Between a seemingly endless election season, potential global pandemic, and looming climate catastrophe, these are stressful times. If you’ve wandered onto the internet seeking an easy hit of serotonin sometime in the last year, you may be one of the between three and five million viewers each week who tunes into Gourmet Makes. The flagship offering from legacy food magazine Bon Appétit’s phenomenally successful YouTube channel, the show sees professionally trained pastry chef Claire Saffitz reconstruct familiar snacks—Almond Joys, Pringles, Skittles—with quality ingredients.
The formula for each episode is the same: Saffitz introduces the challenge, samples and dissects the snack du jour, reads off a lengthy ingredient list, and then spends what is usually several painstaking days recreating it from scratch. You can judge how laborious a food is by how long the video is—the longest, Gourmet Jelly Bellies, stretches to 48 minutes. Along the way, an exasperated Saffitz seeks out troubleshooting advice and emotional support from fellow professional chefs on the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen staff, many of whom have become celebrities in their own right, with their own similarly unscripted, imperfect, personality-driven shows.
A wholesome Instagram account called Meme Appetit has sprung up and attracted 272,000 followers. There is fan fiction. The kind of online adoration viewers heap on Saffitz might be rivaled only by that paid to the Baby Yoda character from The Mandalorian—in both cases, Tweeters say they would die for them. The test kitchen chefs’ personal lives aren’t emphasized in the series, though there was rampant buzz about the ring that appeared on Saffitz’s finger last fall. The food isn’t entirely the point, either; most of the recipes on Gourmet Makes, especially, are too complicated by half for novice home chefs to make at home. So what makes Gourmet Makes and the Bon Appétit YouTube channel’s other shows such a hit?
With videos running for nearly an hour, the Test Kitchen rejects the made-for-social approach of other viral cooking videos like those on BuzzFeed’s Tasty channel, which foist disembodied hands assembling Six Easy Weeknight Dinners (or some such) onto unsuspecting Facebook scrollers. It’s a far cry, too, from Food Network favorites Paula Dean and Ina Garten flawlessly preparing signature dishes in idyllic country kitchens—and further still from Gordon Ramsey shouting at underlings. The Test Kitchen’s closest cousin is chef Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the bestselling cookbook turned four-part Netflix series. Nosrat—sunny and masterful—travels the world exploring the titular, constitutive elements of good food, visiting olive orchards in the Mediterranean and centuries-old soy sauce brewers in Japan. Writer Malcolm Harris at Eater argued in 2018 that Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’s particular joy derived from “its vision of unalienated labor” and its willfully inefficient display of “virtuosity performed for its own sake.”
The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen offers a similar thrill. Unlike the settings of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, the action in the Test Kitchen revolves almost entirely around co-workers in a workplace, where chefs test recipes that will wind up online or in the magazine. The seemingly nonhierarchical, supportive atmosphere on its YouTube channel contrasts starkly with the greater American food industry, whose labor troubles stretch from farm to table. Food workers all along continent-spanning supply chains are among the economy’s most precarious workers. Farmers face debilitating debt in an increasingly centralized industry. Farmworkers are barely scraping by. Many dish-washers live in fear of deportation. And servers at fast-food joints and hip coffee shops alike subsist on a meager tipped minimum wage that’s been frozen at $2.13 since 1991. Sexual harassment is rampant, and job insecurity, domineering managers, and punishingly long hours—not to mention the tyranny of grouchy Yelp reviewers—make food-and-beverage-related jobs some of the toughest around for employees’ mental health. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center, roughly nine out of 10 restaurant workers lack paid sick leave and employer-provided health care. Two-thirds report they’ve gone to work sick. So far this primary season, servers have donated inordinately to Bernie Sanders, who has made Medicare for All a centerpiece of his campaign.
In a world of Soylent-fueled productivity and meals scarfed down at desks, there’s some novel pleasure in watching people do something they like, with people they like, for as long as it takes. Brad can ferment popcorn and ginger beer to his heart’s content. Amiel Stanek can walk through 59 ways to cook an egg. Drinks editor Alex Delaney brings a friend along to sample cheesesteaks and breakfast tacos and work through the whole menu at some of New York’s best restaurants, at what appears to be a leisurely pace. Contrast all that with what writer Jia Tolentino describes as the salad chain Sweetgreen’s “marvel of optimization”:
[A] line of 40 people—a texting, shuffling, eyes-down snake—can be processed in 10 minutes, as customer after customer orders a kale caesar with chicken without even looking at the other, darker-skinned, hairnet-wearing line of people who are busy adding chicken to kale caesars as if it were their purpose in life to do so and their customers’ purpose in life to send emails for 16 hours a day with a brief break to snort down a bowl of nutrients that ward off the unhealthfulness of urban professional living.
The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen is no socialist utopia, of course. And there’s nothing especially revolutionary about mainstream foodie culture. Most Bon Appétit YouTube stars balance video appearances with writing and editorial work for the magazine, and it’s hard to imagine every dynamic in the Test Kitchen is as saccharine as it looks on camera: They’re workers, too, whose labor is intended to fuel profits for Condé Nast. Instagram-worthy Bon Appétit merchandise—“The Iconic Claire Shirt” or a $150 apron, for instance—cashes in on YouTube gold. Even so, the Test Kitchen brings a vision of how things might be different.
While cooking content frequently presents a go-slow, even noncapitalist approach to food prep—think The Pioneer Woman, River Cottage, etc.—the locus tends to be some domestic, small-c conservative oasis. Gourmet Makes adopts a different premise: admiring the merits of our favorite megacorporation-produced junk foods, then setting out to discover how deindustrializing the production with skill and teamwork could make them even better—just for the hell of it. To watch Gourmet Makes or It’s Alive—Brad Leone’s fermentation show—feels a bit like hanging out with someone playing hooky from their “real” job, even though it’s exactly the opposite. However much branding goes into Bon Appétit Test Kitchen shows, the reasons so many people love them are the reasons so many people hate capitalism and how it’s twisted our relationships to food and one another.
Fast food—from monoculture to McDonald’s to $15 Manhattan fast-casual grain bowls—is as bad for the planet as it is for our psyches. Agricultural production currently accounts for 8.4 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, driven largely by factory farms that pump out food as unhealthy as it is carbon intensive. In recognition of food’s considerable carbon footprint, the Test Kitchen at the start of this year resolved to make itself more sustainable, ensuring 30 percent of new recipes are plant-based, and to cut down on food waste, among eight other laudable measures.
Making the way the U.S. consumes food more sustainable, though, means more dramatic, high-level shifts in values and policy. No amount of preachy veganism will help cap global warming at 2 degrees Celsius so long as a Big Mac is still the cheapest, fastest thing someone can grab between shifts at different minimum-wage jobs, served up by people who themselves are working for poverty wages. A sustainable food system isn’t just about sourcing or ingredients but making it possible to eat at a different pace and for more people to cook and grow food for themselves and not corporate bottom lines. A world where we can all spend four days making gourmet Sour Patch Kids is one where we can cook long dinners with friends and family without fear of deportation or stay up late playing music and drinking natural wine. It’s one where fresh, organic produce isn’t out of reach in working-class neighborhoods, holed up in Amazon-owned megastores, and where farmers can make a decent living and not be run out of business by industrial feeding operations that pollute their drinking water. Summer squash grown in soil that sequesters carbon (rather than eroding at between 10 and 100 times its natural rate) can be roasted to perfection at barbecues in sprawling, well-maintained public parks.
It’s the world proposals like the Green New Deal—a policy framework to transition the economy off fossil fuels—seek to bring about through regenerative agriculture, a federal green job guarantee, and beefed-up labor protections. As with other sectors of the economy that need to be brought in line with planetary limits, remaking the food system won’t mean much if it isn’t accompanied by equally ambitious changes in other sectors that help to transform and decarbonize consumption more generally. Altogether, these shifts can make life a lot more pleasant.
The original New Deal dealt with consumption and agriculture as well. Among Franklin Roosevelt’s first acts after taking office, in March 1933, was legalizing and taxing beverages with no more than 3.2 percent alcohol nationwide, which had been outlawed by Prohibition. The Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition altogether that December. Doing so was as much a means to lift the nation’s spirits as to stimulate the economy, providing a boost to tavern owners and grain and grape growers. Local governments also saved money by not enforcing the ban on spirits. Because there were still moral misgivings about the role of alcohol in society, the New Deal invested generously in public leisure infrastructure like parks, playhouses, and hunting lodges, giving people some way to spend their time other than at the bar. Roosevelt “brain trust” member and Undersecretary of Agriculture Rexford Tugwell was especially bullish on America’s newly unleashed alcohol production, seeing it as central to what he called his fellow New Dealers’ “political dedication to the pursuit of happiness.”
“Wine and beer,” he said in a speech two months after the end of Prohibition, “are made from agricultural produce, and the consumption of American wine and beer cannot only serve the broader purposes of the New Deal in making for a calmer and happier type of existence, but will help the American farmer to find a better market for his produce.” He at one point proposed opening a model winery in Maryland under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture to serve as a state-of-the-art research facility for viticulture and enology. “I foresee a plethora of small local vintages, some good, some mediocre, some perfectly dreadful, out of which will arise in future some great names and great traditions of American wine,” Tugwell continued during the speech. “I anticipate a calmer and more leisurely type of civilization, in which there will be time for friendly conversation, philosophical speculation, gaiety, and substantial happiness. For today we have in our possession all the elements which are necessary to that more abundant life.”
That’s no less true today than it was in 1934. It’s a relative blip in the long scope of human civilization that our most basic needs have been left to the mercy of a few megacorporations. The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen hasn’t written a recipe for food justice. But it lets viewers indulge vicariously in the kinds of abundance and experimentation that, off camera, few kitchens and workplaces now enjoy.