How Bon Appétit Became a YouTube Sensation—and Why Claire Saffitz Is the Perfect Star

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In the first episode of Gourmet Makes, Food Editor Claire Saffitz is several attempts into replicating a Twinkie in the Bon Appétit test kitchen, and her colleague Brad Leone has an opinion on her latest: It should be chewier.

“But cake isn’t really supposed to be chewy,” says Saffitz.

“Well, I don’t like cake!” says Leone.

“Spongier!” someone in the background yells. It’s Food Stylist Judy Mancini. “Have you ever made a chiffon cake?”

“Oh my god. A chiffon cake? That’s a good idea,” says Saffitz, looking despondent at the thought of starting over. “Can we edit that out?” she asks someone out of frame. They cannot. She groans. The camera lingers on her displeasure. And then she starts over.

Saffitz being mic’d up for an episode of an as-yet-unaired Test Kitchen Talks.

Twenty-five episodes later, Gourmet Makes is now the most popular franchise on Bon Appétit’s beloved YouTube channel, and it’s propelled Saffitz from obscurity into a Jia Tolentino-level media darling. Glossier wants to know about her skincare routine. The Cut wants to know how she gets it done. Grubstreet wants to know what she eats for breakfast (avocado tartine with sliced egg, crispy onions, and arugula—or nothing). Nearly half a million people want to see what she’s doing on Instagram. It’s an unusual level of interest for a chef whose claim to fame is recreating junk food on YouTube with only the mildest measure of enthusiasm, but that’s precisely why her figurehood is fascinating.

That debut episode, “Pastry Chef Attempts to Make a Gourmet Twinkie,” took her four days to tape, runs 11-and-a-half minutes, and has over six million views. In the last moments, when fellow food editor Rick Martinez tastes her final iteration, he’s satisfied—it tastes exactly how he wishes a Twinkie would. “Well, thanks,” she replies neutrally. “I guess we accomplished what we set out to do.”

“I wanted to pull my hair out,” Saffitz told me recently when we met up in Manhattan, where today she can scarcely go a few days without being recognized by fans on the street. “I absolutely hated it and felt it was totally pointless.” So when the episode, which was supposed to be a one-off, blew up, she was perplexed. “I thought it was this nonsensical, sprawling, rudderless show.”

Unsurprisingly, the test kitchen looks exactly the same in real life as it does on the Bon Appétit YouTube channel.

Producers were testing a bunch of video ideas for Condé Nast at the time, and the Bon Appétit test kitchen, with its sprawling marble countertops and massive 35th-floor windows at One World Trade Center, was the perfect setting. Two years of Gourmet Makes later—Starbursts, Doritos, her most dreaded Pop Rocks—the show’s view counts regularly outnumber Bon Appétit’s 4.5M subscribers. And among the passionate Reddit communities and meme accounts (including my own attempt) dedicated to BA’s YouTube presence, Saffitz has cemented her role as the viral muse of the channel, and more importantly, as the culinary internet’s favorite curmudgeon.

Arts, crafts, quince

When I arrive at the Upper West Side apartment Saffitz shares with her boyfriend, who also works in food, she’s barefoot in a pair of jeans and a striped T-shirt, her famously grey-streaked hair in a sloppy half-pony. She greets me with a warm hug and takes my coat. Distinctly un-curmudgeonly. Her place feels cozy and lived in. The kitchen is clearly one of two chefs: The burners and oven look restaurant-grade, the counters are stacked with packed utensil cans, the walls are affixed with labeled squeeze bottles and boxes of Saran wrap positioned for maximum efficiency. At one point I watch her twirl a piece of plastic off the box without looking, wrapping something at the same time as she rips it clean.

She moves swiftly and gracefully like that—or just as often: slowly and artfully. When I watch her chop some quince for a recipe she’s testing, or slice her bahn mi sandwich in half, or cut a perfect circle into a slab of dough, I immediately recognize the person I’ve observed on Gourmet Makes. The one who, between nihilistic complaints, goes out of her way to bring art into her work, like when she painstakingly recreated the foil wrapper of a homemade Ferrero Rocher, or deconstructed a strainer to fashion the perfect curved mold for a gourmet Pringle.

“I love arts and crafts,” she says, “I always feel a sense of relief when I get to that part, because I can just sit there, basically in silence.”

She likes silence and she likes order—decisively more than recreating junk food. This tension is central to Gourmet Makes, and part of why her penchant for eye-rolling feels charming rather than obnoxious: You get the sense that none of this is her fault. She never claimed airbrushing tiny homemade Skittles was important; it’s just what we—viewers, producers, the internet—are making her do it. It might be the most compelling meta-commentary on digital content we have right now.

I think there’s something about watching me go through a stressful process that’s stress-relieving for people.

She’s not and never has been a performer, she tells me. (Whenever she’s filming for a non-BA project and is asked to flub the steps a bit, she can’t. “I’m an indoor cat,” she says. “I need to be in my natural environment.”) It’s absurd to her that she’s made a career out of entertaining people. But her theory for why Gourmet Makes became popular is rooted in these very sentiments: From the beginning, she never really liked it. “I don’t feel that way anymore, necessarily, but there are moments where I’m still like, I can’t believe this is a thing. Why is this a thing? No one should spend their time doing this,” she says. “I think there’s something about watching me go through a stressful process that’s stress-relieving for people.”

Her perseverance is key. Not only do you feel for her as she sets out on the ludicrous endeavor of making homemade Gushers, but you get to watch her push through it to the other side (and she always does). This combination of emotional sincerity and enterprising spirit fuels the entire Bon Appétit YouTube universe, which now features a whole cast of beloved characters (Brad, Molly, Chris, Carla, Andy, Gaby, Amiel, Priya).

BA Social Media Editor Emily Schultz films Molly Baz for a new Instagram franchise they’re calling, of course, “Lunch al Desko.”

Although Saffitz has become a central figure among them, the channel as we know it actually found its footing with Leone, the aforementioned cake-hater whom fans are constantly trying to “ship” with her (neither are single). And as with most strokes of genius, the now-famous voice of the test kitchen was the alchemical result of luck, good timing, and vague intuition.

The potato chip was invented by chance, too

Back in 2016, the Bon Appétit video team was producing straight-forward, three-minute recipe spots for YouTube. During screen tests, the test kitchen manager, Brad Leone, couldn’t stay focused. But Alex Grossman, then-creative director, thought he was funny, and sent a camera guy to follow him around for a bit anyway. The resulting footage, of Leone making his own kombucha, was long and sloppy. It sat untouched for several months. But then a producer named Vincent Cross saw something in the tape that no one else did. He cut it into a nine-minute video that was unlike anything the channel had published before, full of spills and swearing and fast cuts with irreverent commentary added via text overlay by graphics editor Matt Hunziker. They showed it to the higher-ups, who were skeptical. The conversation, Hunziker tells me, went something like this:

“Can we put this on the internet?” Cross asked.

“No,” they said.

“Please?” he asked.

“Fine,” they said.

But they had their doubts: It was way too long for the people’s short attention spans, they said, and it didn’t provide a service. If audiences couldn’t actually learn how to make kombucha by watching, what was the point?

The point, it turned out, was Leone. People loved him. The video was a hit. Actually: “It was a mess,” Hunziker tells me, “but people liked it. So we just kept making messes.”

Leone’s popular fermentation-focused show, It’s Alive, has been in production for three years now. And Cross and Hunziker’s choices have come to shape the aesthetic of the entire BA canon, now defined by its shaky cam-style filming, unplanned cameos, and focus on (if not full celebration of) kitchen fuckups. In other words, it’s messy. Which is to say: human.

Shows like Gourmet Makes, Reverse Engineering (where chef and supertaster Chris Morocco attempts to recreate recipes by only smell, feel, and taste—highly recommend), and Making Perfect (where the team works together to create the ultimate version of something—block off lots of time for this one) followed, sprinkled in with recipe videos that felt like something your chef-friend might make for you if you asked nicely. Almost all of them surpassed 10 minutes in length, many approaching 40, and with view counts ranging from 500k to 10M, attention spans prevailed. Today, Bon Appétit has the fastest growing YouTube channel in the food category, with over 40M monthly views and over 5B minutes watched.

If the lauded cooking-show format of the aughts was a coifed white lady showing viewers how to be the perfect host, and that of the early tens was the disembodied bird’s-eye perspective of Buzzfeed’s supercuts, Bon Appétit stumbled onto the scene at just the right moment: The internet’s bullshit meter was more sophisticated than ever, and anything too stiff (Martha) or slick (Tasty) was missing the mark.

This is great, I quit

In the summer of 2018, a year after the debut of Gourmet Makes, Saffitz was exhausted. On top of filming, she was still working full-time as a senior food editor, developing recipes for the Bon Appétit site and magazine, occasionally writing for it, too. While complaining about her untenable workload to her boyfriend Harris on the phone one day, he suggested she quit. “I was like, ‘That’s so crazy. Don’t say that!’” she recalls. Twenty minutes later, she was convinced he was right.

Setting up the shot involves a lot of fiddling with the bird’s eye camera.

In 2013, Saffitz wouldn’t have dreamed of quitting. She’d just been hired as a freelance recipe tester, and after spending her early twenties feeling a bit lost, she wasn’t about to let the opportunity go. “It was like the universe heard my prayers,” she says. “I’d never been so excited. I always thought if I was just able to get a foot in the door, I could prove through hard work that I really wanted to be there.”

I thought I would just do school forever until they kicked me out.

Saffitz got her degree in American history and literature at Harvard in 2009 and, unsure what to do after graduation, enrolled in culinary school. “I looked at culinary school as more of like a stop gap,” she says. “It was knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” When she finished, she returned to school again: this time for a Master’s in history at McGill University.

“I always loved school,” says say. “I thought I would just do school forever until they kicked me out.” But at McGill she realized she missed cooking, so after graduation she applied to Bon Appétit, and the rest, they say…(I won’t say it). But neither she nor her family expected she’d end up where she did. “When I went to culinary school, I think they thought I was being sort of frivolous,” she says. “Like, ‘What is she doing? She’s veering off course.’ I think they’re a little bit tickled that I made it work.”

By 2018, she was in high demand, considering opportunities her gig at Bon Appétit couldn’t accomodate: freelance work, a cookbook, some of her time back. The day after her phone call with Harris, she quit, hopeful she could transition her role as host of Gourmet Makes into a contracted position. For a while, things hung in the balance, and fans briefly panicked. But she returned to the show that November, on contract, with an episode recreating Sno-Balls, no less.

As we talk, Saffitz carefully arranges slices of quince in a geometrical spiral in a cast iron skillet. She is testing the recipe for a tart, to be published in her forthcoming cookbook about how baking can be just as creative as cooking (working title: Dessert Person—“I’ve always been one”). About halfway through, she pauses, looking discouraged. “I think I might have to redo this,” she says. “People won’t want to make this if it’s so particular.” She undoes her handiwork, opting instead to arrange the slices in straight lines. This makes her a little sad.

Working for herself has been stressful. She likes rules and boundaries and hates change, and freelancing challenges all of those (she recently set a policy that she’d stop working at 10:30 p.m.). Meanwhile, her Bon Appétit gig—she now films about 10 days per month—involves entertaining, which isn’t her forte, and creating recipes no one in their right mind will emulate (this does, per her quince spiral, have its upsides). But she’s always been shy and drawn to hard work. As a kid, she was deeply focused on school, hated being looked at, and spent a lot of time by herself. “I was a high-anxiety kid,” she says. Very serious, very studious. “I wasn’t good at team sports, I just made myself endure it because I thought I had to.”

I bring all this up not to catalogue Saffitz’s path like a sentient LinkedIn profile, but to underline something I find increasingly interesting about her as an unlikely internet icon: She’s an enigma of a quirky kind. Not brilliant and scattered, but determined and aimless. Not brave and rebellious, but anxious and creative. She hates change yet pursues it, wants order but trades in chaos. She’s loved because she hates stuff; performs well because she can’t perform. And above all, she’s aggressively regular—and something about this makes the crowd go wild.

She sends me home with a slice of quince tart. It’s fucking delicious.

Snacks versus meals

Claire Saffitz, loyal clog-wearer in the kitchen.

Two weeks post-quince, I meet Saffitz in the test kitchen. She’s sitting on a stool in a back room, asking fellow video host Amiel Stanek how to purchase more iCloud storage on her iPhone. “I’m late,” she tells me casually. “They told me they need me in two minutes and it’s been 10.”

She’s often late, she says. She’s a night owl and a morning person and she also needs a lot of sleep. This combination can prove tricky, especially because she hates keeping people waiting—but also not that much, she clarifies. (See? Enigma.) Across the room there are five men, two with cameras strapped to their bodies, one with a boom mic, another staring at a screen, and an authoritative one holding papers stapled together (whom I later learn is Jeff, the director of Test Kitchen Talks, among other Condé Nast projects).

Filming is about to start, and the rest of the kitchen is unconcerned. In one corner BA Social Media Editor Emily Schultz is filming Molly Baz (another audience favorite) stir a pot of curry paste on the stove. They’re shooting a new Instagram franchise they’re calling “Lunch al Desko.” Another food editor is prepping her station, another is taking an iPhone photo of chopped kale and a singular hard-boiled egg. A fifth arrives with a recipe in hand for chocolate hazelnut cookies. A massive steel bowl of steel cut oats sits abandoned on a counter. There is no clearing of clutter as the director’s block closes. No “quiet on the set.”

Over the next two hours, Saffitz bangs out five back-to-back tapings. She and Amiel debate which foods are snacks and which are meals (nachos are a snack; quesadillas are snacks; cinnamon buns are snacks—actually, they’re dessert. When they take too long to decide, Jeff politely asks them to wrap up. Almost nothing is deemed a meal). Next she taste-tests four pieces of steak, each cooked a different way, and describes them to the camera. Then she has to slice, plate, and dress an avocado in a minute—footage which will be cut together and pitted against the efforts of the other BA chefs, who have already filmed theirs. But before the taping begins, I find her staring at a counter littered with ingredients, looking severe.

She’s asked to do a lot, but never to do the impossible: perform.

“This is terrible because I’m so insanely competitive,” she tells me, “but I’m also out of practice.” She asks for turmeric and lime, which a food prep assistant runs to get for her. In the end she attempts a fancy drizzling tactic, placing delicately cut pieces of paper over half the avocado slices to protect them from seasoning. A minute is not long enough for this approach, obviously, and she laughs in spite of herself when time is called. “The splatter was on purpose!” she shouts into the camera.

A mystery meat journey awaits…

Now she’s blindfolded and being asked to taste and identify six deli meats (lots of meats today). She gets only one correct. “How did the others do?” she asks. Supertaster Chris only got two. Brad and Priya got all but one. “Brad?!” she says. Brad, they say. A clatter! The food prep assistant has dropped and shattered a jar of marinara behind the first camera man. It’s an ingredient for the next scene, wherein Saffitz has to make the best pizza in the shortest period of time, after which she’ll cook an egg in a way of her choosing.

Saffitz seems a little glassy-eyed between takes, but not as exhausted as I might expect an indoor cat to be after the conveyor belt of tasks and attention. I think this has something to do with the fact that she’s a pro, but a lot more to do with the way Bon Appétit has embraced her as she is. She’s asked to do a lot, but never to do the impossible: perform. “I’ve worked there for a long time,” she told me back in her apartment. “It’s easy for me to be myself there.”

As docile a revelation as that may seem, being oneself is an increasingly complicated task in 2019. But it’s one Bon Appétit is tackling more effectively than its contemporaries. The channel may have all the makings of a viral hit—satisfying before and afters, the aspirational made approachable, the motley, talented crew of tastemakers—but it’s the unrelenting commitment to presenting humans as they are, not just in their lives but how they feel as content creators, that betrays a more sophisticated understanding of what it means to be authentic.

Another clatter echoes through the kitchen. This time it’s a dropped mason jar. Someone grabs a broom and starts sweeping, and naturally, the camera keeps rolling.

Photos by Louisa Wells.

By the way, Bon Appétit is hosting their annual Hot 10 Party this Saturday, where you can hang with the BA team and taste food from the best new restaurants across America. You’ll also find an open bar and, without a doubt, multiple Man Repeller employees. You can snag tickets here

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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