Without the Test Kitchen, the magazine’s stars are taking us into their homes.
The quarantines and social distancing mandates that have brought many American cities to a near standstill have also completely halted production in the film and television industries. A few intrepid TV shows are experimenting with episodes filmed in quarantine, but for the most part, the entertainment industry is taking a wait-and-see approach.
And yet YouTube is full of channels that are still putting out the same great videos as ever. That’s relatively easy to do when a channel is predominantly run by one or two people who can collaborate online. But then there’s the case of Bon Appétit.
One of the most popular channels on all of food YouTube, the offshoot of the 54-year-old food magazine has seen its most successful months ever during the coronavirus pandemic, according to Matt Duckor, Condé Nast’s head of programming, lifestyle, and style. The channel saw 76.7 million views in March, the most successful month in the channel’s history, up 5 percent over February.
And though the channel works six to eight weeks ahead and is still releasing new videos filmed in its massive Test Kitchen (the setting for most of its videos to date), the Bon Appétit team has scrambled to make videos that reflect the challenges most American chefs, amateur or professional, are facing right now — videos shot in the homes of the channel’s stars. So many of us are cooking from home, clearing out our pantries, and trying to figure out how to navigate occasional shortages in ingredients.
Bringing viewers into the homes of Bon Appétit’s editor-chefs could have been a massive flop, considering the endeavor has required all 13 of the “regulars” to shoot their own video. But creative use of the internet has allowed the channel to keep posting new videos filmed in chefs’ personal kitchens since widespread shelter-at-home orders began in mid-March. And many of the channel’s most famous video series will move from the Test Kitchen into their stars’ homes, with Claire Saffitz’s hugely popular Gourmet Makes — in which the pastry chef recreates everything from Twinkies to Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — joining the at-home slate in May.
How was Bon Appétit able to do that? I asked Duckor about the challenges of shifting to remote production, as well as what it’s meant to the channel’s fans to see inside the homes of Bon Appétit’s increasingly popular YouTube personalities.
Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
You’re a small operation to begin with, but the production lift on making these at-home videos seems significant.
We received an email on Wednesday, March 11, advising employees to work from home. We had just started talking about a contingency plan about what we would need to do if the office closed that Monday, two days prior. I’m confident none of us felt like that was going to happen that quickly. We thought, we’ll be able to send a cameraperson to somebody’s house. They can get there. We’ll keep the crews really small.
Within five days, it was very clear that we weren’t going to be sending any crews anywhere. So we had these kits that we put together. Everyone has the latest iPhone in the Test Kitchen, basically, so we knew that the camera was good and consistent. We got them a couple different tripods, and we got them some audio gear, which is the biggest thing that separates cell-phone video from more professional video. We ordered some basic wireless [lavalier microphones] for everybody in the Test Kitchen.
Then it became a question of, creatively, what can we do to meet our audience where they’re at with our content? The Test Kitchen has become such an iconic location. It’s been, obviously, where the majority of our content has been shot but also where our folks interact with each other. So what happens when we take them out of that? We thought there would be some intrigue in seeing everybody’s home kitchens. I didn’t really estimate how important all that would be to people. The response we’ve seen has been pretty incredible.
The first thing that we wanted to have was a video that could come out as quickly as possible that had everybody from the Test Kitchen universe in it, using the Test Kitchen Talks [format] that we use on the channel, where we pick a topic and we supercut different people doing the same task or talking about the same thing. We knew that we could do that pretty quickly with all 13 people we have regularly on the channel.
We sent tips to all of them [about filming themselves at home] and then, that following Thursday and Friday, we had our first two shoots. As production lists go, we had to figure out, well, how do we make this, how do we produce this? So we’ve been using Zoom to have our production teams join [each shoot]. Those first shoots went really, really well. We were able to shoot videos with all 13 talents.
By that time, everyone had been out of the office for almost two weeks, and more than anything, everyone was just really excited to see each other. We had a first call to walk everybody through things, and it was a big Zoom call with all the people from the Test Kitchen on there, and everyone was just excited to see each other.
And it’s the same thing that people around the country have been experiencing, and we wanted to have content that reflected that. The first video, our status-update video, touched the Covid crisis in quarantine more on-the-nose than anything else we’ve done. Of course, it’s evident in everything we’re doing, because everything’s at home and produced in a different way. Hopefully it feels more relatable for people who are also at home, but doesn’t [also] feel like a reminder of the fact that we’re all under quarantine in some sort of somber way.
When you started the Bon Appétit YouTube channel, you were turning magazine editors and chefs who weren’t previously on camera into onscreen talent. Now you’re helping those people understand the tech so they can do some of their own production. Obviously, most of us know how to shoot a video on our iPhone, but how did you walk everyone through some of the other technical aspects?
All the credit goes to our production team. The first thing was sort of elevating the equipment [from what everyone already had] and the second part, after we [sent the equipment] to them, was showing them how to use it. So our [directors of photography] hosted a hilarious Zoom with all 13 [people] on there, walking them through how to set up a microphone and the basics of framing a shot, stuff like that.
There’s a bit of a learning curve there. Yes, everyone shoots video on their iPhones casually for Instagram or with their families. But we started getting questions [from fans] almost immediately about how were we adapting the Bon Appétit videos for this time. [Viewers were] worrying on social media that there wouldn’t be anymore Bon Appétit videos, and how were they going to get through the pandemic without it. So there was some pressure on us to create something that felt like it lived up to, for a lot of our audience, something that’s really important in their daily lives.
That anxiety was also felt by the talent a little bit. “Oh my god, we’re shooting in our home. We don’t have this huge crew around us. They’re on Zoom. What’s it going to be like?” From the very beginning, from the first shoot we did that first week, everything was really, really smooth. We tried to make it as simple as possible. We were there with them every step of the way. We weren’t trying to set up complicated shots. We’d frame it up with them on a Zoom call, and then it’s them being their amazing, relatable selves in the comfort of their own home.
It rolls pretty easily. Some of them, you can tell, are really comfortable at home. Brad [Leone] adapted right away to being in his kitchen by himself, just yelling at an iPhone. It’s a testament to how real those guys are on camera. We surround them with a crew and formats that really elevate them, and the Test Kitchen is a really fun setting. But at the end of the day, they’re really compelling even in front of an iPhone in their home kitchen. What’s making the content really work is that [the personality] is still intact. Nothing’s changed there.
Have you faced any big technical hurdles beyond just mailing out the equipment? Were there home kitchens that were trickier to shoot in?
Uploading the footage to our server was one thing the first day. We were expecting that upload times may be significant, but, depending on how much we shoot, it takes 16 to 24 hours to upload an entire shoot to our server. Obviously, all of our editors are working remotely as well. So some of them had full desktop setups at home, but others were working off a laptop that wasn’t ideal. So post-production in the beginning, we had to get a handle on that workflow.
Everyone has a different type of kitchen, but we worked with them before the first shoot to scout their homes over Zoom, to really figure out the best place. When it came time to really do that first shoot, we had a good sense of what we were working with. Going forward, those kitchens aren’t changing, and we’re really using those same setups for all content that we’ve been filming since then.
We put out content since we started filming remotely that was shot in the Test Kitchen before all of this happened. We will continue to do so to some degree. But right now, the pendulum is sort of shifting. Last week and before, remote concepts were being sprinkled throughout [the Test Kitchen] stuff. Now we want to be putting out content that feels really reflective of where our talent is right now: at home, just like everybody else.
We work six to eight weeks out in terms of filming, but we wanted to prioritize content that felt really of the moment and will relate to people and everything they’re going through. It was a heavy lift in the beginning, but now we’re getting into a pretty good rhythm.
The Test Kitchen videos have a real air of a workplace comedy, like The Office or Parks and Recreation. I get the feeling of a whole bunch of people working together, moving between the background and foreground as their “storylines” become more important. And now it’s almost like you’re doing episodes where you follow those “characters” home. Has it been weird letting the audience into that larger world?
We’ve talked about filming in the homes of [Test Kitchen talent] before, but never really done it. But just as the Test Kitchen is another character in a lot of our videos, people’s home kitchens have become that. There’s been a lot of dissecting [by fans on social media] how people’s home kitchens are reflective of their individual personalities. Of course Brad has a chaotic kitchen with 50 pans on the wall. And Sohla [El-Waylly] has the biggest spice collection of in anybody in the Kitchen.
Our first remote episode of It’s Alive is just a great example of how you can take a show that [is] incredibly iconic and translate it to a new setting in Brad’s home. Matt Hunziker, the director and editor, who is really the creative genius behind that show, did a great job. We have the first interaction between people in that episode. Sohla works with Brad to make a grated ginger-garlic paste that Brad uses for some cooking. So that’s using Zoom and self-taping on Sohla’s end to bring those two together.
The home kitchens and the talent’s families have emerged as other characters, not to take the place of anyone in the Test Kitchen or the Test Kitchen itself but to add another dimension to these videos. There’s real texture to it. And it’s their homes and it’s their private lives and their personal lives. And they’re all willing, I think, to share that. We’re all happy to be able to continue to work and create content from home that is having a deep impact on people.
In the comment section, and on Instagram and all of our different platforms, we get a lot of really amazing feedback and testimonials [from fans] on how what we’re doing is giving people comfort in a really weird time. We’re happy to be able to continue that, even if it’s in a slightly different setting and Brad’s kids are running into the room every 10 minutes.
Do you miss not having that Test Kitchen set to go to?
It’s an iconic place that binds all of our videos together. I think some of the home kitchens are becoming that, but for years, the Test Kitchen has been the home of our most successful videos, and it’s so ingrained in the mind of our audience.
I wouldn’t say we lose anything, but it’s hard to replace what the Test Kitchen provides, which is a setting that is memorable but that also is a place that facilitates the interaction and collaboration that, I think, makes some of the best Bon Appétit videos really tick. It’s hard to replicate that over Zoom.
But it’s hard to do anything that we’re doing remotely now, in all of our lives. It’s hard for other industries to work remotely, but people are finding ways to do that. Aside from videos, the entire Test Kitchen team also have to create and test recipes for the magazine, the website, and social media. They’re continuing to have to find a way to do that from home. They’re collaborating together to work on those things. At the core of it, it’s the reality of who these people are, and their skills and their relationships and friendships with each other. It’s no different in video.
How have your video strategies shifted with some of the other Condé Nast YouTube channels? Like the Wired series, where celebrities answer the most-Googled questions about themselves, seems like it would be harder to produce from home.
There was some initial concern among everybody, but especially celebrities, about, “Well, what do we do during this time that doesn’t seem tone-deaf and still work and create things during really sensitive times?” And I think we’ve seen in the past couple weeks, a lot more celebrities and public figures wanting to collaborate with us on things.
It’s like, “Is it okay to film from our homes, which are often bigger and nicer than a majority of Americans’? Does that feel insensitive?” I can think of that Gal Gadot “Imagine” video, and a few other things where there was, like, a little bit of backlash in the beginning, and I think celebrities were like, “Ooh, we’ll hang tight for a second and see how everything develops. We’ll work on fundraising and other charitable things.”
And now I think there’s a little more willingness to experiment. But then, at other brands, we really tried to take a page out of Bon Appétit’s playbook, which is to build homegrown talent or rely on experts that we work with. Wired, you mentioned, has a lot of programming that’s built around experts who are friends with the brands. And those people are still able to work from their homes as well.
The celebrity component [of many Condé Nast video operations] is massive, and we’re finding ways to work with celebrities and other public figures right now. That’s moving in the right direction. But we have a lot of other programming that is more controllable and that isn’t based around celebrities’ junket opportunities or someone being on the cover of a magazine.
You mentioned the question of how to produce content that isn’t tone-deaf. How are you tackling that problem? Obviously there’s a lot of suffering going on right now, but people don’t tune in to Bon Appétit to think about that. How do you walk that line?
The first step was acknowledging the reality of where our Test Kitchen is at. They’re at home. I think we had enough [Test Kitchen] content already filmed that we could’ve never made an at-home video and the channel wouldn’t have gone dark. But that didn’t feel like the right thing to do. People identify with our Test Kitchen, and they see it as an extension of their lives. They’re in the kitchen with their friends. We’re not going to suddenly do a whole series of videos on coronavirus and an explainer on how to wipe down your food when you get it from the grocery store. That doesn’t feel in line with the ethos of our channel and what our brand is about.
But to miss the opportunity to do something that’s reflective of the lives of our chefs, and millions of people around the country and the world, felt wrong. And everyone wanted to continue working. All of us love what we do every single day, and we love the connection we have with our community especially.
We’ve been cautious on the production side. In the first batch of five videos we did, one of them required actual active cooking. That was an acknowledgement that it’s slightly difficult to get groceries right now. In those five videos, we didn’t want to do anything that would make huge portions that couldn’t be eaten by one or two people who are in the same apartment. We don’t want to have anything that shows food waste. The cooking video that we did make was how to cook with items from your pantry. Most people are looking at their pantries like, “Oh, what the hell do I do tonight?” The Test Kitchen pantries may look a little bit different than most people’s, but at the end of the day, that’s still reflective of how a lot of people are thinking of cooking right now.
The response has been amazing. March was the most viewed and watched month of all time on Bon Appétit, and April is pacing to pass that. Anecdotally, the most gratifying thing is to be able to make a change like this and people don’t say, “Oh, it’s not [the] Test Kitchen. I don’t know, it’s kind of weird. They’re in their houses.” I was optimistic that the response would be positive, but you don’t know until you put it out there. To have this wave of appreciation come back was so gratifying for me and for everyone on the team.
I don’t know how long this is going to go on for, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes its way into future programming that we do [post-quarantine]. It has felt like a different layer of the onion for all of these people in our videos. We have a better understanding of who they are, so I wouldn’t be surprised if in the future, it informs the way that we make other things. But certainly we’ll all be excited to be back in the Test Kitchen whenever the appropriate parties determine that it’s the safe move.
Check out Bon Appétit’s videos on YouTube.
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Author: Emily Todd VanDerWerff