On this episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Tastemade CEO Larry Fitzgibbon talks about the evolution of his successful mobile-centric food and travel video platform. It’s no surprise that food performs well on video — everyone has to eat — but Tastemade has turned that into an audience of more than 200 million people per month worldwide.
In the second half of the show, Peter sits down with Eater Editor Helen Rosner to discuss the nature of chef celebrity and promote Eater’s Upsell podcast.
You can read some of the highlights from the interviews at the link above, or listen to them in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversations.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me, I’m part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m here at Vox Media New York headquarters with Larry Fitzgibbon, CEO of Tastemade. Welcome, Larry.
Larry Fitzgibbon: Thanks for having me, Peter.
Thanks for coming all the way down on a hot, sweaty day.
All the way over from sunny California.
You flew from Los Angeles for this podcast?
Santa Monica, yeah.
I think a lot of people who listen to this podcast will know what Tastemade is, or have heard about it. Just in case they haven’t, give us the two-sentence description of Tastemade.
Absolutely. Tastemade’s a global food and travel network for digital platforms. In today’s world that means mostly mobile. It’s kind of like a ...
You make videos about food that are usually consumed on someone’s phone?
Food and travel, yes, usually on someone’s phone, about 80 percent of the time.
Again, most people who listen to this understand that food performs very well as a category on video. I think it seems super obvious now. When you launched I’m not sure that was as obvious, right?
I think that’s true. You also have to go back in time a bit. When we started, which was back in 2012, really the only game in town in a meaningful way for video was YouTube. We got kind of our start on YouTube. Certainly, a popular category on YouTube, but not the most popular.
Right. I wrote about you guys when you launched, and I think I was already, there’s a great mint pomegranate lamb shoulder recipe I got randomly off YouTube. There were tons of ways to get food stuff on YouTube, but you guys said, “We’re going to do it as a category.”
Again, the pitch made sense. As I recall, the pitch was — I don’t remember if you guys said it this frankly — was, “Look, there is the Food Network and other related channels like that on cable. Those are worth a lot of money. There’s nothing like that organized on the internet, and certainly not on YouTube. We’re going to be that on YouTube, and eventually we’re sort of going to take over that category.” I think you were going to people who actually run food networks, like Scripps and Hearst and those guys at one point, and saying, “You should invest in this,” and eventually they did.
Yeah, Scripps Network, they invested in Tastemade. Yeah, I think that’s a good way to think about it. We thought about audiences shifting to new platforms. Younger people want to consume content on the platforms that they’re spending all their time on. What we felt was really important was really doing it around a brand, Tastemade, and then really doing premium content and shows to really build an audience. That’s how we approached it.
Now, in part because of you, in part because of the success BuzzFeed has had with Tasty, everyone’s like, “Oh, yeah, obviously food’s a giant deal on the internet.” I won’t talk about how you got from there to here, but when did it kick in for you guys?
It was always popular. As I mentioned, as YouTube was the first platform, we certainly were successful on that platform. Facebook probably really started to focus — or at least we really started to focus on video on Facebook — probably at the end of 2014, the beginning of 2015. That was kind of an important moment for us.
It was not migrating, because you stayed on YouTube.
Of course, yeah, and we’re still on YouTube today.
By the way, I specifically remember people at YouTube, executives, say, “You should check out Tastemade. They’re doing something really interesting.” They were, from the get-go, very supportive of you guys, and liked the idea that you were starting with them.
Absolutely, and they still are. They do the Brandcast event every spring, and we were part of that this year. We continue to work with those guys, but 2015 things really kind of started to pickup for us around building large audiences around our own original programming under the Tastemade brand.
Then at the end of 2015, or September of 2015, is when we launched on Snapchat. We became a Snapchat Discover channel. To help just explain that, there’s about 150-plus million on Snapchat every single day. There’s a section of Snapchat called Discover where they have channels like Tastemade and BuzzFeed or Vice or even more traditional networks like Comedy Central or ESPN.
There’s a mixed track record for those guys, but it’s working for you?
It’s absolutely working for Tastemade, yeah. We got launched on that platform, as I mentioned, kind of the end of 2015. We’ve done really well there ever since. We’ve grown our audience. When you combine all of the audience across all of the social, it’s pretty large.
Yes, so how big is it?
200-plus million people each month are watching Tastemade around the world, and they’re consuming about two billion streams.
What portion of that is YouTube versus Facebook versus Snapchat?
I would say the biggest partners in that are Snapchat and Facebook, of the two billion.
Is Snapchat the same as Facebook? I would assume Facebook’s bigger just because of the way that Facebook counts views, and stuff is auto playing.
It’s not the same. I would say those two are the biggest and they’re comparable, is how I would describe it.
I think this is a softball question, but why does food work on video in a way that other categories don’t, or why does it work better than other categories? Why does it seem to work so well right now?
I think part of it is Facebook and Instagram. I think those two platforms really lend themselves to this category. Part of it’s the demographics. Our audience does skew a little bit more female than male. I also think on those platforms are also different age groups. Our audience on Facebook, for example, skews a little bit older than our audience on Instagram. Our audience on Instagram skews a little bit older than our audience on Snapchat, and so I think that has a little bit to do with it. I also think just food as part of culture right now, people talk about chefs as kind of the new rock stars.
Yeah. I’m going to tease that we’re going to do a segment after this with Helen Rosner from Eater about that very topic, about chefs and celebrity and the internet, how that works.
When people are consuming your stuff, I remember, again, watching ... You guys showed me around the studio when you were launching, or within a year of launching. You were basically building — had built — what looked like a hipper version of whatever the Food Network’s test kitchen was. The idea was you were going to film that stuff. You were going to learn how to bake a cake, or whatever it is. Is that still the same, sort of watching people cook, is that still the bulk of what you’re doing? Or is it more, “Look, here’s the finished product. Isn’t it cool?” or, “Here’s a wacky bagel”?
It’s a combination of different things. Some of it is recipe-based, and that could be something as simple on platforms like Facebook. Today, when you see a recipe, oftentimes it’s ... you’ll see just hands quickly making a recipe. It’s kind of sped up to ...
You’re not really going to learn, right? The idea is you might ...
Oh, no. I absolutely think you learn because people actually quickly turn around after they’ve made the dish that they just watched, and they’ll post that.
You could learn, right? I would assume there’s an 80/20 rule where most people who are viewing are saying, “That’s cool. I’m going to make that one day.” They’re never going to make it. And then a handful of people are using it as a utility.
Oh, yeah. I’m just going to focus on the word “learn.” Of course, you can learn from it because it’s informative, but, yeah, certainly some people are there absolutely to be entertained.
They’re not using it the way that I went to YouTube and looked up a lamb recipe and then followed that, right?
I think some are. It’s a combination, but I think you’re probably right. Particularly on that platform, a ton of people are watching, are being entertained, same with Instagram. All of these different platforms enable us to do different types of content, though. We also do host-driven content. If you’re on a platform like Snapchat we might tease you with, “Hey, learn about this recipe,” but then we’ll have one of our hosts or tastemakers get up there and talk to you about how that was made and those types of things.
Then we also have a lot of travel- and food-related shows. If you’re interested in, we have this one show called “Day of Gluttony” where we go to 24 places in 24 hours. In that, we travel to 16 different cities. We’re telling you, not just showing recipe content, but really kind of taking you on a journey with our host to go explore new food, new culture in all these different cities.
Then part of the success of this category is that it’s super ad-friendly. You can bake an advertiser into the content, you can create. A fancy word for that is branded content, right? If Kraft or whomever wants to bring you something or you can bring something to Kraft, you can integrate them into the video. Maybe you say it’s an ad, maybe you don’t say it’s an ad. It works really well. Were you conscious of that from the get-go or did you sort of stumble into that?
We were certainly conscious of how advertising-rich these lifestyle categories are in general. When we were thinking about building this company we certainly were thinking about that. As it relates to what you were just talking about — sponsored content — we do a variety of different types of sponsored content. Sometimes we will do something kind of as you described. We just worked with Avocados of Mexico, and some of the recipes we did featured avocados in them. Sort of think about us making a guacamole, and you can see how we could feature that product.
We also are doing a ton of work with other brands that I would consider more taking a lifestyle approach, which could be like an Airbnb or a financial services. Again, not all the content is recipe-based. Some of our content we’re traveling around the world exploring really interesting things or restaurants or cultures. There’s a lot of brands who want to be next to that kind of content as well.
You and your co-founders came from Demand Media.
It still exists. I think they’ve got a new name now.
Yeah, it has a new name, and it also split into two different companies.
Split in different categories. At the time that you left there it was known, and it had a sort of rise and fall. I think you left sort of on the way up or maybe right at the peak. It was known for sort of creating this new way of automating content based on what people thought a Google searcher would want. Again, I think part of the pitch when you guys were launching was you guys had figured out ways using technology to sort of create better, faster content.
When I look at people who are making video today, sometimes all the story, like BuzzFeed, all the story about, say, how their data insights allowed them to create Tasty. Generally, people are making video the way they’ve always made video. They’re using smaller, cheaper cameras, they’re more flexible. Still seems like it’s the same thing. And then you sort of cut it up differently for different formats. Is there a tech part of this that’s important, or is it mostly on the creative and production side?
I think it’s both. What we’re talking about is creating the quality of content that could rival something on television, and that is leveraging some of the things that you mentioned, whether it is advances in cameras or just simply working more efficiently. Of course, look, we’re modern-day programmers. If we’re weren’t looking at data I think that would be kind of foolish. Every day when we’re thinking about what we’re going to create ... Our programming team is simply looking at the performance of how our content performed yesterday.
Same way a traditional TV network would do, right? “Hey, this show did well,” or, “This part of the show did well.” They had some way of measuring that, at least crudely, for a long time.
It’s been pretty crude, right?
It’s been overnight ratings. When you think about the platforms that we work with, whether it’s Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat or YouTube, when we get API access to all sorts of information about how consumers are engaging with the content ...
Roughly what part of the world they’re coming from, who’s looking at it, how long they’re looking at it.
Yeah, what the demographics are. You can see the exact curve for when they’re watching.
They watched the first 10 seconds then they fell off.
That’s exactly right, or what percentage hung with you the whole episode, and so all of that data we’re using. Again, I would say we do it in two ways. One is in soft ways. Our programing team is looking at that data. They’re analyzing even something as simple as, on Snapchat there’s a concept of what’s the swipe-up rate, right? On Snapchat when you’re in Discover there are small tiles or videos that are playing, and then if you want to engage deeper in the content you swipe up. Just even the swipe-up rate, studying things like whether or not we have talent on what’s called the Top Snap or that top view, or whether we should lead with the recipe or what text we’re using.
Snapchat is good about giving you data because for a long time, for a long time, they’ve only been around a little while, but initially it was very siloed and they gave almost no data back.
I think for Discover they’ve always been very progressive about the type of information they’re providing.
They’ve always been good about that?
That’s the information. Look, we all have that same goal, right? We’re trying to entertain people for as long as we can on these platforms, and so the data that they provide is super-helpful. We can make real-time choices with the programming team about those things. Then we also have a small team of data scientists who are looking at all that data and then trying to help us, steer us in different directions based on either things that are trending or having some insight on what’s happening on social or even leveraging data-like search to think about what people might be interested in watching.
The tech is, you’ve got a lot more data that’s allowing you to make better guesses about what people will like. You still have to make the thing and hope they like it. You can’t really automate successful production, I don’t think.
I don’t think you can, either. It’s art and science. I think in the early days when we weren’t, honestly, creating that much content it was almost pure art, right? Unless you’re creating a decent amount of content you don’t really need to go to that rigor, but once you start to create content ... Tastemade is now creating content in seven different languages. We’re programming on all these different platforms. All these different platforms require different content. What I mean by that is the shapes, the sizes, the fonts, the lengths, all of that can be studied, and we’re studying it every day to make sure that we’re working.
This image works better on a Discover, this image works better on Instagram, this kind of image ...
That’s right, and links. Exactly, or links of content, all of that we’re analyzing every day to try to create the best content. But at the end of the day if you’re not telling great stories, or your content doesn’t look amazing, I don’t think you’re going to win. That’s where, again, particularly the early days, because the market hadn’t evolved as much, as you kind of outlined, right? It was kind of YouTube in the beginning, and then it sort of evolved over the last few years. With that, as the world evolved, it allowed us to become more sophisticated about what we were doing.
Out here in podcast land we have no data, almost no data. We are hoping you’re still listening. We hope you listen to these messages and our fine sponsors who allow us to bring this product to you for free. Stay with us. We’ll be right back with Larry Fitzgibbon.
Hey, welcome back to Recode Media. I’m here with Larry Fitzgibbon. I don’t need to do the welcome back because you know what you’re listening to. It says so right on your iPhone. You didn’t pass out, most likely. Welcome back, Larry.
Glad to be back.
I want to talk a little bit more about what you’re doing, and then I want to go back in the past and talk a little bit about Demand Media. One of the pitches for a while for new players in video, digital players in video, is they’re going to sort of migrate up to TV. Not only are they going to take the eyeballs that are moving from TV to the iPhone, but they’re eventually going to start creating stuff that’ll actually appear on a TV. Maybe they’ll make their own network. There’s a handful of people who are trying that at scale, like Vice. Most people say they want to do it, and aren’t doing it. Where do you guys fall in that?
Yeah, what I would say our primary focus, at least for the foreseeable future, is mobile. That’s where we see all of the growth. That’s where we see all of the engagement.
Didn’t you and I talk about you guys making television shows at one point? Didn’t I write a story about it?
Okay, you’re doing it.
What I would say is the primary focus is mobile. I don’t foresee that changing for some time. That being said, when we create content, kind of going back a little bit to our process, but when we create content we shoot everything in 4K. What that means is it’s this really big image that looks great on a 4K television, which is kind of like the highest in television.
When we’re shooting we’re capturing an image. That becomes something. Then, we edit in all these different ways for all these different distribution points, but at the core we’ve got a great television-style image. Some of the platforms, as I mentioned, about 80 percent of our viewership is on a mobile phone, but some of our viewership is on the television through our own product. We’re on like an Apple TV. You can download the Tastemade app and watch Tastemade.
Right. You could do it there, but the reason people want to go to TV is that that’s where all the money still is. It has yet to really migrate over online. Even though the eyeballs are migrating online, the money is chiefly still on TV. There are people like Shane Smith at Vice saying, “Well, if you guys are going to pay me to go there I’ll go there whether or not it works.” Do you guys want to build a new rival to the Food Network that’s on linear TV, or you don’t want to be in that business?
Yeah, look, those types of opportunities cross our paths every so often. We certainly have had those types of discussions. I think at this moment we’re getting pretty deep into where it’s becoming pretty clear that mobile is going to continue to grow, and the dollars are going to come. I agree with you, they haven’t come maybe at the rate that people would want. I would say that would be our focus.
That also being said, there are some benefits to some of those deals, namely, you could potentially create a lot of longer-form content that could feed not only, potentially, that type of distribution, but also things that you might do yourself. An example is most of Tastemade’s audience is distributed on the big social platforms, but you can download the Tastemade app, and many people do because they either want to find content that they saw elsewhere or they’re ...
Those are your hardest-core fan, right?
They know what the brand is and know how to download the app and have a reason to do it.
That’s right. They want to save things that they found, or they want to go back to things that they saved. We make that available, and subscription is something that’s also there. We offer subscription on that product.
What do I get? What’s a Tastemade subscription cost me?
You get an ad-free experience. You get some access to some features. One of the most popular things to do is saving different content.
What does that cost?
It’s $7.99 a month.
$7.99, and how many of those are you selling?
We haven’t given out our subscription numbers.
Hundreds of thousands?
We haven’t given out the numbers. What I would say is it’s a test for us.
Tens of thousands, or less?
I wouldn’t say. You can keep saying.
I would say it’s a test for us, and we’re trying to understand that, and, certainly, I believe that I think that would be a more compelling offering if there was more long-form content. To answer your previous question, I think if there was a situation where you could get that type of distribution which would enable you to create longer-form content with a really good business model, which, today, those models are pretty good. Cable operators pay you lots of money for licensing your content. I would be, potentially, open to that.
What do you think about live in the kind of video you do? There’s a push of varying degrees from Facebook and Twitter and some other people saying live is really important on traditional TV. Live is sort of the last bastion of where they can get big audience, big ad dollars. It strikes me that the stuff you guys make is really built for on-demand. It doesn’t matter when I’m watching one of these videos, I can watch it whenever. Is there a live play for you, or that’s not really what you’re interested in?
We’ve been testing live on platforms like Facebook, and had a number of things that have been pretty successful, like, 100,000 people watching concurrently.
What were they watching?
In that case we were doing latte art, so we had a latte artist who would take requests from the audience to, basically, do art on lattes. Tupac was a big winner that day.
Really? There was a Tupac latte?
Tupac’s face on your latte.
I would watch that.
It was pretty compelling.
It was pretty fun. We’ve also done other things like that where we did kind of a spinoff of that, which was pancake art. We had this pancake artist who would do pancakes.
Those are novelties.
A little bit, yeah.
Do you think that’s repeatable?
Yeah, to some degree.
Or that’s not a one-off?
Yeah, to some degree it was because that was essentially the same format we did different ways. I would say we’ve been testing and experimenting with that, but by and large I would agree with you. We’re in the lifestyle programming business. There have been ... Emeril Live used to be on the Food Network, so that was a good example of a show that was live. I could imagine shows like that as a type of show that would be attractive in our categories, but were also live.
Let’s talk about Demand Media where you came from. You and two of your co-founders were at Demand?
Yeah, I started this company with Joe Perez and Steven Kydd, and we were three of the six co-founders of that company.
There was a period, like a year, two years, where Demand seemed like the future of media, and that terrified some people and disgusted a lot of people and made a lot of other people excited. I remember writing a study saying, I think it was your private valuation was the same as whatever the New York Times’ public valuation was. This was when the Times was sort of really, really on the ropes and had to take a high-interest loan. They’re like, “They may go out of business and they might be replaced by Demand Media.” You guys IPO’d, and then it all sort of fell apart. What’s the most important lesson you learned from that experience?
I think one was — and you kind of see it in what we’re doing today — one of it was just a question of focus. That company did a lot of different categories, and I ran a lot of different categories.
I should back up, even though I asked you a question. Do you want to explain what Demand was beyond just the market cap?
Yeah, it started out as a fairly well-funded company, raised a bunch of money and went and acquired some companies. One of the biggest properties, ultimately, became a website called eHow, which was a how-to site where if you pretty much wanted to know how to do anything you could look for that content.
Whether you went to eHow or somewhere else, the idea was you guys were basically mining Google searches and saying, “Look, people are asking to do this. Let’s go create media as quickly and cheaply as we can that answers that question, or purports to answer that question.”
Yeah, I think we were trying to. Well, we certainly were trying to answer that question. Yeah, the idea was if you were doing media, but you knew what your audience was interested in ...
Right, because they were telling you.
Because they were telling you, it’d be pretty smart if you actually created the content they were looking for. Yeah, that was a fundamental component to it.
I think a lot of the reasons that it upset people was you were doing it so quickly and cheaply and a lot of the times you were just, obviously, filling up every possible category you could. You could go to Demand or eHow and find preposterous articles, like how to put on bikini underwear, because someone had typed that once into Google, and so you guys were creating that.
Yeah. I would probably defend some of what you were saying, but I’m not going to bother because that’s pretty much past for me. What I will say is one of the lessons was we were in every category, and certainly you see that in what we’re doing at our new company, is we’re super-focused, really trying to be the best in our category. Then the other piece was video doesn’t lie. You have to be great. If you watch any of Tastemade’s content, it’s super-high quality. It looks as good as anything you would find on television, and so those were some of the things that we were trying to do when we started this new company that certainly were based on our life experiences.
See, I thought you were going to say, but I’m glad I asked anyway because you gave me different answers, “Well, one thing we learned is we can’t be dependent on a platform,” because famously — in my world famously — Google at some point said, “We don’t like Demand Media.” They didn’t say it out loud in public, but they certainly behaved this way. They said, “We’re going to change our search algorithms to sort of punish Demand and other people that are, we think, gaming the system.” A lot of traffic went down, so it seems like you guys have learned that lesson by not working exclusively with YouTube. You’re on Facebook, you’re on Snapchat. Is that a reflection of your experience at Demand, or you just would have done that anyway?
Yeah. We’ve seen that same thing happen, by the way, in search, and people have seen that with different, not search, but also in social and Facebook.
Yeah, there’s people who have gamed Facebook and that are now, basically, out of business.
Yeah, or even if they’re not just gaming and they’re just trying to build a business on top of these platforms.
And put the business on top of Facebook, right.
Which, certainly, people are trying to do. Yeah, of course, we thought about that, but remember, when we started there really was only one game in town at the time, which was YouTube. We had a very long-term view, as we do today, which is there would be other platforms that would become important. We’re pleased to see that there are other platforms that are emerging as really strong video platforms that enable us to program content to the world.
You started off on YouTube. You were sort of a YouTube-endorsed company from the jump. Now you said the bulk of your views, at least, are happening at Snapchat and Facebook. How do you think YouTube responds to the fact that it’s no longer the only game in town? They had years when no one came close to them, and then almost overnight they had real competition.
What I would say is, look, my sense is they’re still doing well. I kind of think YouTube as ...
By far that’s where the most dollars are going online.
That’s right, and I think they’re doing well in being the resource we all go to when we’re looking for a video, right? At least it certainly is for me. I think a billion-plus people around the world view it in the same light. They have some new initiatives that they’re doing, whether it’s around their subscription service or even around YouTube TV. I think I’m encouraged by that as well. As you recall, if you go back in the history of online video, there was a moment where YouTube invested hundreds of millions of dollars funding channels. Tastemade was one of the companies that received some of that funding back when we started, and then they stopped doing that. I think I’m encouraged to see that you can see either with their subscription services or what they’re potentially doing with YouTube TV is they’re kind of embracing high-quality content.
Look, I think when you think about across all the big social platforms, when I think of the winners I think of it as sort of a pyramid. Certainly, if you’re a true platform you’re going to have some level of user-generated content. This kind of middle tier is curating that. The best example on Snapchat is live stories, they’ve curated the middle, right? They’ve taken stuff that users have created, but kind of packaged it in a way that would be more compelling or interesting to advertisers. Then at the top, again using Snapchat as an example, they have Discover, and then they have shows. I think that’s the winning strategy if you’re a platform. I think you need to, obviously, be a free and open system. That’s what enabled them to become so massive and so successful. Curating content and also creating content that is of a higher quality, that does get a focus and attention of traffic, that’s, obviously, really critical, and is of a quality that advertisers will be interested in being next to it. I think that’s a winning plan.
It seems like YouTube as a company, sort of socially, talking to people who work there, even though they are actually doing curation and they’ll tell you that X number of views come from things they recommended, they’re really resistant to the idea of having humans curate stuff. They fundamentally believe that if you put a bunch of stuff out there, let users find it, and then use machines to sort of help speed that process along, that’s the best way to do it. Sort of the more they have their hands on it, the less successful they’ll be, as opposed to a company like Snapchat who’s very hands-on, right? From what I’ve heard, they give you guys very specific notes about what they want and what they don’t want.
Yeah, YouTube today is doing a little bit of both because, broadly speaking, what you described is true, right?
It’s a very engineer-y company.
It’s simply a platform. They’re going to try to understand what is delighting users, and they’re going to try to let the platform sort of self-heal to achieve that. But, with what they’re doing around their subscription service, they are picking shows and creating original programming specifically for their platform. I would say that’s a little bit of them living a bit in both worlds.
But not comfortably, right? You can just tell. Even when they do these big sales events, which they’re better at than anybody else. They’re bigger, they’ve been doing it for years, it’s still just not their DNA. They’re not a traditional media company. They’re an engineering company that has media.
They’re most definitely a platform. I’ve worked with them for years, and that’s definitely the way they think about it. Some of these new initiatives, again, I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing them do. Even if you just take a step back from that to your point, that they’re probably doing the best in video. If you could be the world’s, let’s call it a video search engine, it’s more than that, but let’s just call it that. If you could be the world’s biggest video search engine, that would be pretty good because the last time a company became the search engine it worked out pretty fabulously.
I think they’re going to be good no matter what because I do think they’re the destination for many of us or many of the world. When you’re looking for video content, they’re the go-to spot. I think if they continue to work on some of the projects that they are around different types of programming and original programming, but the key for that to work on these big platforms is the platforms have to get behind it if it’s going to be advertising-based.
Then Facebook is also a very engineering mindset, but the way they bring you video is very different, which is they bring you video, right? You don’t go looking for something on Facebook. You go to Facebook, videos come through your feed. They’re trying to create this new version of that where you actually go to the Facebook video tab and or maybe the Facebook video app because you want to go to consume video that Facebook has made for it. It’s a different use case for Facebook. Do you think that’s going to work for them, or do you think they’re always going to be something where video is just kind of ambient coming through to you?
I think there is some things that are similar. Honestly, when you go to the right, when you go to a YouTube page and you actually see that right-hand rail where a ton of consumption comes from, that’s not too dissimilar. It’s different than, obviously, your news feed because that’s more people-based.
Right. The difference is, you’ve gone to YouTube, and then they present you with more stuff that’s similar to what you were looking at, whereas Facebook, you just go to kill some time, and some of the stuff you’re going to see is videos.
That’s right, yeah. Look, again, I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing in all the platforms. What’s cool for us is we started out as a video company that believed that these big platforms would really embrace video, and that would create a unique opportunity for a company that created high-quality content and that had a brand and to bring their channel around the world. All the moves that they’re making is encouraging.
Facebook is testing a lot of different things, as you mentioned, the video tab. They’re testing monetization. All those, I think, are encouraging. The other thing I would say is it’s literally Day One of this whole thing. What I just described, the world’s biggest social platform is still testing these fundamental things or core elements of what will make a good video service on their platform.
Yeah, a couple of years ago there wasn’t video on Facebook.
That’s right, which is kind of incredible when you think about how far we’ve come. I really think it’s just the beginning of this whole thing taking shape, both for the big platforms and for companies like ours.
That’s good for you to be in the early stages.
Think about it, sometimes it’s not so good.
You don’t want to be too early.
That’s right, and, actually, on one of your recent podcasts that was discussed, right, about ...
I love it when my podcast guests reference other podcasts.
That’s right. In the context of Now This News, right?
There was some discussion about maybe we were a little early.
That’s the Kenny Lerer, the infamous Kenny Lerer episode.
Yeah, it was a good listen. If you listen to that, he was talking about maybe we were a little too early in that case. That’s one of the things they we’re proud about is we were around the same time, and I kind of talked about some of the dynamics, particularly around YouTube’s evolution. We were on YouTube. We were pretty much a YouTube company when we started. They did this big investment and stopped, and so what it forced us to do was, “Okay, cool. We still want to make high-quality original programming in this new way as a channel and as a brand. What do we do?” That’s, actually, when we started doing a lot of good work with brands.
Because you had to if you wanted to keep going.
That’s right. We had to figure out a way to make a good business model for video in the way I’ve described. We started to work with companies like Hyundai, as an example, where we have a series with them.
I definitely wrote about this one.
That’s right, yeah. It’s called “The Grill Iron.” It’s a good series. It’s now on its Season Three. That’s an example of the type of programming we created in partnership with brands that was high-quality programming. We have a series we did with San Pellegrino that won the Webby for Best Documentary. If done properly, you can make really high-quality content with brands that work for them, as well as work for consumers, and we’re proud of that. That was kind of constraints creating innovation, right? That’s what was happening after 2012, 2013, and we needed to develop that. We’ve done that, and that’s since scaled pretty dramatically for us.
All right. It’s at least working enough that you could afford the plane ticket to come here on this podcast. Thank you for flying here. If you guys like listening to people talk about food and media and technology, and if you’re this far into it you probably do, stay tuned. Helen Rosner from Eater is going to come chat about a different version of this conversation. Thanks for coming, Larry.
We’re going to take another brief break and hear from my friend Kara Swisher, who has a word from Amazon Web Services.
Thanks Kara. We’re here with Helen Rosner, who you know from Eater. Helen?
Helen Rosner: Hi.
Helen Rosner from Eater. What’s your official title? Do we care what your official title is?
No, titles are meaningless, but if you were to care, I am the editor at large.
Helen’s from Eater. She rocks. She and Greg Morabito have an awesome podcast called The Upsell.
The Eater Upsell.
We’re doing some like ...
Synergistic cross promotion.
Yeah, I want to say a crossover episode. What’s a famous crossover episode?
“The Jetsons” and “The Flintstones” is where I instantly go.
Okay, I was thinking, was there one with “Happy Days”? I’m so old.
“Mork and Mindy” spun off out of “Happy Days,” if that’s where you were going.
There’s also “The Golden Girls” and “Silver Spoons.” There’s a lot.
Right. There were a lot of like “Law and Order” from one to the other.
Then, of course, the entire Marvel cinematic universe.
You had a celebrity who’s not a chef on today. We’re going to do the time warp thing because you won’t hear that for weeks.
Right. Our episode with Brian Koppelman, the showrunner of “Billions” and a gourmand extraordinaire, will be running in a couple of weeks.
This is how cool Helen is. Yeah, I tried to get Brian Koppelman to appear on this show.
He said no.
He declined because I’d made him angry, but Helen got him.
I was afraid to talk to him anyway.
I’m not controversial in any way, that’s why. You made him angry.
When you’re not normally having Brian Koppelman on. You have rock-star chefs.
We do, yeah.
David Chang, Anthony Bourdain, Alton Brown, Andrew Zimmerman, Carla Hall.
Everyone cool in food comes on your show.
They do, otherwise they’re not cool.
I wanted to talk about that. I wanted to talk about the celebrity chef with you. I wanted to recreate a good conversation we had at a mediocre Irish bar recently.
Yeah, we’re doing it this time without the vodka.
We’ll just imagine. Here’s what I remember you telling me. There are no more new celebrity chefs being made, that David Chang is the last one we’ve made, and that’s about 11 years ago. I said, “Really? There have to have been new ones. In fact, there must be new ones created all the time because of Instagram and Facebook and the stuff that Larry Fitzgibbon is doing at Tastemade.” You said, “Nope.”
That is, more or less, accurate. I think there is a certain caliber of celebrity chef, and we, of course, have to constrain some definitions here, right? When I’m talking about a celebrity chef in this sense, there are a lot of people who have become extraordinarily famous and very wealthy and very successful and have very high recognition levels thanks to television or thanks to, mostly, really, television, who I don’t know if I would necessarily qualify as a celebrity chef.
I’m thinking of someone who is affiliated with restaurants, who cooks or who has cooked in the past, and who is one of the people who as food culture started becoming food culture X number of years ago was kind of being spoken about in breathless terms in mainstream media publications.
Someone who food people know and like and then who bubbles up into sort of mainstream, semi-main. You’d say, “Oh, I know who that guy is.”
Is that Dave? I’ve heard of David Chang.
Right. You tell your friends.
Or Guy Fieri, right? It’s a different version of it, but it’s still someone who comes from restaurants and then becomes big enough that people recognize them, maybe not out on the street, but when they appear on TV. You say we have not had any new ones for a decade.
Yeah, I think after we had that conversation in the bar I reconsidered this in a slightly less tipsy state, and I think a decade might be a little much. I do think that it’s certainly the case that the titans of celebrity chefdom, or the people who have become famous for being chefs, that list of names hasn’t really grown in the last, let’s say, five-plus years.
But food is bigger than ever. Food is the biggest. Everyone loves food. There’s entire businesses, we just talked to someone who runs one, based on food. What’s going on?
Yeah, and there are lots of really fantastic chefs who are reaching incredible levels of success and acclaim and popularity. It’s an interesting time to pay attention to the world of food, and it has been an interesting time for that last 15 or 20 years, basically since the advent of the Food Network, which I’m guessing you just talked about a lot.
The notion of food as a cultural vector basically was introduced into the world, like, food is a thing that we should be considering the same way we consider music or theater or books or movies, as a thing that we consume to help create pleasure and entertainment, but also to create certain tribal allegiances, like, “I’m into this kind of thing. I’m into this culture. I’m into the subcultures within it.”
Right. No one talked about.
There were people.
If you were a certain kind of yuppie you would try to make your own, you would buy a pasta maker 30 years ago.
Sure, there have always been ...
You’d play around with that, and if you were pretentious you would talk about the pasta you had made, but you would stop making it, and you therefore would move on.
Yeah. There have always been people who have been into food. There have always been restaurants that have been buzzy or zeitgeisty. The notion of chef as celebrity being a normal thing, not a radical exception, is a relatively new thing. I think that as food as evolved over, particularly, the last five to 10 years, there was restaurant culture. There were people who were really into restaurants, really into chefs.
Yeah, that’s what Eater is based on.
For sure. It’s where our origins lie. There was cooking culture, which was these yuppies making pasta that you’re talking about.
My parents, they made terrible pasta.
Making pasta at home, sidebar, is rarely as good as buying it at the store.
Don’t eat it.
It’s really just don’t even bother. They were different universes. It was like being a person who was really into playing the violin versus being a person who was really into going to punk shows. You’re both really into music.
But now it’s all mashed up together.
Right, it’s food culture.
And you’re setting me up because you remember our conversation better than I do.
No, I just want to know where the celebrities are. Why aren’t there famous people?
They’re still there.
Why aren’t there new celebrities who’ve come up in the last five years? If you’re saying, “Well, they’re not on TV, they’re not getting access to TV anymore,” presumably the internet should make food celebrities, right?
I think they are getting access to TV. I think in a way it’s a signal-to-noise thing. In a way it’s just the volume of food is greater than it was. A lot of it is just early-entry advantage. If you were in the first generation to become famous as a chef in the post-Food Network landscape, you probably didn’t set out to become famous necessarily, right? At the moment the world decided that being in food was cool, you happened to be at the top of the mountain, and you get swept up in it.
Some people didn’t like it and decided to abandon the celebrity that was being handed to them. If you’re a hardcore food obsessive you still know who they are. Otherwise, you have people who knew how to embrace the fame and attention that was being thrust upon them and turn it into something that was marketable and pleasant and helped further their brand and helped to make people interested. You have the Mario Batalis, the David Changs who approach it differently. There are still plenty of people who get TV shows. There are plenty of people who win “Top Chef” or who win “Chopped,” but there are so many more than there used to be.
Is it that there are so many more people who are doing that or just so many more people who are popular? There’s no more Vine stars because Vine’s gone, but there’s just many more people who are popular in media?
Yeah. I think that’s a certain part of it, right? Celebrity is less scarce as a good than it used to be. If you were a person who became famous in an era when fame was less democratic, your fame is of a different sort, unless you really managed to transcend it.
There was a route in the last 20 years, but, if we’re saying it sort of shut down five years ago, where you became a well-known chef in food circles and you were good-looking enough and telegenic enough that you got onto TV.
You didn’t have to be that good-looking. You just had to make good food. We can give significant looks to each other, but there are some chefs who are hot. There are far more chefs who are just really good cooks.
Yeah, but TV generally doesn’t allow unpleasant-looking people on TV for extended periods of time. Anyway, the point is you would get on TV, you would become more famous, and then you sort of could do some combination of getting out of the restaurant business, because that’s a brutal business, and you would just be a celebrity and you have a line of cookware or you would use that fame to open up more restaurants, some combination of that. Does that road, then, not exist if you are — we were talking about Mission Chinese, a cool restaurant in New York. I would like to go. I haven’t gone.
There’s, apparently, the woman who runs it. She’s telegenic.
Sure, Angela Dimayuga is the chef at Mission Chinese. She’s spectacular.
I learned this from a New York Times thing, but she seems like she should be on that route if she wants to be.
She should be. She is, she is on the path to extraordinary fame. It’s rare that someone like this comes up, and it’s rare — that fame to that degree — and when we’re talking about fame here I think it’s important to consider it in terms of who it’s speaking to. The world of restaurant obsessives, it used to be a full-contact sport. It used to be the case that if I lived in Albuquerque, I knew what restaurants were opening in the East Village if that was the thing that I was into. I knew what was happening in San Francisco, in LA.
Yeah, and because of sites like Eater.
Because of sites like Eater.
Very specifically sites like Eater. It was a soap opera. It was a sports team. It was a thing that you followed with incredible minutia. There are still people who care about that, but the way that food culture as a whole has grown and changed, it has moved away specifically from being restaurants or specifically being home cooking to being a notion of food as lifestyle. I don’t mean lifestyle in the Instagrammy way. I mean in the genuine, actual way. Food as lifestyle being an all-consuming thing, if you care about food as a consumer or a person.
As a person, if you care about food in the confines of food culture, it doesn’t just mean you care about going out to eat. It definitely doesn’t just mean that you care about going out to eat at the high end at a restaurant where you know the name of the chef. It means you care about where you do your grocery shopping, how you do your cooking, how many Instagram followers you have. There are aspects of this that are very eye-roll, and there are aspects of this that I think are really great, that it is a thing where we give a certain intentionality to the choices that we make, assuming you have the budget and the time.
You can signal, and that’s the cynical version, or just be interested in food and not ever ... What’s the cool restaurant? It’s in Denmark?
Noma. Is that in Denmark? Did I get it right, which doesn’t exist anymore?
It is, yes. It closed recently.
That you could be interested in food and participate in being interested in that restaurant, Noma, without ever going there or even aspiring to go, or without ever going to New York and going to Mission Chinese because there’s enough stuff wherever you live and you can order it and you can consume it online, that you can participate in food culture without obsessing about that restaurant or that chef.
Right. There certainly are still people, I think of them as checklisters, who kind of travel the world making sure they hit every Michelin three-star restaurant. There’s stuff that happens at the obscenely wealthy, extremely high level. But a lot of this also comes down to the fact that restaurants, uniquely among the cultural offerings of things, restaurants are not replicable in the same way that an album might be or a movie. Even if you’re talking about live theater, you can take a video recording of the experience and capture a lot of it, but short of a chain restaurant, which is a totally different animal, you can’t have a Noma on every corner.
Part of that also is that the scarcity of Noma is a lot of its value and a lot of its interest. The brain of René Redzepi, the chef behind Noma, is a fascinating brain. The way he thinks about food and what food does as an emotional element, as a storytelling vehicle, but also as a scientific phenomenon, is unique and is compelling in the same way that all A-list, top successful chefs think about food in ways that are unique and compelling. But what does it mean that you have to buy a plane ticket to Denmark, you have to go all the way to Copenhagen, you have to get a very, very hard-to-get reservation? The scarcity adds interest, it adds value.
Right. Super Bowl tickets are hard to get, and they’re very expensive. It’s hard to get to, and only a certain number of people can go to them, and it’s a once-a-year event. But, you can watch the Super Bowl and get as much or more value out of it. You cannot watch someone eating at Noma and enjoy it.
No, because the intimate sensory experience of food is taking it into your body.
I still don’t know if we’ve answered the question about why ...
Why are there are no more celebrity chefs.
Why there are no new people who have broken through. I watch a bunch of the TV shows, right? I watch “Master Chef” and “Top Chef.” They kind of are recycling people. They very often are bringing on people who I’ve seen on other shows on other networks, and they’re not really bringing in new faces. It’s confusing. You would think there would be some new 25-year-old whomever.
It is confusing. I don’t think there is an easy answer. I think as a phenomenon it’s something that the food culture industry is still so in its youth that it’s, I think, not ready to do the same kind of self-reflection that a lot of other industries have been doing for decades. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things.
Being a chef is not quite the rock-star thing it used to be, it shifted. Being a restaurateur is meaningful. Opening a new restaurant is meaningful, but if I’m opening a restaurant in Manhattan I don’t really necessarily need to market it in Minnesota, so what’s the point of appearing on a national show? I’m sure these folks’ publicists would love to have them get tons of national attention, but you wind up having regional geographic fragmentation. TV becomes an end in itself as opposed to a way to further your career behind the stove. You turn yourself into a TV star. Alex Guarnaschelli, who I think is probably one of the most recognizable chefs out there ...
Right. I was talking with a friend the other day who was saying that all across America there are millions, tens of millions of people, who probably think that Alex Guarnaschelli is the sine qua non of chefs, like, she’s the best chef in America.
This is the Recode Media podcast. We don’t use that kind of ...
I’m sorry. I said a Latin phrase.
Yeah, thank you. Dumb it down for us.
Sorry, for me.
You know what that means.
Like they think she’s it.
She’s the shit, and she is the shit. She is a talented cook, she’s a great person. She’s super interesting. Is she the best chef in America? I don’t know, but the way that she is on television she is marketed as the best chef in America.
Okay. I still don’t know why there isn’t a new 25-year-old Alex Guarnaschelli.
I don’t know, maybe you should listen to my podcast.
... or a 35-year-old.
Is this where I plug my podcast?
Oh, yeah, plug. The point is, there is a universe.
I’m asking these questions, right?
There is a universe of celebrity big-deal chefs, the shit, and they all come on your podcast.
They do, yeah.
You kind of have the entire universe of them.
We do, yeah, and we talk to ...
You’re not going to third-tier people because you don’t need to get them because you have all the big ones.
That makes me sound ...
Like the shit?
We talk to people who are at all sorts of stages in their careers. We’ve talked to people like Wolfgang Puck, who basically created celebrity. We talk to people like JJ Johnson who are kind of blazing the new trail of what it means to be a chef.
There’s a new person.
Right, no, he’s great, but you know what? I’m just assuming based on your facial expression right now you haven’t heard of him.
Nope, no clue.
He’s a chef right here in New York. You’ve heard of David Chang. You’ve heard of April Bloomfield. You’ve heard of these big names, and the path to get there is different now than it used to be. Yeah, I don’t know if there’s an easy answer, but I think it’s a fascinating thing to be thinking about.
Okay. If you’re interested in this kind of conversation, but instead of me pestering Helen about why there isn’t a celebrity chef, just imagine Helen talking to an actual celebrity chef. You should go listen to:
Yeah, what I usually say is, you can find it because you know how to find this podcast.
Because you’re listening to this podcast right now as we’re speaking.
Yeah, the Eater Upsell, it’s really fun. I have a lot of fun doing it. You’re on an upcoming episode, too.
It’s fun to listen to, yeah, I know.
It’s pretty cool.
We talked about Wilco.
Yeah, we do.
It’s kind of a gen-X, old-guy rock-and-roll conversation.
Which is great.
The rock and roll makes it sound cooler than it is.
... because I’m a millennial girl, so we’re awesome. Terrific.
You’re very polite, and thank you for coming on. Thanks to you guys for listening.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.