Is Ron’s plain old hamburger really better than Chris Traeger’s patented East-meets-West turkey burger in Parks and Recreation? Just how gross is the maple-topped spaghetti from Elf? And can you really slice garlic with a razor blade and liquify it in tomato sauce, like Paulie in Goodfellas? These are the types of questions that torment those who are obsessed with both food and pop culture.
Rea is the chef behind Binging With Babish, a YouTube channel that now has more than 720,000 subscribers. He picks out comestibles depicted in popular movies and television shows, whether they appear to be delicious or disgusting, and demonstrates how to prepare them in real life from the kitchen at his Harlem, New York, home. In some episodes of his series, such as the one featuring spaghetti aglio e olio from the film Chef, Rea offers a straightforward tutorial. In others that display more revolting cuisine, he whips up verbatim recipes, and upon tasting the wretched results, offers improved versions.
“I knew I wanted to make a cooking show... and I realized I had a pretty good setup to make a cooking show that was halfway between a traditional cooking show and those Tasty videos,” Rea, 29, tells Eater. “Then I realized there’s a lot of movie foods that I was very curious — what would they actually taste like? It’s not an original idea. Other people have done this before, but I thought I could bring a new voice to it and a new perspective to it, and I hope that’s what people are enjoying about it.” The project, at first meant to be a one-off for fun, is a hit, and the videos Rea publishes regularly exceed one million views.
With a film school degree from Hofstra, a professional background in videography, and an impressive self-taught culinary skill set, Rea already had a strong foundation on which to build. His vision for this format calls for quick videos, most under five minutes, that focus on the food, not the host. He does want to entertain and show personality, but not too much: “There are 30-minute-long videos of how to make a burger, and they don't start cooking for 15 minutes,” he bemoans.
Rea’s latest installment deals with Homer Simpson’s moon waffles (caramel candy, store-bought batter, and liquid smoke that is cooked in a waffle iron and wrapped around a stick of butter), which he elevates by making a homemade batter and topping the finished waffles with brown butter, caramel sauce, and smoked sea salt. This episode is a fine example of the Binging With Babish style: Rea narrates the action against a soundtrack of light electronic beats while the camera stays fixed on his hands and the food on the countertop.
Depending on the complexity of the dish, each episode takes roughly 15 to 30 hours to produce and costs around $100. There are exceptions: Rea spent $300 on eggs Woodhouse, an over-the-top play on eggs Benedict introduced on the FX animated series Archer. Its ingredient list includes Iberico ham, black truffles, Kashmiri saffron, and white sturgeon Osetra caviar.
Devotees of The West Wing, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s smash-hit 2000s drama about White House goings on and scintillating conversations had while walking down hallways, might recognize part of the “Binging With Babish” name. Rea’s Reddit username is OliverBabish, an homage to fictional White House Counsel Oliver Babish. Sorkin’s show doesn’t have many food-centric scenes — high-level government employees don’t enjoy much time to obsess over dining and cooking — but there is one West Wing recipe Rea wants to try: tomate du saltambique. This is a seedless beefsteak tomato stewed for three hours in creme de caramel; stuffed with passion fruit, kiwi, and hazelnuts; and served on a pomegranate reduction. The dessert is on a menu curated for President Josiah Bartlet and Chief of Staff Leo McGarry by visiting French chef Pierre Boileau in the Season 2 episode, “The Stackhouse Filibuster.”
Rea attributes his success to the Reddit community. “[T]hey were the springboard by which I was able to reach a larger audience, and they've supported me as a community would,” Rea explains. He interacts with commenters on his own Binging With Babish subreddit, where fans ask about the cookware used on the show, show off their attempts at his recipes, and make requests for future episodes. Rea says he doesn’t let a question or comment go unanswered. When deciding on dishes to attempt for his series, he considers those that interest him personally and fan requests. The most popular request, by far, is the Krabby Patty from SpongeBob SquarePants. He’s not quite sure how to tackle that one, but he’s working on it.
Rea posted his first Binging With Babish video, the Parks and Rec burger episode, on February 10, 2016, and it initially picked up around 10,000 views. He continued publishing new episodes roughly once a month. Then, in November, an audience beyond the Reddit community began to take notice. He created an episode for “the moistmaker,” a Thanksgiving leftovers sandwich made famous by Ross Geller on Friends. It was picked up by media outlets such as Huffington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Time, and Today. “Okay, I've got something here,” Rea said to himself after seeing the viral potential for his videos. “I should start making this once a week.” Since then, he’s been “cranking them out.” As of this week, he’s produced 32 videos since that first episode.
Thanks to advertising revenue and more than 1,400 patrons contributing in excess of $6,000 per month on Patreon, Rea is living every aspiring YouTube star’s ultimate fantasy: He’s quitting his day job as a visual effects artist at the end of May and making Binging With Babish a full-time gig. A few new series may be in the offing, too. Basics With Babish would demonstrate specific kitchen techniques. Boozing With Babish would spotlight cocktails, obviously, and, yes, Brunching With Babish would disseminate knowledge for Sunday Funday staples. Bashing With Babish would offer recipes for party foods. Rea is exploring a leap into television and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. He’s already landed a book deal: Eat What You Watch: A Cookbook for Movie Lovers, will be published by Dovetail Press and is scheduled for release on October 3.
“I want to be part of the new wave of media creators,” Rea says. “The landscape of entertainment is changing rapidly. I want to create new forms of cooking shows. I feel like the formula is tired and it’s time for some new ideas to be brought to the table.”
It doesn’t take much consideration for Rea to determine the worst dish he’s put on film: milk steak, something he made in an episode rounding up the horrifying fare seen on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. “It was really horrible, just because steak boiled in milk is not a good flavor,” he explains. “Steak boiled in anything is not a good flavor. It just had this horrible, slippery, slimy texture. Then it also had fucking jelly beans on it. It was repugnant. It was really bad.”
On the flip side is il timpano, Rea’s masterpiece to date.
Il timpano is a massive, lasagna-like casserole featured in the 1996 film Big Night. A sheet of fresh pasta dough is wrapped around layers of more fresh pasta, meatballs, tomato sauce, hard-boiled eggs, mozzarella, aged provolone, and Genoa salami, and it’s all baked in a Dutch oven. It took Rea 14 hours to make the dish, and it left him muttering to himself while assembling ingredients in the middle of the night. Despite the level of difficulty, he pulled it off and dished out slices to friends at a dinner party, just as chef Primo and his brother Secondo do in Big Night. Rea views this nine-minute episode as his best because it combines a stunning dish, a healthy dose of personality, and guests to enjoy his work — the reason he does all of this in the first place.
“I have always loved throwing dinner parties, because I love making things and sharing them with those around me and seeing what sort of experiences that I can give them,” Rea says. “This show is another form of that. I’m really happy that I get to make food now for a living and I get to share it with everybody around me. That’s an absolute dream come true.”