How the Bon Appétit fandom became the most wholesome group on the internet
Let’s get into just what makes the Test Kitchen’s YouTube channel such an inviting place to be right now.
When Tyler Gaca came across his first Gourmet Makes video, he remembers feeling like a number of his unspoken desires had been fulfilled. “Just the title ‘Pastry Chef Attempts To Make Gourmet Gushers’...” says the 25-year-old Ohio-based artist. “It was like: ‘I didn't know I needed this video, but I have to watch this right now.’” Now, Claire Saffitz, host of the popular confectionary-based web series, means more to him than he could have imagined. “She’s my everything,” he states simply.
Tyler is not alone in his feelings. Evidence of the fervent love fans feel for the members of the popular editorial kitchen crew is apparent all over the internet. There’s the Twitter account specifically dedicated to Claire’s hair, bizarre fan edits of clips from the channel, and beautiful illustrations dedicated to the chefs, along with the existence of the hashtags #LALLINATION, in appreciation of food editor Carla Lalli Music, and #IWDFCSFTBATK (I Would Die For Claire Saffitz From The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen).
The channel’s fandom has spread far across the world, but to get an insight into its appeal, I didn’t have to look any further than i-D’s own Róisín Lanigan. Róisín, whose dedication can now be measured by Halloween costume, first happened upon the videos by chance; her boyfriend would often use them as a kind of calming white noise to listen to while he worked.
However, it wasn’t love at first sight. The channel has a wide variety of videos, and most of the content Róisín had seen from it frankly lacked personality. “I had only really been familiar with the ‘hands’ videos, like from BuzzFeed Tasty,” she explains. While this format was certainly a pioneering one for online food content, it’s relatively restrictive, and as such has moved into progressively more bizarre territory to upkeep its former popularity.
On Bon Appétit’s channel, ‘hands’ videos make up just a small subsection of the available content. And as the popularity of more casual, unconventional food videos became apparent to the team’s editors, the chefs’ personalities began to take centre stage. “I sort of started watching it and I was like, ‘This is so stupid, who are all these people? This is so annoying,’” says Róisín. “And then I watched the [Gourmet Makes] Twinkies episode, and immediately switched to, ‘Oh my god I love this!’"
“Some of the ones I don't really like are the ones that are just classic cooking stuff,” she adds. “When it's ‘Andy Makes Paella’, I'm like ‘Well, I could watch that anywhere.’ But when it's weirder, like ‘Every Way to Cook A Steak", or Claire trying to make Butterfingers, it's just something you wouldn't find elsewhere.”
Tyler was also drawn in by the originality of the Gourmet Makes premise, one which arguably makes it the channel’s most consistently popular series. For the uninitiated, each episode of the show sees pastry chef Claire Saffitz try to put together a gourmet recreation of popular junk foods: flavourings are excluded in favour of extractions of fresh fruit, milk chocolate is substituted with semisweet and painstakingly tempered to glossy perfection. “I think my favourite is probably when she makes gourmet Fruit Gushers, just because I love the ones where it's a really odd-ball food,” Tyler muses. “Something where it's like, ‘We really have to start from zero here. How can we even physically construct something like this?’”
But it’s not as if the legacy food magazine doesn’t have more traditional fans either. “I'd been watching BA videos since 2015, before they were cool,” says 27-year-old Will Martin. “I subscribe to the magazine, I make a lot of the recipes. I came to the channel in much more of a ‘this is cool, there's a guy fermenting stuff!’ kind of way, rather than the personality-driven side of things.”
As one of the admins of @memeappetit, a (strictly unaffiliated) BA fan account with over 330,000 followers, Will and his co-admin Harry Kersh are Instagram royalty. The job certainly has its perks -- in November they were invited to Condé Nast’s New York headquarters to meet the Test Kitchen team -- but there are more overwhelming moments too. “Sometimes there will be stuff that goes viral on platforms that aren't Instagram -- so maybe Tumblr, or increasingly TikTok -- and people will see it and we will get one hundred of the same DM being like, ‘you guys need to see this,’” Will explains.
“There was one recently where there was a clock that had a picture of a bulb of garlic on it,“ he continues. “So many people sent that one in saying ‘haha, this is Brad Leone's clock’. From an account management perspective it's a nightmare, but it's also just really lovely that people want to share things with us.”
A sense of community is often what makes a fandom a genuinely joyful thing to be a part of. “People are actually nice to each other, which is weird on the internet!” Will says, laughing. It goes without saying that these online relationships are increasingly vital at a time when our interaction with the outside world is so limited, and many people are experiencing poorer mental health.
“We've definitely played up the whole idea of BA being a depression cure and that sort of thing in our memes. It's very comforting viewing, the YouTube channel, just because it's very authentic,” says Harry, “[The chefs] are experts in what they do, but they don't approach it from a snobby or exclusionary point of view.”
With the globe in the clutches of the coronavirus pandemic, the act of home cooking has also taken on a new relevance. In a similar way, New York Times columnist and chef Alison Roman (who notably is an ex-BA editor) has provided a kind of hearty lifeline to the quarantined with her popular, intuitive recipes. In an article titled ‘Why a Pandemic Is the Perfect Time to Trust Alison Roman’, The Cut journalist Molly Fischer writes that while Alison was already a very successful chef, she has now become “the domestic goddess of the apocalypse” as many turn to cooking as a quarantine hobby as well as a newly-important life skill. “We would like someone who seems like they know what they’re doing to tell us what to do and how,” she writes.
Despite the fact that there are certain ingredients you’d only be able to find at a New York farmer’s market, there’s a similar sense of accessibility even with the more straight-forward Bon Appétit recipe videos. “They highlight the lows and the mistakes just as much as they do the successes,” notes Tyler. “And I think that's why it appeals to the fans, because it kind of humanises them more than maybe the chefs you see on the Food Network, where they're going in with a recipe they've been making for however many years and it's all very polished.”
Will, who is also an experienced home chef, tends to agree. “It's not like, ‘Oh I know loads about cooking, I'm gonna preach to you now.’ They make it clear that you can make mistakes, improvise, do what you like. It’s more like: ‘We have these good recipes, but ultimately cooking is supposed to be fun and enjoyable.’”