Adam Rapoport: What did you think you were going to be walking into when you took a job in the [Bon Appétit] test kitchen, and were you prepared for all this?
Sohla El-Waylly: I had no expectations, but definitely not this.(92nd Street Y, 14:08-19)
“I would die for Claire from the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen,” announces YouTuber Mike Messineo in the first three seconds of his video by the same name (Mike’s Mic). This hyperbolic declaration of self-sacrifice for a pastry chef became a popular phrase among fans of the YouTube channel produced by American food magazine Bon Appétit (often stylized as “BA”).
Affectionately known as the “BA Culinary Universe” an homage to the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise of superhero films, the hundreds of YouTube videos produced out of Bon Appétit’s test kitchen have earned millions of views and a wildly enthusiastic audience. Beloved for its diverse cast, warm tone, and irreverent humor, the shows on the Bon Appétit channel owe their period of success to a seamless dramaturgical framework that provides the audience with a sense of aesthetic continuity.
I: Defining the Dramaturgy of the Bon Appétit YouTube Channel
“And now for my favorite part: reading the ingredients.”Claire Saffitz, “Gourmet Makes”
The dramaturgy of the Bon Appetit YouTube channel draws heavily on the conventions of reality television. “Television, from the surface on down, is about desire,” asserts David Foster Wallace in his essay “E unibus pluram: Television and US Fiction”. He writes of the hours spent languishing in front of the television by the “average” 20th century American, engaged in a unique voyeuristic practice that directly combines narrative with consumerism. Though his essay does not exclusively frame itself around the construct of reality TV, his reflections on the peculiar relationship between television’s performers and audience are perhaps best captured by the reality TV aesthetic.
Foster asks, “How can we be made so willingly to acquiesce for hours daily to the illusion that the people on the TV don’t know they’re being looked at, to the fantasy that we’re transcending privacy and feeding on unself-conscious human activity?” Embedded in this question is a primary tenet of the dramaturgy of reality television, and indeed very much the dramaturgy of the Bon Appétit YouTube channel: that the behavior of the performers onscreen is “unselfconscious”, not a “performance” in the traditional scripted sense but a more natural, genuine pattern of behaviors that happen to be captured by an errant camera and broadcast to millions.
In television scholar Jonathan Bignell’s essay “Realism and Reality Formats”, he describes the participants in a reality TV show as “required to perform, in the sense of crafting a persona that would suit their situation and endear them to the audience” (101). Yet in this same essay, Bignell also writes that “the notion of realism operates as a standard of value within television institutions and for audiences, since each of these regard the connection of television programs with reality as an assured basis for judging value” (97). The inherent tension between the performance of character and the promise of reality is constantly at play within the dramaturgy of reality television, and within the dramaturgy of the Bon Appétit YouTube content.
“You don’t go to Bon Appétit for the recipes,” says YouTube cultural commentator Jack Saint in his first video on the impact of the BA YouTube channel and its collapse. “You go to see what bullshit Brad is up to this time, or watch Claire in pain” (Saint, “The Collapse…” 3:34-42). Saint is referencing two of the most prominent figures of the BA Culinary Universe: Brad Leone, host of “It’s Alive”, and Claire Saffitz, host of “Gourmet Makes”.
Each of their shows, filmed primarily in the Bon Appétit Test Kitchen and with frequent cameos from other BA chefs, is at once a demonstration of their prowess in the kitchen and a masterclass in capturing personality onscreen. Even Saint’s choice of words in the above statement reflects how thoroughly the sense of character permeates Leone’s and Saffitz’s content.
“It’s Alive”, which follows Leone as he experiments with fermentation, fungi, and even sustainable hunting, was perhaps the first bastion of the Bon Appétit dramaturgical style by the content creators at Condé Nast. In a panel at New York City’s 92nd Street Y featuring the full primary cast of the Bon Appétit YouTube channel—chefs and video hosts Saffitz, Leone, and Priya Krishna, food editor at large Carla Lalli Music, test kitchen director Chris Morocco, senior food editors Molly Baz and Andy Baraghani, associate editor Christina Chaey, assistant editor Sohla El-Waylly, and test kitchen manager Gaby Melian—the magazine’s Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport discusses the unique style employed when filming even the first episode of the “It’s Alive” series.
“If you ever go and watch the first episode of ‘It’s Alive,’ where Brad makes a kombucha,” Rapoport says, “that was just Brad all day. That was not a ‘show,’ we were just following Brad where he was supposed to be working.” Leone adds, “We haven’t really deviated much from that game plan” (16:59-17:13). “It’s Alive” maintains a tone of irreverence, including footage of Leone’s boyish jibes at coworkers and employing such hypermediated techniques as overlaying the videos with text to essentially create catchphrases that celebrate Leone’s love of garlic or his pronunciation of “water” as “wourder” (“Brad Makes Giardiniera (Italian Pickle Relish)” 1:26).
The development of the Bon Appétit dramaturgy can be tracked in the channel’s transition from self-consciously performative to a more casual aesthetic, belying Rapoport’s and Leone’s assertion of effortlessness from the very start. In early videos, Saffitz wears visible face makeup, stands squarely in place within the camera frame, and does not address anyone other than the camera, performing directly to her unseen audience (“Claire Decorates Sugar Cookies 6 Ways”). Just a few episodes into the “Gourmet Makes” series, wherein she attempts to recreate classic “junk foods” using elevated ingredients and techniques, Saffitz is already framed in a more naturalistic light, embodying Michael Kirby’s concept of “received acting” as she frenetically employs Leone and a hot glue gun to modify a pasta extruder to perfectly shape a gourmet Twizzler (“Pastry Chef Attempts to Make Gourmet Twizzlers” 10:42-1300).
Kirby’s description of “received acting”, a state of performance in which the performer is observed as being “in character” by their audience even when executing everyday tasks, aligns remarkably well with the dramaturgy of the Bon Appétit YouTube channel (25). In the aforementioned panel, Krishna corroborates the story that the channel’s videos are not “performed” but simply filmed. She says, “You literally show up to the test kitchen and they just start filming. They’re not like, ‘here’s your intro, here’s what you should say, now do this, now do this.’ There’s no coaching whatsoever” (92nd Street Y 3:59-4:17).
As the channel grew into its dramaturgical voice, even the onscreen talent began to gently acknowledge the convention that their performances (or lack thereof) were unfettered by the cameras in front of them. It is nearly impossible to ignore the presence of a camera, to not alter one’s behavior when confronted with the reality of your own documentation, but the dramaturgy of reality television—and the Bon Appétit channel—relies on that promise. A socio-dramaturgical contract is required to suspend the disbelief that the Bon Appétit chefs are not performing but simply “being real”, unaware of the cameras around them.
“When an audience is also convinced in this way about the show [someone] puts on,” says sociologist Erving Goffman, “then for the moment at least, only the sociologist or the socially disgruntled will have any doubts about the ‘realness’ of what is presented” (28). In an episode of the “Making Perfect” series, Leone cracks a joke to colleague Andy Baraghani in reference to this conceit. “Andy, we’re surrounded by cameras,” Leone says, hand poised in front of his mouth as if to frame the statement as a conspiratorial revelation (25:23-27). Don’t look now, Andy, he seems to suggest, but we’re being watched!
Despite maintaining that the people in front of the camera are not “acting”, the dramaturgy of Bon Appétit videos also relies on the playing of certain roles by individual members of the cast, another trope drawn from reality television. “Even adult shows often ran on high school archetypes. You usually had the jock, the prom queen, the weird guy, the nerd, the spastic girl who’s a little babyish,” a showrunner of the early 2000s reality show Boys vs. Girls told essayist Jia Tolentino (41). The Bon Appétit test kitchen actively acknowledged that their hosts and contributors play ascribed archetypal roles, at times even participating in these assignments.
At the 92nd Street Y panel, an audience member asked Saffitz to name the “ingredients” for each of the members of the test kitchen (the question itself a reference to one of Saffitz’s oft-repeated phrases in her “Gourmet Makes” videos). “Andy’s the salt, Andy is salty,” she begins, eliciting a big cheer from the audience. Andy laughs and bows his head in good-natured acknowledgment of his own character trope. “Carla’s the MSG, the special secret ingredient. Gaby’s the little pinch of sugar. Brad is something fermented, the fish sauce maybe, the soy sauce, or the miso. Brad’s the miso. I dunno, that’s all I’ve got.” (49:21-49:58).