Last month, when the 201-episode marathon of Julia Child's The French Chef aired on social video platform Twitch, almost a million people stopped to watch the legendary chef prepare crepes suzette, potage parmentier, oeufs sur le plat, and many other recipes that made her an icon. For four days nonstop, it was the first time in decades that Child's whole series, launched in 1963, was showed on screen.
Child was an important figure who introduced American television audiences to the idea that home cooking could be simple and even cool — an audience who, like the chef herself, made a point in eating well. Not by accident she was chosen to launch the food channel of "Twitch Creative," an arm of the Amazon-owned streaming site that's open to creative contributions from viewers and users. "Because cooking broadcasts were gaining traction, we decided to host a marathon of Julia Child's The French Chef to celebrate our culinary artists, since in many ways Child was a precursor to Twitch," says Bill Moorier, Twitch's head of creative. "She would illustrate how to prepare a meal and talk to the audience as if they were in the room with her, which is exactly what our successful broadcasters do."
"There is something unique about food that involves more than just being a passive viewer."
Since the advent of the internet, watching cooking shows has gained another dimension: many (previously anonymous) culinary stars took over YouTube and built million-follower recipe channels. YouTube helped to democratize the cooking show by giving both professionals and amateurs the chance to upload their own shows. YouTube turned real people, not only trained chefs, into cooking celebrities, and sometimes with enormous reach — successful channels boast thousands of subscribers and huge engagement with viewers.
But with the recent popularization of streaming platforms, something bigger is cooking. More than just the addition of live transmission and sense of urgency intrinsic to this new way of consuming online content (the "you blink, you lose" feeling), the new platforms flaunt their ability to interface creators and other viewers — through likes, comments, subscriptions, and video sharing — to draw an audience. That's why many of them, such as Vine and Periscope, saw their audiences grow exponentially during the last months, especially with millennials: Twitch currently attracts 8.5 million daily active users as of January 2016.
"The younger generation are cord cutters and 'cord nevers' who are primarily consuming their entertainment through computers and mobile devices," Moorier points out. This makes the digital nature of new streaming platforms a popular destination for an audience that is naturally more eager to interact. And food, specifically, is gaining in importance to younger people: Half of millennials in America consider themselves "foodies," according to research by ad agency BBDO.
Streaming live transmissions seem to give millennial audiences the authenticity they look for, especially regarding food. Twitch's food channel showcases classic programs from other cooking talents: Julia and Jacques — Cooking at Home (a pairing of powerhouse chefs Child and Jacques Pépin), the food-history show A Taste of History, a Sriracha documentary and the Great Chefs television series. But it also hosts at-home food broadcasters like CookingForNoobs, DomesticDan, and Milkncookiesss, who chat with viewers, solicit donations, and answer questions posited by viewers watching live.
"Exploring food has an element of unpredictability to it, and live video is a great way to express that."
Viewers' newfound love of interactivity is something Vijay Karunamurthy is betting on. Karunamurthy is the CEO of Nom, a live-streaming platform designed to cater to foodies and cooking fans. Nom, co-created by YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, launched in March during SXSW (South by Sowthwest), with the goal of promoting collaboration between the app and its audience: anyone can create a show and offer live coverage of food-based experiences.
"There is something unique about food and cooking, in that the art of making something involves more than just being a passive viewer," Karunamurthy says. "You have to roll up your sleeves, get your hands in dough, and start making something. If you're a diner, you have to open up your horizons, explore new parts of cities, and see where your tastes lead you. Exploring food has an element of unpredictability and potential to it, and we've found live video is a great way to express that."
For him, streaming platforms' main attraction is the possibility of sharing in real time, as if viewers were actually diners around the same table. Like on Twitch, Nom's viewers can interact with the person hosting a live show by chatting to him or her — and viewers even chat with each other. A chef sharing a tapas recipe on a live streaming transmission like Nom might walk into a show with photos, video clips, and more media that express the culture of tapas around the world and the history of some of his favorite dishes. Streaming technology — as any mobile device doubles as a real camera — can offer that intimacy.
"But you then experience, as a viewer, a show that can go in any one of a number of directions the chef never predicted," Karunamurthy says. "A viewer might have analbondigas recipe they share in the show, and another might have the perspective of owning a small tapas bar in Portugal, and share a video clip of the line at their bar right now. The magic of that live experience is the feeling of walking out in the world and exploring, instead of just being a passive viewer. The best shows on Nom are almost like going to an improv stage performance."
No matter if you are recording a show in the traditional way or doing it via streaming, unpredictable things may happen — even more so if you have a hot pan in your hands. "That's part of the reason why cooking shows have become so popular — there is the same heightened intensity of being in the kitchen, that we capture by being live on camera, that an audience responds to," Karunamurthy adds.
More than just the trend of food as a culture, Shen Tong, managing partner of New York-based Food Future, Inc., a business accelerator in food, agriculture, and social entrepreneurship, points out other trends are also at work to make streaming food platforms and channels more popular. "The democratizing effect of low cost, high relevance, high stickiness internet video and social networks are converging with the wave of changes in food space," he says. (The latter phrase, "stickiness," refers to the duration of a user's visits; a video with "high stickiness" means the viewer is watching for longer periods of time.)
Also a founder of Food-X, a start-up accelerator that invested in 26 food-related companies by the end of 2015, Tong chose to work with CookMood, a start-up created by three Brazilian entrepreneurs focused on live streaming cooking classes. CookMood, which is working in beta test mode until it raises all the money needed for its launch, bets on video interfaces that allow students to interact "face-to-face" with teachers (who might be known chefs or amateur home cooks). "Cooking is a political act today, and democratizing platforms make it also an agent for cultural change and economic scale, with high potential of return [financial and audience-wise]," Tong says.
Maybe that's why big companies are investing big in food live broadcasting. Many chefs are taking to their Facebook pages, for instance, to engage and interact with their followers in real time by way of Facebook Live — a new app that makes it easy for public figures to talk with their fans and each other on the go. Mario Batali has a Facebook Live series called "Taking Requests" where he asks followers to send him any four ingredients, and he will come up with a recipe on the spot. Martha Stewart and Thomas Keller have their live Facebook channels as well, the former to teach baking tips and the latter to show the backstage of a fine-dining restaurant (in his case, the French Laundry kitchen). Anthony Bourdain has fielded fan questions through CNN's Facebook page.
Los Angeles chef Jet Tila, who often appears on food television shows, is also betting on Facebook's platform, going live to chat about cooking and making dishes for his viewers. "It provides the immediacy and engagement of live TV," he says. "Imagine having a live TV studio in your phone with two-way chat." From his own home kitchen, he teaches how to prepare smoothies and grilled cheese on his "Seven Minute Kitchen Clinic" series. "The second layer [to Facebook Live] is being able to create content that can live on with immediate feedback," he says. "The choose your own adventure' facet is unprecedented."
"Cooking is a political act today, and democratizing platforms make it also an agent for cultural change."
Nom has also recruited a host of well-known names in cooking, including three-Michelin-starred chef Corey Lee (who is also an investor), Timothy Hollingsworth of Los Angeles restaurant Otium, and Michael Tusk of San Francisco's Quince and Cotogna. It will also broadcast online food events, like this year's announcement of the James Beard Awards, to build its audience.
Nom's CEO says it's too early to measure traffic numbers, "but we're excited to see the energy and traffic around shows and people who are sharing photos and video clips, especially on Instagram, and hope to showcase more in the coming months," Karunamurthy says. "When we knew we wanted to focus on food, we didn't look at data or rankings for trends — we trusted that the passion for food and cooking that we had as a team was something people around the world shared."
Even if it's too soon to know how it's going to turn out, seeing so many leading companies betting on streaming platforms may indicate that they'll radically change the way we watch food content — and give viewers the chance to connect globally to other kitchens in an unprecedented way. "Our kitchens, for us, cover the whole planet," Karunamurthy concludes. At least, it's a key ingredient that he's wagering on.
Rafael Tonon is a food writer and journalist based in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
Editor: Erin DeJesus