. In a short amount of time he’s built up a rich library of content that is uniquely respected by fans of food YouTube, who frankly have seen everything already. And he’s proved that anyone with talent and persistence, even still in 2020, can pop on YouTube with the right mix of intangibles, content, and timing.
But most importantly, he’s moved the needle on cooking for probably many thousands of people. With all the benefits to the body and soul cooking can bring, and especially right now, that is no insignificant or ignoble feat.
He’s got me cooking more, at least. I’m gonna make that egg sandwich again tomorrow.