Bon Appetit’s YouTube videos are the absolute best quarantine TV


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Food Network host Alton Brown talks to USA TODAY’s Andrea Mandell about spending his quarantine at home in Atlanta with his wife and their dogs.

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You have probably never considered how hard it is to make a Jelly Belly candy from scratch. But Claire Saffitz has. Against all the odds, over multiple days and after seven failed attempts, the Bon Appetit magazine chef produces one halfway decent jelly bean made from scratch. And you can watch the madness unfold in a 48-minute episode on YouTube more gripping than most network TV series. 

The food magazine that traditionally delivers recipes and reviews of restaurants has slowly developed one of the best YouTube channels around, by combining a shockingly charismatic and appealing cast of chef stars with food creations ranging from simple to silly to mesmerizing.

Claire Saffitz in an episode of “Gourmet Makes” from Bon Appetit’s YouTube channel. (Photo: Bon Appétit/Condé Nast Entertainment)

The Appetit videos have been good since they began, but their shows feel almost vital amid the coronavirus pandemic. More than any other entertainment, the sometimes wacky concepts are particularly attuned to the absurdity of our current situation. Is it ridiculous to make Starburst from scratch or eat the oldest item in your kitchen? Yes, but so is cutting your hair at home.

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The channel’s best and most popular series by far is “Gourmet Makes,” in which Saffitz attempts to make gourmet, homemade versions of popular snack foods, from Twinkies to Snickers to Hot Pockets. Although she makes a range of passable, sometimes exquisite substitutes (her Pop-Tarts are unparalleled), the show stopped being about junk food long ago and instead became a character study of Saffitz, an extremely competent chef with a Type A personality, a love of crafting and unending supply of clever one-liners.

Saffitz is unfiltered on camera, happily trashing her assignments when they’re too complicated, expressing genuine frustration at failure and elation at success. The series is part cooking show, part “MacGyver” as Saffitz uses her crafting talents to turn a pasta extruder into a Twizzlers maker, builds a Pringles mold out of a flour sifter and makes her very own Girl Scout sash to deliver homemade Thin Mints. 

The series works as more than just recipe videos because making food normally produced by factory machinery is hard, and the best “Gourmet Makes” videos have arcs of trials and setbacks as suspenseful as any good cop show. You are rooting for Saffitz, feeling her pain for every failed attempt to temper chocolate. (You also learn that’s the chocolate that coats your favorite candy bars.)

While “Gourmet Makes” is the most accomplished series, there are plenty other precious nuggets in the Bon Appetit mix. In “Back to Back Chef,” test kitchen chef Carla Lalli Music tries to walk celebrities through complex recipes blindly, and watching Natalie Portman fumble breaking open a coconut is wonderfully endearing. Singer Troye Sivan even made a reappearance on the show from quarantine, virtually. 

“It’s Alive” is ostensibly about foods that are made with live cultures (like sourdough and other fermentations), but in actuality the show is an excuse to watch host Brad Leone, the chillest, goofiest man in America, mess around with jars and crack often dumb jokes in a heavy New York accent. 

The rest of the test kitchen chefs offer more traditionally instructional segments on making recipes like sambal noodles or mac and cheese, but most chefs pop up in each others’ videos now and again, so watching the channel is like getting to be a part of the world’s tastiest office gossip. You learn about Molly Baz’s dog and Music’s son Cosmo. You understand that Chris Morocco hates peanut butter and has the most exacting standards. And maybe you learn a thing or two about how to cook. But it’s OK if you don’t.  

The Bon Appetit Test Kitchen team. (Photo: Laura Murray/Bon Appétit)

Just like Hollywood TV shows, Bon Appetit has had to move its production to its stars’ homes since social distancing began, but it works far better here than on late night talk shows and “American Idol.” After all, the magazine is about home cooking, so seeing the chefs cook in their actual homes feels natural and soothing. They make grilled cheese (although some add kimchi or other fancy add-ins), bring their families and dogs on screen and awkwardly video chat with each other. It’s just like your work from home situation, only requiring more dishwashing. 

We are all desperate for a sense of normalcy as the pandemic goes on, but there is a value to leaning into the chaos and inanity of our situation. We don’t need practical 30-minute meals, we need someone to shout into the wind and say that making Pop Rocks from scratch is insane. 

It is, but we’ll happily watch Saffitz and the rest do it as long as they’re cooking.

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