If you enjoy watching other people cook, recent weeks have been a time to feast, with chefs displaced from their kitchens broadcasting from their homes, and cult YouTube cookery channels breaking through to the mainstream. Top of my list of the new online stars is Massimo Bottura (@massimobottura), chef-patron of three-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana, whose rambunctious, twinkle-eyed Kitchen Quarantine videos from Modena have seen him tackling everything from tiramisu to ragù with leftovers. Another favourite is Patrick Williams of South African restaurant Kudu (@kuducollective), a cheery fellow with a bounce in his step who’s been making buns and chocolate babka from his pristine white kitchen in London while his baby girl babbles and paws at flour on the countertop beside him.
For other reasons, I’ve loved following Jeremy Lee of Quo Vadis (@jeremyleeqv), whose posts have showcased his skills as a draughtsman. One on “pork in tunny sauce” (his variation on vitello tonnato) includes an illustrated flowchart of ingredients (a pork loin, half a head of radicchio, tins of tuna and anchovies) sketched with gusto in black ink. It’s a reminder of how food illustration sparks the imagination rather than eclipsing it the way photography can.
I’ve also enjoyed Luke Selby (@lukeselbychef). His videos, from sushi and chorizo shakshuka to blueberry clafoutis, are less about his patter and more about his vibe in the kitchen. They feature only his hands as they masterfully manipulate food, accompanied by a soundtrack that wouldn’t seem out of place at Glastonbury. Think Harry Styles, Eminem and Rihanna, with Fleetwood Mac thrown in for good measure. This is cooking to chill out to.
In being shot from above, Selby’s videos ape the format pioneered by Tasty and Tastemade, which already boast a huge following among younger viewers. It’s not hard to see why. Their Insta-ready videos are edited for the bullet-point generation, so that a dish of bacon cauliflower mac and cheese takes just 46 seconds to make. Somehow they work. After watching one video, you feel equipped to make that recipe, and the steps and ingredients are embedded in your brain like a mnemonic.
You can find longer versions of these videos on YouTube, where there are plenty more idiosyncratic treats to binge on. I’m a sucker for the Bon Appétit channel, a joyful showcase for its ragtag bunch of editors. Among the personalities who have become stars there are Claire Saffitz, an unashamed food nerd with a shock of white-tinged hair, who hosts Gourmet Makes, recreating well-known confectionery including Oreos, Ferrero Rocher and KitKats; and Brad Leone, a beanie-wearing dude whose show It’s Alive deep-dives into fermented foods, from sourdough to tepache.
In many ways, the shows have been just as delightful during the lockdown, when all the editors have been creating content at home, in settings as diverse as galley kitchens in Brooklyn and parental boltholes in Dallas. As authentic and endearing as ever, these multiscreen episodes have been an uplifting articulation for me of what cookery in the age of Zoom can be, a paean to community, teamwork and keeping your sense of humour.
Notwithstanding a recent interview in which she ill-advisedly dished on other vloggers, Alison Roman has become another go-to menu adviser: her unfussy approach comes across like a best friend whose cooking and wry asides keep you in good spirits (the way actual spirits do), and her caramelised shallot pasta – with heaps of shallots, garlic, tomato paste and anchovies – always delivers. I’ve also developed a deep appreciation for recipe testers such as Ottolenghi’s Noor Murad (@noorishbynoor), Bao London’s Anaïs van Manen (@anais.vanmanen) and The Joyful Home Cookwriter Rosie Birkett (@rosiefoodie). Among the countless store-cupboard hacks that Birkett posted, her recipe for yoghurt flatbreads was a lifesaver when bread was scarce – and I saw it reposted countless times.
MasterClass has also provided me with a perfect one-stop shop to feed my habit. It’s an online education platform that offers tutorials in many fields. At £170, annual membership provides access to 80-plus classes. This includes over 48 hours’ worth of culinary tips from the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, Gabriela Cámara, Wolfgang Puck and Massimo Bottura, just as voluble here as he is in his Kitchen Quarantine videos but with a Japanese sous-chef called Taka to keep him on track.
So what do you learn? Foundational dishes are key. You’re taught how to make different versions of salsa verde, various types of pasta and every kind of stock, from roasted veal and demi-glace to chicken and vegetable. My favourite is Bottura’s vegetarian “brodo”, made from oven-toasted vegetable scraps, a ravishing cognac-coloured liquor that he serves with passatelli (bread-crumb pasta). Some dishes seem fairly basic. Both Ramsay and Keller devote lessons to poaching an egg. In his first, Ramsay cooks it in vinegary boiling water, then serves it on toasted brioche with mushrooms fried with bacon. In his second, he poaches it in red wine and pairs it with asparagus purée and king trumpet mushrooms, elevating an at-home dish to a restaurant-level entrée.
After Keller cooks his egg, he trims its egg-white beard with scissors, making it look like a neat ball of mozzarella. His emphasis is on refinement. This means peeling the asparagus before boiling it (he suggests brushing the stems with a scouring pad to take off only the thinnest outer layer) and blanching cherry tomatoes to remove their skins. This is part of his philosophy. Each chef has their own. Puck speaks of “training the palate” and creating “a dining experience”. Bottura raves about “feeding people with emotion”.
Ramsay, as you might expect from his years on reality TV, turns out to be the greatest showman. Cooking beef Wellington or Szechuan roasted chicken from his LA kitchen, he projects such gruff authority and passion that it’s tempting to tune in just to be entertained. But Ramsay is having none of it. He ends with some no-nonsense advice that would get any armchair cook up on their feet and into the kitchen. “Watch and learn,” he says. “But do me a favour after you’ve watched and learned. Go and fucking cook.”