Of the genres that are most prevalent on YouTube—cute animals, makeup tutorials, commentary—food and cooking videos are two of the most major players. Within that deep field, Andrew Rea may just be the biggest star of them all. If his name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, the title of his YouTube channel, Binging With Babish, likely will.
Rea’s videos, in which he re-creates dishes seen in movies and TV shows—some recent uploads include “Cookie Cat From Steven Universe” and “Chicken Kiev From Mad Men”—consistently hit over 1 million views. His most-viewed video, an episode inspired by Pixar’s Ratatouille, boasts more than 25 million views, and of the most popular videos on the channel, 30 have been viewed more than 10 million times. Though Rea’s flagship series remains the eponymous Binging With Babish, he’s also introduced several other series to the channel, including one hosted by Sohla El-Waylly, formerly of the magazine and YouTube channel Bon Appétit (the two met “right after the sort of fallout over at elsewhere”—more on that later). Considering that the first Binging video was made purely as a way to blow off creative steam, Rea’s rise to the top of food YouTube has been unbelievable—as well as something of an independent counter to his biggest peers’ more corporate world.
Binging With Babish began in 2016. Rea, then 28 years old, had been freelancing as a documentary filmmaker and editor, and as he worked to both manage his depression and recover from a few bad professional experiences, he began looking for other creative outlets. “I love food, I should try to get into food photography a little bit,” he recalls thinking, in an interview with Slate. “I shot a little test video where I just made a smoothie out of whatever I could find in the kitchen. I called it ‘The Food Smoothie.’ ” The fun he had with that test, along with the serendipitous fact that the “Soulmates” episode of Parks and Recreation was on in the background, led to what would become the first installment of Binging With Babish. In the video (which is still up, if you’re curious to see the genesis of the Babish empire), he re-created the burgers featured in the Parks and Rec episode he’d just watched, explaining the whole process and cracking a few jokes along the way.
“I wasn’t thinking about making a cooking show,” Rea says of his breakout hit. “I just wanted to make an experiment—I wanted to make something I could post on Reddit and get some peoples’ feedback and just have some fun.” But people seemed to respond to Rea’s thesis in the video: “I’ve always wondered, ‘What does the food in film and television actually taste like?’ ” And Rea’s filmmaking skills and natural manner meant that even the first Binging video felt polished. Soon, the video’s view count climbed to 10,000, then 20,000, and kept on growing from there, causing Rea to think twice about leaving it as a one-off. “I was in kind of a manic energy phase where I just had unlimited energy,” he says, regarding his reaction to the first video’s reception. “I was like Superman.” Riding that high, the second episode of what would become the Binging series, “Il Timpano from Big Night,” dropped just 10 days later. In 2017, Rea even launched a second cooking series, Basics With Babish, which forgoes the movie and TV framing and simply teaches audiences how to master the cooking essentials.
Though food wasn’t the field Rea had been working in—and he has no formal training as a chef—investing in this path seemed natural. A self-professed “mama’s boy,” he’d loved cooking with his mother growing up in Mendon, New York. “When [my mom] was making cookies, I wanted in,” he explains. “When she served cookies, I wanted her to say, ‘Me and Andy made these.’ ” After his mother passed away from breast cancer when Rea was 11, cooking became a means of remembering her, and it remained such a prominent part of Rea’s life that he considered going to culinary school. Ultimately, influenced by his father’s work as a photojournalism professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, film school won out. As per Rea’s website, he began considering himself a chef at age 17 (“I was an arrogant little prick,” he demurs, when asked what prompted that distinction), but it wasn’t until Rea was in his 20s that he began to take cooking more seriously.
The turning point came during a party, or rather, the morning after. Rea had planned out what he meant to be an “extravagant hangover breakfast,” but the dishes he made—a shaved asparagus and truffle oil crostini and sous vide quail eggs—were, while fancy, not at all what his hungover pals wanted to eat. According to Rea, “They managed to each eat one, and then they were like, ‘Is there a diner nearby?’ ” They ended up at a nearby Mexican restaurant, where Rea recalls being red in the face with embarrassment. “OK,” he remembers saying, “I need to focus on making food that people actually enjoy.”
His enthusiasm for cooking grew thanks to Reddit, where, for two years before Binging With Babish was born, Rea tried to get his posts to the top of the food Subreddit (which currently has 20.8 million members). “I had become addicted to trying to get to the top of the food Subreddit by posting pretty pictures of dinner with interesting stories behind them,” Rea says. “They were all true stories; I never made anything up. I would come up with provocative titles, like—I remember one that I posted a long time ago, my now ex-wife’s boss was coming over for dinner, and I said I really wanted to blow his pants off. That obviously got people talking, but also, I made a steak with a blueberry mustard sauce and some really pretty-looking stuff. It was a mixture of an evocative title and some actually decent food porn.”
As for his Reddit username and eventual nom de plume, OliverBabish, it came courtesy of Rea’s favorite character from The West Wing—which makes sense, given his demonstrated love of entertainment. As Binging With Babish has grown, he’s thought about changing the channel’s name a few times—“Eat What You Watch” and “The Food Scene” were contenders—but it stuck. (Even Oliver Platt, the actor who played Babish, has caught wind of the channel that borrows his character name’s popularity. Platt reached out recently, Rea says, and Rea is hopeful about having him as a guest on the channel in the future.)
Since moving from Reddit to YouTube, Rea’s channel has grown to boast 8.7 million subscribers. For some context, Vice’s Munchies channel currently sits at 4.3 million subscribers, with Bon Appétit at 5.8 million. As the channel’s popularity has grown—in part thanks to Rea’s direct engagement with his viewers (he is still active on Reddit, for instance) as well as the fact that his videos form a key bridge between audiences and the movies and TV shows they watch—so has the spotlight on the man behind the meals—a subseries on the channel, Being With Babish, puts Rea front and center, and is only tangentially food-related (one video is called “I Surprised My Brother With a Tesla”); Jon Favreau, after being introduced to the channel by his children, had Rea come on his Netflix series The Chef Show, appeared on Binging With Babish, and even invited Rea to the set of The Mandalorian (“I got to see the Baby Yoda before anybody knew about it”); and Rea recently showed off his new home in Architectural Digest’s Open Door, a series whose other guests include Serena Williams, Kendall Jenner, and Robert Downey Jr.
As such, the line between Rea and the “Babish” persona he dons for his most popular videos has begun to blur. Being With Babish was actually born from the realization that more people wanted to know who the normally camera-shy Rea was. One of the distinguishing features of the Binging videos is the fact that Rea’s face never appears on screen; the focus remains on his hands and the counter upon which he cooks. On his website, Rea explains that the reason he doesn’t show his face in his videos is that his “intention with creating Binging With Babish was to put an emphasis on the food, first and foremost.” He writes that he was tired of YouTube cooking channels that put personality before the food being showcased. Not that the two things weren’t compatible—“I’m not trying to remain anonymous or anything,” he continues—but, for him, the food always had to take precedence over the person making it.
Then why the shift? For his 31st birthday in 2018, Rea traveled from his home in New York to Los Angeles. One of the activities he had planned, in addition to renting a Ferrari for a day and going to a Michelin-starred restaurant, was to go to a tactical shooting course. (“Not that guns are one of my favorite things.”) The picture that he took of himself there became his most-liked Instagram post and signaled to him that there might be an audience for what he was doing outside of the cooking show. But Being With Babish, which he launched in 2019, had more mixed success than his food-oriented series. “Some episodes popped,” Rea says, “But most of them didn’t [perform] nearly as well as Binging or Basics.”
The inextricable nature of chefs and their food, however, is only underlined by how personalities have come to dominate the food YouTube space—and how the shattering of their appealing images can have a lasting effect. The big example here is Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen videos. By mid-2020, the publication’s channel and its stars had become immensely popular, as the videos seemed to suggest a fun, vibrant workplace and a group of co-workers who appeared to be real friends. The degree to which most viewers found the videos therapeutic and enjoyable made it all the more shocking when the Test Kitchen imploded.
On June 6, food writer Illyanna Maisonet posted screenshots of DMs she had received from Bon Appétit chief editor Adam Rapoport regarding his decision to turn down a pitch for a piece on Puerto Rican rice fritters despite acknowledging that the magazine wasn’t sufficiently covering Puerto Rican cuisine. On June 8, food writer Tammie Teclemariam tweeted a picture of Rapoport in brownface at a Halloween party, captioned, “I do not know why Adam Rapoport simply doesn’t write about Puerto Rican food for @bonappetit himself!!!” in reference to repeated complaints that the magazine was whitewashing recipes and failing in terms of representation. The same day, El-Waylly posted an Instagram story calling for Rapoport’s resignation, revealing that only white editors were being paid for their video appearances (a statement that Bon Appétit’s parent company, Condé Nast, denied, though without providing any further details). Though Rapoport did step down, the unraveling had already begun. On Aug. 6, El-Waylly, Priya Krishna, and Rick Martinez all released public statements saying that they were leaving Bon Appétit and the Test Kitchen video series after negotiations to pay them more equitably with the channel’s white stars fell through. (In interviews with Insider, Martinez said the newly proposed contract would have had him taking a pay cut; Krishna said that they would both still be paid less than their white peers and were only guaranteed 10 video appearances, where some white Test Kitchen employees were guaranteed up to 60.) Fellow Test Kitchen stars Molly Baz, Gaby Melian, Carla Lalli Music, and Claire Saffitz soon followed suit. Though the channel has rebooted since then (in the new cast, only three former hosts, Brad Leone, Chris Morocco, and Andy Baraghani, remain), the video view counts have noticeably fallen.
To a certain extent, this fall from grace seemed inevitable. Condé Nast, Bon Appétit’s parent company, has been notoriously problematic, and there was never any way that the seemingly natural vibe of the Test Kitchen could be real, given its origins as a corporate product. Rea, who has had Leone on his channel as a guest before, simply says of the Bon Appétit fallout, “I don’t have any take on what happened there that you wouldn’t have seen in the news. I also have a very strict policy of not shitting on my peers.” Still, it’s difficult not to consider him something of the anti–Test Kitchen. There’s no corporate giant behind the channel, and the core Binging team is composed of just four people. In 2018, Rea hired Sawyer Jacobs, his best friend since high school and now business partner; in August 2020, after buying a brownstone in Brooklyn and converting the bottom floor into a studio space, he hired Kendall Beach, the show’s kitchen producer; and around the same time, Rea’s girlfriend, Jessica Opon, formerly an editor at Vice, officially became a part of the team, producing the majority of El-Waylly’s new series, Stump Sohla. (She also took over some camera duties, given that the pandemic has made it difficult for Made in Network, the multichannel network with whom Rea is a client, to send production and postproduction staff to help out in person.)
But Rea is still the primary face and namesake of what is now called the “Babish Culinary Universe,” in a play on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “It’s a matter of not bastardizing the original business statement of the original brand,” he says, of his increased physical presence on the channel. “In Binging and Basics, you still very, very seldomly see my face. If I ever show it, it’s because I dip my face into the frame, or it’s because I have a gag that involves showing my face. I’d say 95 percent of the time, you’re still not seeing my face, because those are shows that are dedicated to food first and foremost. The other content where you can see my face is voluntary content. Not that all my content isn’t voluntary—what I mean is that it’s something you can watch if you’re interested to see it.” However, though the mission statement may not have changed, the para-social aspect of being an online personality has definitely become more difficult for Rea to manage. Rea used to respond to every DM, comment, and social media interaction, but that’s now become an impossible task as the amount of outreach he receives continues to rise.
From the way Rea describes it, the time and effort necessary to keep up with the channel’s production schedule is near-impossible, too. “I still make Binging and some Basics episodes front to back, in that I shoot it, I’m in it, I edit it, I export it, I upload it,” Rea says. During quarantine, that’s generally meant work days that stretched from 10 to 16 hours. When we speak, Rea tells me he has a dozen episodes that need to be completed within the next nine days, and, for time’s sake, videos often overlap. “Yesterday I showed how to make brown rice every feasible way, and then used brown rice to make Avgolemono,” he explains. “While I was doing that, I had a boeuf bourguignon braising in the background for a separate episode. So that was all finished yesterday, and then today we’re freeze-drying that boeuf bourguignon to make it into dog food for people […] in an effort to make a real world version of Bachelor Chow from Futurama, which is like a dog food for bachelors. Then next week, we have to knock out just a huge smattering of nine, 10 more dishes.” Needless to say, it’s a lot to handle, and Rea is hoping to ease up a little as the year goes on: “I’m getting old really fast, and I don’t have the capacity to do that anymore.”
Whether he’ll actually be able to take a breather remains to be seen, as he’s hoping to launch a new series (with a new host) in the first half of the year and is also hoping to bring Binging With Babish into a more physical realm. On top of two published cookbooks and an upcoming cookware line, Rea hopes to open a brewpub (he was days away from signing a lease for a potential location before the pandemic hit), and he has thoughts of starting a sister channel that has nothing to do with cooking but maintains Binging’s sense of learning how to do something together.
The Binging brand has come a long way since 2016 and that Parks and Recreation–inspired burger video, and it seems to be on the precipice (or already past the point) of growing into something much larger than just Rea, even if the outline of his features remains the channel’s logo. “I’m trying to expand the brand and my interests into other arenas,” Rea says. “For myself, I would like to be a person who gives viewers and creators the opportunity to enjoy and share in the things that they are passionate about.” Maybe the day will come when he steps back from it all, but that future is still a distant one: “I’m going to keep doing Binging and Basics as long as people watch it … I always want to have a hand in the culinary world and the media made therein.”