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The biggest names in food are just regular people on TikTok

How fancy chefs and the Food Network became the old guard of food media.

A phone is being held up to block the view of a TV displaying an empty cooking show set. The phone screen shows a TikTok food influencer cooking in an average home kitchen. Sunny Eckerle for Vox

The battle over what food is and should be has been going on for decades. However, ever since the early 1960s gourmet awakening of the United States, popularly thought to be led by Julia Child on PBS trussing a chicken and James Beard writing on American cookery, there have been those who refuse to bite. As we entered the new millennium, the food snob became the foodie, but most people kept on eating whatever it was they felt like eating, gourmet opinions be damned.

In 1968, Nora Ephron wrote a piece titled “The Food Establishment,” chronicling the petty fights between Craig Claiborne, once food editor at the New York Times, and Beard; Claiborne’s “revolutionaries” wanted to make better cooking more accessible to housewives, while Beard’s “purists” were the type who would only be found buying produce at one specialty market. In the piece, restaurant critic Mimi Sheraton points out that any actual change to how food is grown, labeled, and sold never started with the work of a food writer. No, the food writers would be too busy arguing over the right recipe for a soufflé and what clothing would be appropriate for the manager of a chic French restaurant, not governmental subsidies artificially lowering the cost of meat.

So then who could bring real change to food media? To Sheraton’s point, it’s never been the writers. The food establishment began to super-scale the way it sold cuisine in the United States through the launch of Food Network in 1993. Since then, the channel has found a way to cater to every demographic of home cook: those who want to imitate restaurant chefs, such as Bobby Flay or Emeril Lagasse; the domestic goddesses who emulate Ina Garten and Martha Stewart; and even those who prefer to keep it simple, with the ease-first approaches of Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee. Anthony Bourdain made traveling to eat into a moral imperative and turned street food paired with a local lager into haute cuisine, and Top Chef let everyone in on the concept of “plating” a dish to be as appealing as possible. Recipe developers have swooped in over the last decade, bringing tricks and tips learned from restaurant cooking into recipes built for homes, working from test kitchens at magazines like Bon Appétit or for the New York Times Cooking section to bring readers the tastiest, most efficient cacio e pepe or chickpea salad.

As Ephron told Salon in 2009, upon the release of Julie & Julia, “It was such a tiny, backbiting world” when she wrote that essay. “Now it is a very large backbiting world,” she went on. “There’s so much money involved! It used to be that people would lord over the tiny number of endorsements and the small number of big cookbook advances that were out there. Now it’s a monster industry.”

Bigger cultural changes have also occurred since 1968: There is no longer an expectation of a stay-at-home partner, someone waiting with a hot meal at 6 pm on the dot. Tastes have changed, too: The standard American palate has expanded, thanks to new dining and travel experiences, as well as learning about new cuisines through community both in real life and online. Younger generations have seen broadening availability and use of ingredients like gochujang, labneh, and hitherto untold varieties of fresh herbs and chilies. These have been brought into the ever-expanding “global pantry,” as Navneet Alang noted in his 2020 Eater piece “Stewed Awakening.” Through social media, restaurants, and magazines, the cultural capital of ingredients from around the world that would have only been available in specialty grocery stores just a few years ago has been increasing exponentially. But who’s really wielding the influence?

Not, it seems, mainstream food media, despite a moment in 2020 when we seemed to believe the Bon Appétit test kitchen could bridge the purist/revolutionary divide (spoiler alert: it couldn’t). The needs and desires of the US palate are always changing, and as food media has tried to both establish trends and rush to meet new demands, this has sometimes meant failures of cultural appropriation or faux pas on food safety.

But more compelling has been food media’s seeming inability to break out of the coastal homes of many of its staff editors and writers in order to speak consistently to a middle-of-the-country demographic. There are notes in big outlets about how easy a sheet-pan meal may be, but there is still a divide between the folks focused on a budget and quick home cooking for picky kids, and those single and childless Brooklyn 30-year-olds whose spare dollars all go to making sure they’re eating at the hot new spot, when they’re not hosting dinner parties or traveling.

The very latest innovation in food media — TikTok — has something to say about where that cultural power lies now: the normie. The aughts figure of the blogger has returned — sometimes at a static site, such as Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen, but more and more, they’re on social media apps alone. And it’s here that conversation and relationship to food is shifting again. The change is not coming from Condé Nast’s offices; it’s coming from anyone’s neighbor.

One of those neighbors in New Jersey might be Leah Victoria, known on TikTok as @leahscucina. She learned how to cook the old-fashioned way: watching her mother in the kitchen growing up in Howard Beach, Queens. Eventually she started a catering business and used Instagram to promote it, but she only took off as a creator when she moved to TikTok and began to post seriously upon becoming a stay-at-home mom after the birth of her second daughter. Now, her cooking videos and grocery hauls regularly receive thousands of views, and she has over 350,000 followers.

On Instagram, Victoria felt like she was only reaching people who already knew her. On TikTok, things were different. “People were actually socializing with me,” Victoria tells me over the phone. “Once a week I’ll hop on live and we do like a live cooking show, and it’s fun for me too. A lot of people tell me that they learn a lot from that stuff,” which surprises her. But even her grocery hauls have been learning tools, because, she says, many people buy ingredients for recipes without knowing how to build from staples. Other creators “stitch” her videos or tag her to say that when they cook now, they hear her voice in their head.

Her style is a new take on classic food blogging of the personable, approachable sort practiced by folks like Perelman, who has been blogging for 17 years at her website. She has navigated every shift in food and social media well, adapting to Instagram for photos and TikTok for video. (Though her 1.7 million follower success on the former has amounted to 5.8 percent of that on the latter, at 98,500.) When she started her blog in 2006, she was, like many other women at the time, taking space in a food world that seemed endlessly enamored with the usually male chef figure. It was the year Top Chef premiered on Bravo, and French Laundry chef Thomas Keller’s books were mainstays.

“I felt like we were in a really chef-y moment,” she tells me now over Zoom. “Where all the chefs were publishing cookbooks and that was everything.” For Perelman, these contained great insight into tips, technique, and flavor, but it had nothing to do with how most people cooked. “It says nothing to me about my life,” she adds. It’s the old split named by Ephron, between the hoity-toity gourmands and those who were focused on home cooking, consistently reemerging and shifting to new forms and norms. Now, the new form and norm is short, digestible video.

There are many emergent shifts on social media that are hitting every corner of food media, not just recipe development. Right now, perhaps the nation’s most famous restaurant critic is a Las Vegas resident named Keith Lee, who has 13.5 million TikTok followers but no job at a newspaper. It’s on that app, too, where folks create entire meals out of purchases from dollar stores; where a granddaughter shares the lunches cooked by her octogenarian French grandfather and up-and-coming chefs like Tineke Younger discuss getting their start at McDonald’s before riding social media fame to Gordon Ramsay’s recent competition show Next Level Chef. Younger, for the record, has 3.7 million TikTok followers. The New York Times Cooking section has 309,400 TikTok followers; Bon Appétit just under 300,000. If the US is divided politically, it’s also deeply divided by its food and who it looks to as an authority. Increasingly, the newspapers and magazines don’t look like they’re winning — and it might be because of that long-standing inability to meet people where they are, in addition to the demands of video.

One of the biggest success stories is Justine Doiron, known as @justine_snacks, who studied hospitality at Cornell University but never really saw recipe development as her path — until TikTok. Now, she’s finishing up her first cookbook for her 2.3 million followers and beyond, who love her relatable voice-overs on figuring out a healthy relationship with food that she places over sunny videos of fresh, mostly vegetarian fare. Think eggplant shakshuka eaten with olive oil-fried toast.

“I started TikTok during the pandemic essentially because I knew my boss was going to ask me how it works,” she tells me. “So I was like, ‘Oh, I need to learn this.’ And then once I gained a substantial enough following, I was asked to choose between my job or my social media.”

The choice was easy for Doiron, who started making cooking videos to heal her own relationship with food and has built her audience through stories of vulnerability. “I realized that storytelling and connecting through food is really powerful,” she said.

She credits her success and the satisfaction she gets out of editing videos to the fact that she was an early adopter of the platform with no following and was able — even encouraged — to be very bad at these things as she found her footing. That’s not the case for recipe developers trying to move to video after rising through the media ranks.

“You have to be a really good, entertaining creator as well as a recipe developer now,” Rachel Karten, a social media consultant who used to work at Bon Appétit and author of the newsletter Link in Bio. Recipe development and writing are not skills that necessarily lend themselves to being on camera and editing video. Traditional recipe developers “want to write recipes and want people to make their recipes,” says Karten, “but now you have this new sort of guard of yes, they’re amazing chefs, they are home cooks, but they also are entertaining and they know how to set up a camera and they know how to make a reel that cuts really well.” Now, there’s storytelling, being relatable while also being camera-ready, and the time spent putting all the footage together.

An openness to vulnerability has also led to TikTok being a space where economics is a major factor in who people look to for inspiration — thus the proliferation on social media of transparent Costco and Aldi hauls, as well as dollar store meals: Are the ingredients not just legible to a broad audience, but are they well-priced and available in the non-Whole Foods supermarket? Longtime recipe developer and tester Rebecca Firkser used to write a column for Food52 on budget-friendly recipes, including a guide to making dinner for $2.50 or less. The inspiration for these came from her own life as someone trying to live in New York City on a small media salary.

“Most of the places I work for don’t ask for budget pitches, but a handful do and they never used to,” Firkser tells me of how there has been a slight increase in money consciousness in recipe development for mainstream outlets. She credits the pandemic for showing people who used to mainly eat out how easy and cheap it can be to make certain dishes at home.

“I think the average person — not the person who works in food media — they’re maybe going to stop going to these legacy food sites,” says Firkser. “They’re going to go to TikTok and just see what this rando they follow who shows all their Trader Joe’s hauls [is cooking].”

The democratization of access to folks who have a lot more in common with them than, say, the New York City writer who is having meals comped or expensed, cool ingredients sent to them by publicists, and popping into the test kitchen will undoubtedly lead to changes in how recipes are cooked, shared, and accessed. What people are responding to on social media is that they’re seeing recognizable ingredients, stores, and brands — not just “cool” tinned fish and olive oil brands, but the ones that are at their neighborhood supermarket. The appeal of cool when it comes to food wears off when one is on a real budget of finances and time. Seeing folks cooking in their regular homes and apartments with accessible ingredients? That makes the lamb stew or pretty tomato toast seem doable.

Without adapting to some of the budget consciousness, economic transparency, and diversity allowed by new forms of media, the old forms are going to continue the pattern named by Ephron and Sheraton oh so long ago. The world has changed, but the food writer has only adjusted slightly to account for the plurality of voices and oceans of difference between ourselves and most readers.

The only foreseeable problem is the hunger of the algorithm causing burnout for folks who have come up through video, who don’t have a column or test kitchen job sustaining them, and the way they’re beholden to an audience. It’s a dream job, and in that way, it’s also a curse.

“My favorite thing in the whole wide world is creating videos,” says Doiron. “It’s so fun. It’s to make something pretty and then to communicate an idea. It’s just the best. However, the feedback loop of people is the worst. So you’re straddling the best thing and the worst thing.”

What’s heartening is that the millions of followers flocking to folks cooking on newer social media platforms shows a deep interest in cooking, finding inspiration for daily meals, and even in figuring out where to go eat. This interest can be harnessed and attended to, perhaps leading to budget takes on some of those 1960s soufflés. Everyone will always have to eat, and that’s why the food writer has so many chances to gain a new reader. Nowadays, we might just have to chronicle our real-life grocery list in order to hook them.

Alicia Kennedy is a writer living in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She is the author of No Meat Required: The Cultural History and Culinary Future of Plant-Based Eating, and she publishes a weekly newsletter on food culture, media, and politics called From the Desk of Alicia Kennedy.

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