How Bon Appetit’s YouTube Channel Changed the Game

Drawing from the strategies of both the Food Network and Marvel, the food publisher has switched up their playbook

Chris Stokel-Walker
Nov 4, 2019 · 7 min read
Image: Thought Catalog/Unsplash

Chin and Choo Taylor celebrated a milestone on YouTube last month: they passed 40,000 subscribers to their channel. The son and mother, who run a number of restaurants in Porlock and Porlock Weir in sleepy Somerset, England, set up Ziang’s Food Workshop in January 2017. Thirty-three months later, they crossed the key mark.

“We can’t quite believe it,” says son Chin, 33, who records the videos with his mother en masse, preparing and filming episodes over an eight-hour period between midday and 8pm on rare days off from running their food outlets. “We were hoping for 200 or 300 subscribers.”

Ziang’s Food Workshop started as a way to keep busy during long winter fallow periods for the Taylor’s businesses: “We’re really rural and where our shop is, in the winter there’s literally nobody there,” says Taylor. The YouTube channel gave the family something to do, and also were designed to act as a nudge to the fewer than 1,000 local residents within their catchment area: Our restaurants are still here, even if it is cold and dark outside. Come visit.

But it became something bigger for a simple reason, reckons Taylor: “Food is popular because everyone wants to learn to cook.”

That’s something Andrew Rea, the hands behind the Binging with Babish YouTube channel, agrees with. “I don’t have statistics to back this up, but it feels like people are cooking more,” he says. “I think that it’s a product of social media. People might try cooking so they can post a picture of it online.”

According to a report by Social Chain and Tubular Labs, one-quarter of self-identified U.K. “foodies” engage with food and drink content up to five times a day. Rea is tagged in plenty of shaky Instagram snaps of people’s first forays into the kitchen — and he loves it.

“I think it’s just a product of the information age,” he says. “We have access to so many resources, including YouTube as a learning tool.” That’s where he picked up the majority of his culinary skills, he claims.

“I learned to cook when I was very young, from family and from reading cookbooks and stuff, but I wasn’t very good at it and I only became semi-proficient at it during the YouTube age because if I want to see how to make, say, biscuits, I can pop on YouTube and find any kind of biscuits made any kind of way. I can see exactly how it’s supposed to look and how supposed to feel and how it’s supposed to come out. YouTube’s an incredibly powerful learning tool.”

Watch time on cooking recipe videos has increased 55% in the last year, according to data provided by YouTube. While food is eternal, food content on video platforms is having a moment.

That idea of cooking videos as a service is what makes Bon Appetit and its stars some of the most recognizable names on foodtube.

“The history of Bon Appetit as a print legacy publication has been firmly rooted in an identity of cooking, recipes and service journalism,” says Matt Duckor, vice president of video programming at Conde Nast, the company overseeing Bon Appetit and others. “I’d say the BA YouTube channel only slightly departs from that. If you look at most of the people doing food successfully on YouTube, they’ve adopted the same approach.”

The approach has eerie similarities with the original programming broadcast on Food Network 20 years ago. “Some of the underlying principles there are actually pretty similar to what we’ve done,” says Duckor. “It’s personality-led programming sort of through the lens of food, but it was more about getting close to Ina Garten or to Bobby Flay. In the beginning, it was really about all of these people in their own environment, sharing their personal take on cooking. And I think at its core, that’s also what Bon Appetit is doing.”

While the original Food Network stars were all in their own kitchens, homes or studio stages, Duckor believes Brad, Claire, Molly and Carla and their colleagues are the equivalent for Bon Appetit’s core audience of 18-to-34-year-olds, who make up more than 75% of Bon Appetit’s viewership. (Duckor also believes that a significant share of the remainder are under 18 but using their parents’ account, or lying about their age.)

Not for nothing has a rabid fandom sprung up around the Bon Appetit on-camera talent; there’s an entire Twitter feed devoted to Claire Saffitz’s hair, and one posting out of context screenshots from videos.

Duckor and his and colleagues also realized quickly that — although people will quickly search for a how-to video on exactly how to make an Italian zabaglione when confronted with it for the first time — they’ll only stick around if the content is engaging and designed to keep them coming back.

“People just standing and stirring, creating recipes isn’t going to resonate with a mass audience of people on YouTube, and especially the sort of 18-to-34-year-old set that we have on YouTube,” says Duckor. “In many cases, they’re not looking for the traditional food video, they’re looking for these sort of elevated formats and concepts.”

Thus Bon Appetit set up its various continuing series of videos like It’s Alive with Brad Leone and Gourmet Makes, starring Claire Saffitz. “Our videos have gotten sort of longer and longer as you know, the personalities have become more and more part of why people are watching,” says Duckor. The average video posted on Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel today is 871% the length it was in 2016.

Those videos — personality-led series, where the on-camera talent is as likely to extemporize on pop culture as they are to actually lead someone through a recipe step-by-step — led to Making Perfect, Bon Appetit’s landmark series of videos, which was launched in April.

“The premise was, you know, all these all these Test Kitchen talent are amazing and have their own franchises,” says Duckor. “What happens if we took a nod from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and then put them all together, Avengers-style? We thought our fans would love that. We thought it’d be really interesting to see them collaborate in a deliberate way.”

That word — “collaborate” — helps explain why Bon Appetit has succeeded so much in the hypercompetitive world of YouTube. The Test Kitchen location, of which Bon Appetit’s video department co-opted a single kitchen island to rig up lighting, is designed to mainline one of the key growth factors for YouTube channels: collabs.

“Most of the collaboration that happens in the test kitchen is completely organic,” explains Duckor. “When we looked at what we did [with Making Perfect], we didn’t make a glossy TV show, we didn’t spend a million dollars an episode, and we didn’t change the way that we made content. We just changed the scale and ambition of it.”

The rate of content posted on Bon Appetit’s channel definitely helps — as does the support of a major magazine publisher. Bon Appetit’s on-camera bench is 12 deep, and seven monthly concepts air weekly or bi-weekly. “We shoot on our island every single day now, Monday through Friday,” says Duckor.

Their post schedule is perhaps quite not as punishing as BuzzFeed’s Tasty’s, which has posted 76 videos in the last 30 days, according to YouTube analysts Paladin. It’s also perhaps not as frequent as another major food publisher, Twisted, whose chicken pizzadilla megaviral video we broke down earlier this year. They slice and dice each recipe for YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. “We want to exist as a cross-platform channel,” says Twisted co-founder Tom Jackson, whose company — like Binging with Babish — is due to open a live YouTube recording studio in London’s Market Halls later this month. “We want to be creating content for everyone. Food is great for that, it really transcends different platforms.”

But Bon Appetit don’t want it to be too polished. “The runtime and the scope has gotten longer and longer and the stories have gotten more ambitious in what we’re trying to do, but we’re still keeping the core principles of what makes a BA video, that sort of approachable production style,” says Duckor. “It’s not too glossy, it really just feels like you’re hanging out.”

“I think that people are proud to share a little bit more, a little bit more excited to learn a little bit, and more proud to share what they’ve accomplished,” says Rea.

“If you’ve got camera and the ability to chop vegetables halfway decent you can start a channel and as a result, a million and one cooking channels have been created and out of them a few dozen truly brilliant shows have been created,” he says. “That cream has risen to the top: shows like You Suck at Cooking, It’s Alive with Brad, Matty Matheson’s new show, or Chef John’s Food Wishes. They’re truly next level, innovative programming — and it’s all thanks to YouTube.”

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

Chris Stokel-Walker

Written by

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

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