In 2020, New York Times restaurant critic Tejal Rao wrote about the dwindling adoration of the star chef. “For decades, the chef has been cast as the star at the center of the kitchen,” she wrote. “In the same way the auteur theory in film frames the director as the author of a movie’s creative vision, the chef has been considered entirely responsible for the restaurant’s success.” But following allegations of sexual misconduct against chefs like Mario Batali, and the increased spotlight on overworked and under-appreciated file-and-rank restaurant workers in the pandemic, the veneration of name brand chefs as singular geniuses has begun to fray.
So, too, has the veneration of expertly positioned food media. Last year the editor-in-chief of magazine Bon Appetit resigned after a photo of him wearing brownface, a revelation that ignited comments from the staff’s editors and writers about how they were underpaid and mistreated. The New York Times’s darling Alison Roman stepped back from her role as an on-camera personality and recipe writer after taking swipes at Chrissy Teigen and Marie Kondo. Recipes at once-reputable food outlets are frequently divorced from the cultures they come from; curries become “stews,” hot sauce and limes are added to mole verde for “visual contrast.”
Food television has for the most part mirrored the glossy image of celebrity chefs as experts, putting household names like Gordon Ramsay or Emeril Lagasse on pedestals. Even the more casual personalities like Rachael Ray and Ree Drummond, positioned as accessible to the suburban, busy home cook, still deliver up picture-perfect recipes from their shiny kitchens. Food media, from overhyped celebrations of chefs to television personalities, has never felt more broken, more disconnected from how people really cook—no matter how much Ina Garten tells me “store-bought is fine.”
But then there is TikTok. At some point, I stopped reading food magazines, stopped watching the Food Network, and started watching strangers cook from home on my iPhone. Watching food TikTok, a mishmash of recipe videos, “what I eat in a day” diaries, and product reviews feels like watching everyone with access to a kitchen and a smartphone suddenly get their own public access TV show. On FoodTok, you’ll come across charming vegans with voices fit for ASMR videos, like @iamtabithabrown and @thekoreanvegan, the latter quietly narrating life advice and personal stories over videos of her cooking. There are college kids cooking haphazardly from their dorm rooms, pandemic shut-ins attempting to perfect Taco Bell menu items from their homes, and rappers eating ramen out of Hot Cheeto bags. You can follow aspiring professional chefs with high-definition cameras that zoom in on every nook and cranny of their pretty plates of pasta or onigiri. Incarcerated people make pizza. FoodTok can be a dizzying mash-up of competing birria taco recipes, fufu reviews, and Coca-Cola pot roast recipes passed down from sorority cookbooks.
Aside from the occasional TikTok fad (like inexplicably eating cakes with wine glasses) watching FoodTok feels like watching how people actually cook and eat, out of the restaurants, out of the magazine pages, out of the professionally designed TV kitchen sets. There is often no artful mise-en-place or culinary institute training. Sometimes people skip a step and start their meal over, or forget to film something and apologize. But for every delicious recipe and adept TikTok food personality, there is a meal you might not want to touch with a ten-foot pole. What is one person’s gourmet delicacy is another person’s nightmare, like this video of a woman making chicken noodle soup by boiling raw chicken in water, or this troll-y recipe by an American for “British eggs” that includes sugar, whipped cream, and a microwave. Crockpot recipes emerge in the feed like Godzilla atop a city, horrifying the crowds of commenters with pale, unseasoned chicken legs swimming in Italian dressing and cream cheese. “Cheese is not a seasoning 🥺,” one user comments.
I am simultaneously disgusted and hypnotized by the videos of TikTok user @aquickspoonful, who makes a gooey variety of layered desserts using powdered cake mix (“don’t mix it!” she’ll say, as her famous rule), pre-made cookies, and sticks of butter. “You have changed my family’s dessert future,” one commenter writes on a video. “The recipes always look like mush,” another writes. In a TikTok video with over 2.5 million views, user @danilolatravel films herself “reacting to wild YT people cooking videos,” as she stares confused at a stranger making what appears to be a SpaghettiO filled pie. Even iced coffee can be controversial, as teenage girls who show off their personal recipes, filled with varying levels of creamer and sugar and sugar-filled creamer, are derided in the comments for “not even liking coffee.” Elsewhere on the app, a TikTok user gets so many hate comments and threats for what she feeds her toddler that she calls herself “your new favorite bad mom.”
On FoodTok, I get to see how people eat and cook in their everyday lives, to peer into virtual kitchen windows like a voyeuristic passerby who just got a whiff of something delicious (or horrifying). The way TikTok’s algorithm works, you can have no followers and have a recipe go viral. And it’s the wide spectrum of home cooks on TikTok, from professional restaurant cooks to high-schoolers just trying to show off their afternoon snack, that makes it so fun. I recently switched to a mostly plant-based diet after a lifetime of rampant carnivorism, and have spent the last few months attempting meatball recipes made out of beans and mac and cheese made from cashews. And while I loaded up on vegan cookbooks from revered chefs who’ve been perfecting this kind of cooking for decades, I found myself glued to the profiles of strangers on TikTok with only a few thousand followers, watching their plant-based go-to recipes to get a feel for the possibilities of a diet I had previously perceived as limiting.
Traditional food media often treats meals like projects to tackle, pristinely photographed one-off dishes divorced from the rhythms of daily life. Recipes are precise, a checklist to be completed, and authored by voices positioned as experts and geniuses. But as the last year has proven, expertise and genius as the food industry defines it doesn’t always make for food that is exciting. FoodTok can be entertainment, as commenters react to bizarre recipes with confusion, or an educational resource for those looking for new dinner ideas. But above all it is democratizing, a disparate collection of home cooks from across the world sharing how they cook their food, their way.