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‘Babish Culinary Universe’ turned underworld

Andrew Rea’s Youtube channel is only one example of modern food media and the sensationalization of cooking

Python. Rum-soaked ham. The ratatouille from Ratatouille. Prison sauce. Bison. “Pizza Crepe Taco Pancake Chili Bag.” Dessert pasta. Julia Child’s beef bourguignon. Acorn cookies. Broiled Cornish game hen sandwich. And, of course, sourdough.

Binging with Babish — recently rebranded to Babish Culinary Universe — is one of the standout YouTube cooking channels which have exploded in popularity over the past few months. Known for his recreations of pop culture’s most famous foods — like his take on the Krabby Patty — Andrew Rea (alias Oliver Babish) has injected the otherwise classical, primal serenity of cooking with a turkey baster of contemporary media hijinx. The result is eight million followers and an approximately $4 million net worth. 

It takes one Babish video to understand Rea’s magic formula: a modern industrial kitchen, a calming voice and a camera angle that reveals just Rea’s torso — and sometimes a glimpse of a salt and pepper beard. The angle of most Babish videos showcases only Rea’s hands, and only ever his hands, transform ground beef into one of “Bob’s Burgers. Though he often does reveal his face — with hipster glasses and a shining bald head — most of the time the audience is left ogling his forearm tattoos: a gavel on the left arm and a whisk on the right.

The mysterious camerawork of the channel encapsulates the oddness of its success. Are eight million people really that curious about “The Foods of Seinfeld”? There are certain cinematic culinary feats that deserve attention, like his “Ratatouille” video that garnered 24 million views. But the bagel sandwiches from “Steven Universe” are, plainly, bagel sandwiches. Are the nine million views avid “Steven Universe” fans or just foodies looking for a bagel recipe?

The success of Babish feels like the final stage of a slow, painful death for public cooking. The one-man, homely kitchen, roast chicken cooking show no longer cuts it. Food is now expected to entertain in some external way, to excite rather than only to sustain. As Babish’s TV-inspired gastronomy shows, food and the constant stimulation of media have fully wed.

In quarantine, with little to mark the day, meals became one of the few creative outlets still available to those locked inside. Trips to the grocery store became expeditions. People scoured for the best recipes, dug into the annals of YouTube for tutorials and subscribed to cooking magazines for the first time. Cooking was a hobby you could perform safely, at home, with great personal reward.

The nationwide flour shortages of the early spring were tangible evidence of this new national preoccupation. And as a result, cooking publications — magazines, books, videos — began to thrive while their cousins, restaurants, floundered. The incessant popularity of Bon Appétit and the magazine’s YouTube channel was proof of the hold food had come to take on everyone’s life. While the pandemic stole all aspects of normality, one could watch Brad (everyone there was on an eerily friendly first-name basis) from Bon Appétit wax on about chicken stock. 

But as Babish knows, and perhaps the folks at Bon Appétit didn’t, food is media, politics, society and the rest. While centuries ago it was merely a means of survival, an apolitical refuge, you can no longer wrestle food from its socio-cultural implications. Survival has become politicized, and so has our sustenance. 

In June, Bon Appétit editor-in-chief Adam Rappaport came under fire for a racist Halloween costume from 2004. Members of Bon Appétit’s famed YouTube channel spoke out against Rappaport, including chef Sohla El-Waylly, who said she was not compensated as much as her white colleagues for her work on the magazine’s YouTube channel. The June fiasco sparked a larger conversation about the magazine’s lack of diversity in both staff and content. Following a slew of Instagram apologies, a boycott movement and a number of resignations, including Rappaport’s, the YouTube channel began a four-month hiatus.

Rea saw Bon Appétit’s implosion as an opportunity. Hiring the publication’s El-Waylly, the former Bon Appétit star now hosts a show on Babish’s channel titled “Stump Sohla.” Like most of Babish Culinary Universe, however, the practicality of “Stump Sohla” is nowhere to be found. In one episode she cooks 18th-century mac and cheese. In another, she creates a tasting menu out of convenience store ingredients, circuitously transforming Cheez-Its back into a nicer form of cracker. Sacrificing usefulness for the zany, practicality for the gimmick, “Stump Sohla” is more like a gameshow than anything else. Food is just the pawn.

Somewhere along the way, food becomes linked to politics, to trends and commercialism. For most self-taught chefs, though, at Rea’s level or far below, food is inextricably linked to family, to place, to culture and time. Rea himself got into cooking through his mother, who passed away when he was young. Food is born from the primal desire to sustain and provide. People like Rea, companies like Bon Appétit and platforms like Tasty — a Buzzfeed product that, among other things, makes short videos detailing how to make massive versions of otherwise small food — don’t just succumb to the powers that bend cooking into a prettily packaged vestige of consumerism: they cut at the root. 

In one episode, Rea attempts to create “The Every Meat” burrito from “The Regular Show.” It required $576 of rare meats and the result — a conglomeration of bull testicles, python and lamb — was so revolting Babish spit it out, his face making a rare entrance into the frame as he leaned over the trash can. The video has nearly 14 million views. Babish Culinary Universe is, of course, just a show, and Tasty is just an app and Bon Appétit is just a magazine. No one platform is responsible for the commercialization of food — that occurred decades ago. Greater forces, namely capitalism, are to blame. But the modern food media market isn’t innocent; they aren’t just capitalizing off of the public’s interest in outlandish creations. They’re suggesting food should be ridiculous. They have twisted food into a game, something that can be chewed up and immediately spit out.


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