Last week, it was announced that Sohla El-Waylly, the celebrated chef and assistant food editor at Bon Appétit, would be the host of a series called Stump Sohla. The basic concept of the show, which has a ten-episode first season run on YouTube, would challenge El-Waylly to cook a familiar dish in an unusual manner. Episode one saw her cook macaroni and cheese in an 18th-century style, which included cooking over a fire pit (which briefly exploded) and making spätzle-style noodles. As of the writing of this piece, the first episode of Stump Sohla has over 1.6 million views on YouTube. It’s an obvious victory for El-Waylly, who rose to prominence with occasional appearances on the much-lauded Bon Appétit YouTube channel. After a highly-publicized fallout over the company’s unwillingness to pay its on-air employees of color, El-Waylly and several other staff members announced that they would no longer appear in videos on the channel because of the lack of change at Condé Nast Entertainment. Her new internet home, however, is a whole lot better, because Stump Sohla is the newest show in the Babish Culinary Universe.
For over four and a half years, Andrew Rea has been one of the undisputed kings of culinary YouTube. The amateur cook’s series Binging with Babish is one of the platform’s true delights and the epitome of the site’s oft-disputed ethos that raw talent and charm will always find a way. As Bon Appétit crumbled in record time, Babish reigned supreme. His channel currently has 7.9 million subscribers, whereas Bon Appétit, even with the might of Conde Nast and the terrifying algorithm in its favor, only has 5.9 million.
Rea’s set-up is simple yet perfectly composed: Take a dish from a noted piece of pop culture, recreate it to the most minute detail, then offer an alternative version if the original is less than satisfactory. The channel exploded to fame almost immediately when Rea tested out the burger cook-off from Parks and Recreation. Since then, he’s tried his hand at basically everything, from the monster cakes of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (complere with durian fruit) to the legendary pasta sauce of Goodfellas to the many Krabby Patties of Spongebob Squarepants. The most popular dish on his channel is the eponymous ratatouille from the Pixar movie, which has over 24 million views.
What is fascinating about Binging with Babish is how consistent its formula has been since day one. Rea’s face is typically concealed, and the viewer is forced to focus on his hands doing all the work of food preparation. The music seldom changes, and Rea is always providing the voiceover. There are no extra gimmicks or flashy effects. From the get-go, Rea had nailed it, which was probably helped by his own experience in filmmaking and VFX. Go and watch that first episode and you’ll see how incredibly professional it is. There was never a teething period for Babish, which is a stark contrast from many of even the most successful shows on YouTube. No shaky-cam, no tripping up over a slapdash script, and so on. This may have just been Rea’s hobby to start with, but this was a man who was ready for primetime, and that’s something that’s kept his millions of fans hooked for several years now.
The intersection of food and pop culture is practically internet catnip. Add some cute cats and Rea would have created the perfect YouTube series. While he wasn’t the first show to tap into this desire, he was the one who did it the most successfully. Everyone has watched a film or read a book or played a video game where they’ve stumbled across a moment with food and wondered what that dish tasted like. Could the meals that Hayao Miyazaki portrays in his movies ever be as satisfying and sumptuous as we want them to be? How good must that five-dollar shake be to warrant such a price tag? There’s something almost primitive in how much Rea’s work immediately satisfies such a base desire. I myself have watched certain videos multiple times just to scratch that itch, even though the chances or me actually trying to cook something like the timpano from Big Night are next to nil.
Of course, YouTube is a personality-driven platform, and the magic of Binging with Babish is still dependent on the charm of Rea himself. He may not center himself on his own series but he’s still the star, the guy with the cool tattoos and the voice tailor-made for vaguely sultry cooking instructions. Rea is quietly charismatic but approachable, complete with a dry sense of humor and an ease in front of the camera. He’s smart enough to know when to tell a joke and when to let the food do the talking. Crucially, even though the show made him famous, he’s savvy in his awareness that this formula works best because it’s not a one-man star vehicle. It stands in sharp contrast to the Bon Appétit kitchen, which pushed the personalities of its cooks to the forefront and would let them spend close to 30 minutes making jokes, doing banter, and establishing themselves as celebrities. I must admit that one of the reasons I never got into Bon Appétit was because all the extemporaneous brand development stuff tried my patience. I just wanted to get to the food, and Rea, to his credit, does that, even when he takes time out to do a skit or chat to a guest. He’s found a comfortable niche between Bon Appétit and Tasty, which notably features no personalities, for better or worse.
Now, Rea is expanding the Babish world into its own culinary universe, and it’s a rare case where I’m optimistic about a thing I love getting bigger and potentially more corporatized. As shown through the promising start of Stump Sohla, there’s a lot of promise with this formula to take new routes, try new things, and never lose its intrinsic appeal. I just hope that, whatever direction they take, Rea keeps the focus on the food, because said food is sort of amazing.
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