How Bon Appétit Accidentally Made YouTube’s Most Beloved Stars

Claire, Brad, and the gang have created not only a successful series but a devoted fandom.

In Bon Appétit’s test kitchen, chef Claire Saffitz is opposite a five-person production crew, displaying five trays of frozen Bagel Bites. Not the packaged kind, but homemade ones she’s spent four days perfecting. She removes the cling wrap from each metal tray, evaluating her work before the bites go into the oven for their final toast.

The test kitchen’s manager, Gaby Melian, pops over and demands Saffitz save a bite for her — she’s been patiently waiting for days. The two exchange smiles and laughs, all captured on camera. It’s a tiny interaction, unprompted, unscripted, but it’s exactly the sort of charming little moment that’s catapulted Bon Appétit’s video content from run-of-the-mill cooking instructionals to viral sensations driven by a cast of genuinely beloved hosts.

The test kitchen videos now pull in millions of views, with more than 5 million subscribers to the channel. A fandom has risen up and embraced its stars with memes, fan art, TikToks, and hashtags that have people declaring they would die for Saffitz.

And no one is more surprised than the chefs themselves. After all, this sort of started as an accident. But now that they know they’re stars, can they hold on to that allure of authenticity?

Back in 2016, Bon Appétit’s YouTube presence was what you’d expect from the posh Condé Nast magazine. There were few faces, no names, and a collection of close-up “hands and pans” recipe videos, shot in the style pioneered by BuzzFeed’s Tasty. The focus was very much the food and how to make it. There were some early attempts to inject more personality, like a May 2016 video in which editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport makes bacon by…heating it up in a pan.

Viewers weren’t terribly impressed. “I'm one of those that adds bacon to an already hot pan, thanks for the tip 👌,” one commenter wrote.

View this video on YouTube

This video was part of a new initiative to showcase Bon Appétit’s colorful collection of new editors, hired by Rapoport after he came over from GQ in 2011. Around the same time as the bacon video, the team filmed then–test kitchen manager Brad Leone, a fermentation enthusiast, making his own kombucha.

The footage sat dormant for eight months until camera operator and editor Vincent Cross (who has since left Bon Appétit) dug it up and threw an edit together. He showed it to director Matthew Hunziker (affectionately known as Hunzi), who jazzed it up with graphics and sound effects.

It was everything video wasn’t supposed to be at the time. The final edit was more than nine minutes long, Leone kept talking to “Vinny” behind the camera instead of the viewer, and a bunch of explanations had to be added because Leone had changed his recipe since the initial shoot. Instead of precise instructions, Leone switched his train of thought on the fly with a childlike exuberance and a charming New Jersey accent. He never even explained what the SCOBY — the bacteria needed to make kombucha — is or how to get it.

Compared to the slick, short videos Bon Appétit had been putting out, it was a mess. Even the name, “It’s Alive with Brad Leone,” was a joke because who the hell was Brad Leone?

Hunziker thought it would never make it to YouTube. Leone thought he’d get fired. But it worked.

“I really expected somebody at some point to be like, ‘Alright, funny but, like, you can't publish that,’” Hunziker told BuzzFeed News.

“And then after the fifth episode — I kind of really went ham on that episode for the first time — and they didn't tell me stop and I was like, oh, alright, we're just going to keep doing this? OK.”

It turned out that Rapoport was a fan of the new direction — in fact, it’s what he was hoping would happen.

“I saw it. I loved it immediately because it felt like we were just hanging out with Brad, and as coworkers of Brad, we were always so amused and so enthralled by all things Brad,” said Rapoport.

“They just let Brad be Brad. And that's not easy to do because typically with TV and video, it gets overly thought-out and overly produced and plays a bit too safe. They often don't let people be themselves — people turn into these weird TV people when there's a camera on them. ”

It worked because it broke not only the rules but also smashed right through Bon Appétit’s own slick branding.

“I make mistakes just like viewers will, so in a way we all learn together. I never really liked doing super-clean, recipe-driven videos. I love the raw, longer-format style that we capture with It’s Alive,” Leone told BuzzFeed News.

Viewers liked it, too. That first video is currently sitting at just under 3 million views and the series is one of Bon Appétit’s most watched, even spinning off into It’s Alive: Goin’ Places, where Leone goes on multiepisode adventures.

With a new proven formula, the team set out to showcase other Bon Appétit editors with their own shows, which is what led to Gourmet Makes, hosted by pastry chef and former senior editor Claire Saffitz, which now has more than 220 million views.

In each episode, we watch Saffitz grow more and more frustrated as she tries to make a homemade, gourmet version of a classic snack food, like Oreos, Skittles, and Pringles.

While not quite as chaotic as It’s Alive, the show borrows the hallmarks: It’s unscripted, Saffitz talks to the camera, plenty of mistakes are made, and there are always a few cameos from other Bon Appétit chefs who pop by to cheer Saffitz on or offer advice. The joy of the episodes isn’t the end recipe (they’re often rather complicated), but watching Saffitz slowly unravel before finally, in a blaze of glory, making a finished product.

At first, Saffitz wasn’t sold on failing on camera.

“I didn't like that aspect of it because I felt like it made me look like not an expert, and I was worried about looking unknowledgeable on camera,” she said. “But then I quickly came to appreciate it's an entire show about problem-solving and that's actually way more interesting.”

It’s that tension that has made Gourmet Makes so watchable and so memeable. Instead of watching an instructor, you feel like you’re watching a friend who just happens to be a lot more skilled than you.

Bon Appétit’s videos aren’t just racking up views on YouTube, there’s a whole fandom now built around a love for Saffitz, Leone, and all their coworkers. Gourmet Makes and Saffitz’s frazzled state are particular favorites for meme fodder, and one of the top purveyors is Meme Appétit, run by two guys in the UK.

Meme Appétit is an Instagram account dedicated to Bon Appétit memes that has 239,000 followers. It’s run by Will Martin and Harry Kersh, who both work in media, and was born at a pub after work one night in 2018.

“We had basically zero expectations when we started the account, and kind of hoped that maybe we’d maybe one day get a like from Brad and a couple of thousand followers,” the pair told BuzzFeed News, via email.

“Nowadays we add somewhere in the region of 1,000 followers a day, and are gunning for 500,000. What amazes us is that we now have more followers than several members of the actual test kitchen staff, which seems silly.”

The memes pick up on exactly what’s made the Bon Appétit videos so viral — like Saffitz stressing over Skittles, Leone pronouncing water as “wourder,” deputy food editor Chris Morocco's amazing palate and sage advice, and Gaby Melian’s adorable exuberance.

And that’s the secret to Bon Appétit’s success that you just can’t plan for — everyone is just so damn likable. Saffitz, in particular, has spawned the hashtag #IWDFCFTBATK, which stands for “I would die for Claire from the Bon Appétit test kitchen.”

“Bon Appétit has done such a great job of shrugging off the stuffy legacy media brand persona and now leans heavily on authenticity, and it's something that people really seem to appreciate,” said Martin and Kersh.

They added that the series delivers satisfying moments of relatability, like Leone spilling something or Saffitz struggling to temper chocolate.

“By not editing out the mistakes and the emotional turmoil they can bring, BA provides people with deeply relatable content even if they don't have the technical ability of a trained chef or a professional kitchen at their disposal,” they said.

The fandom has touched all corners of the internet, including TikTok. In one of the most liked videos, 25-year-old Tyler Gaca parodies Gourmet Makes using a stick of gum.

Gaca told BuzzFeed News he loves the Bon Appétit chefs because they’re the opposite of the usual vlogger personalities you see on YouTube. They don’t shout at the camera, they’re not desperate for you to like them, and nothing feels like it’s fake.

“I love how down-to-earth they are. They really highlight the flaws and the mishaps of the show,” he said. “They don’t necessarily feel like internet personas.”

Aside from Saffitz, Gaca also has a soft spot for Morocco, who has his own series called Reverse Engineering where he tastes a famous chef’s dish while blindfolded and attempts to re-create it. Morocco is best known in the fandom for pestering Saffitz to temper chocolate and for popping in to offer measured advice.

“I think a lot of people kind of misinterpreted that in the early days, like, ‘Oh, who is this old curmudgeon perched on a stool being a jerk to everybody?’” Morocco told BuzzFeed News. “I think it's cool that people now more than over can now genuinely see I'm here to elevate everybody else's work, not just my own.”

How they’d come off in memes never really crossed the mind of anyone at Bon Appétit before the videos took off because none of them ever expected they’d become internet stars.

“Nobody did it for notoriety. The most you could hope for was some kind of industry recognition,” said Morocco. “But nobody came here thinking that they were going to get famous.”

Yet they definitely are. They now all have stories about being recognized or stopped on the street or subway, which no one thought would happen.

“It has its freaky moments,” Melian, the kitchen’s bubbly manager. “When you're on the train and somebody's staring at you, and then they go like this with their phone trying to point it at you and you're like, Dude, you want a picture — let's take a picture. Say hello. I don't bite.

For Saffitz, it’s been a surprise since she doesn’t really use social media. She only knows about the memes because other people send them to her.

“This last year has been a lot of really hard work and so it doesn't really feel like that wider renown has permeated my bubble a lot of the time,” she said. “But of course it's very funny and flattering and a little crazy and a tiny bit weird, but I just kind of look at it with a sense of humor.”

Rapoport said they first realized they’d made it big at a festival in San Francisco last summer.

“The number of 22-year-old kids in Doc Martens and halter tops and T-shirts running up to get autographs and selfies taken, you're like, Oh wow, we're at a music festival in San Francisco, and these people are obsessed with Bon Appétit. Like, that took a while to sink in,” he said.

“Now, as we've done more and more events and meeting fans in person, that's more the norm than the exception.”

If this all started as a happy fluke, the question now is how to leverage it and keep it going without ruining everything that makes it good.

The magazine has taken big steps to grow the test kitchen's success, like a new series called Making Perfect. It was the first big attempt at creating an ensemble cast to feature all of the kitchen’s many personalities. The first follows Leone, Saffitz, Molly Baz, Carla Lalli Music, Andy Baraghani, and Chris Morocco trying to make the perfect pizza by examining each part in detail — the sauce, the crust, the cheese — before putting it all back together for the perfect pie.

The success of that then led to the second season, with a bigger cast and a bigger task: the perfect Thanksgiving meal. Again, the appeal isn’t just the food (although it looks very tasty), but getting to watch all the chefs interact outside of the kitchen.

It was also the first time Bon Appétit made a measured push to connect its viral success to the actual magazine. The November 2019 issue featured eight covers with eight different Test Kitchen chefs and an 18-page feature spread about the Making Perfect food.

Rapoport said those test kitchen stars (with the exception of Saffitz, who is now a freelance contributor) are all still doing their day-to-day jobs creating recipes for the magazine. The trick is bringing it all together.

“We just need to do a better job of capitalizing on that connection,” he said. “It's really on us to make sure that each platform propels the other and be smart about it.”

In a world where print is struggling to survive, Condé Nast said Bon Appétit’s subscriptions saw a 616% increase during its Thanksgiving promotion compared to the same period last year, and the median age of these new subscribers is 35. Additionally, Rapoport said the income from the YouTube videos has become a legitimate source of revenue.

“I always say this: We are kind of this chaotic family that loves each other and we argue and we debate and we have all these kinds of emotions and I think people just love seeing that on camera,” said Andy Baraghani, who hosts a series called Andy Explores.“It's all very genuine. I feel very close with the people that I work with.”

Associate editor Christina Chaey agreed, adding that the intention of their video work remains showcasing cooking skills — not getting famous.

“We're not like out here producing reality television. It's like, we have these very real jobs and our objective is more frankly to help people learn how to cook and enjoy food as much as we do,” she said. “But there's like this unintended consequence, which has been super positive.”

To put it simply, the video content just makes people happy. Like a big bowl of gooey mac ‘n’ cheese, it’s visual comfort food best enjoyed after a long day. That’s even the overarching theme of all those memes — watching the videos is just a feel-good time.

For Chaey, there was a single moment that proved this to her. She was shopping one day, and the woman behind the register recognized her. The cashier had just had surgery and told Chaey she spent two weeks in pain recovering at home and discovered the Bon Appétit channel. She watched every single video.

“Just the way she expressed her gratitude for the ability to escape was really emotional,” said Chaey.

“Personally I'm still not used to when people come up or DM and write these paragraphs upon paragraph and it's kind of overwhelming, and I think all I can do is thank them and continue to do the work that we do,” said Baraghani. ●

How Bon Appétit Accidentally Made YouTube’s Most Beloved Stars

Claire, Brad, and the gang have created not only a successful series but a devoted fandom.

Caitlin Ochs for BuzzFeed News
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