Early one morning, a week after the pandemic started, chef and food writer J. Kenji López-Alt strapped a GoPro to his head and filmed himself making breakfast. In the video, you can see López-Alt rummaging through his fridge, slicing and frying bacon, and peeling a bit of egg off a pan to give to his excited dog. There’s no recipe beneath the video, no voice-over instructions detailing what we’re seeing — it’s just a guy in a kitchen making breakfast.
Videos like these became both much-needed entertainment and valuable educational resources early in the pandemic, as a world of people realized they would be stuck at home indefinitely with their own (not necessarily stunning) cooking, and a little extra time to put into it. Food and drink streams surged in popularity on Twitch, doubling in hours watched year over year in August, according to StreamElements and Arsenal.gg. On YouTube, “cook with me” videos more than doubled in popularity starting in March and maintained that growth through October, YouTube told the Associated Press.
“It gives [viewers] confidence to do stuff in the kitchen,” said López-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. His own videos lack the polish and perfect cuts of a professional show and include the slip-ups he makes along the way. “It gives them permission to make mistakes.”
Cooking shows have been around for a century, but new formats online have revitalized the genre in recent years. On YouTube in particular, you can find step-by-step instructional lessons, personal “cook with me” vlogs, and stomach-churning food challenges like stuffing McDonald’s burgers and nuggets into an oversized burrito. On Twitch, chefs and home cooks broadcast themselves live from their kitchen as they prepare meals. And on TikTok, you can watch videos teaching you how to make a new dish in under a minute.
Many hosts noticed a pickup in views and engagement as the pandemic went on. “It definitely has been skyrocket high with the views on things you can do at home,” Zahria Harvey, whose YouTube channel XO. ZAHRIAAA is known for “cook with me” videos, told The Verge. Harvey says one viewer wrote in about making an affordable date night meal featured on her channel for an anniversary dinner because she couldn’t go out to dinner. “It was like wow, these videos are actually helping a lot of people during this time,” Harvey said.
The influx of new viewers has also meant more live interaction for hosts on Twitch. “I find that the community is way more vocal and involved past March this year,” L.A., a photographer and former sushi chef who runs the channel The Hunger Service, told The Verge. L.A.’s streams typically run for three to four hours and show him preparing and cooking a meal, talking through his process as he’s working. As he cooks, viewers ask questions about the process, like how sharp a knife needs to be or how to turn a recipe vegan.
For López-Alt, who’s known for his Serious Eats column, his channel became a fun outlet for both him and his viewers. The format he locked into — strapping a GoPro to his head — is what made video finally click for him, and it helped him reach viewers who weren’t familiar with his writing. “The food I cook on my channel is stuff I was generally making for lunch and for dinner,” López-Alt said. “I could do it consistently, people seemed to like it, [and] I enjoyed making it.” Viewers told him the videos were a bright spot and were helping them learn how to cook.
Some creators have found that the surge in interest in their channels extends beyond cooking. Remi Cruz, a popular YouTuber who frequently features cooking on her two channels, said that people have been more interested in basically anything you can do at home. For “vlogmas,” she’s been using cooking to fill the gap where she’d normally vlog about outdoor activities and holiday shopping. “I’ve just been implementing some sort of cooking-related thing every day, and people genuinely love it,” Cruz told The Verge.
Viewers won’t always end up cooking what they see, but these videos can still make their time in the kitchen a bit more fun — or at least, distract them while they think about the great meals they’ll eventually go back out to a restaurant and order.
“People are looking for some sort of comfort,” L.A. said. “Comfort food is a thing, and watching these shows can offer that comfort. You may not be making it at the time, but maybe you will.”