When I’m feeling uninspired but I know I want to cook, there’s no shortage of places to find inspiration. I can open Instagram and tap on my Explore page, where I’m shown an endless cascade of food videos. I can open up New York Times Cooking and Whisk apps or browse Pinterest. On TikTok, the algorithm driving my For You page has learned my tastes and displays cooking videos, in which online chefs tidily construct full meals in 60 seconds. In my inbox, there’s Alicia Kennedy’s latest Substack dispatch from Puerto Rico, where she finds ways to connect food to issues like labor and politics.
Today, there are multiple stations on streaming TV services devoted to cooking and food. Influencers across social media platforms have gained hundreds of thousands of followers while showing off their cooking prowess. And new distribution channels have changed the way home cooks discover and interact with food content, culminating in chefs using emerging and dominant social platforms to share inspiration in the kitchen.
Of course, it hasn’t always been this way. In the past, recipes were handed down on paper, passed from one generation to the next, and eventually immortalized in cookbooks.
In the 1940s came the emergence of food as entertainment: 1946 saw the on-screen arrival of James Beard, who brought experience in food and acting, and a mantra: “Food is very much theater.”
In 1962, Julia Child arrived on television screens in “The French Chef,” combining foreign cultures, travel, and demonstrative, do-it-yourself cooking displays the kitchen. But now, thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to consume food media—on every platform a recipe, how-to video, or a big, beautiful picture of some delicious meal is just a few taps away.
From the small screen to...a smaller screen
To really understand the evolution of food media in the 20th and 21st centuries, I had to talk to someone who bridged both old and new distribution channels, from print to social media.
Jacques Pépin’s evolving onscreen presence is indicative of the changing food media landscape.
"Historically, the French-born American chef is best known for his thirteen, public television series spanning more than 25 years, authoring more than 30 cookbooks and co-starring alongside Child on the PBS series “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.” Today, however, Pépin spends his time making videos for his accounts on YouTube and Instagram."
Pépin’s most popular YouTube video, ”Sauteed Steak,” has more than 800,000 views, and like many of his videos, it teaches his viewers basic cooking techniques. On the Jacques Pepin Foundation Instagram and Facebook pages, Pepin posts similar videos alongside posts about the foundation, which was founded by Jacques, his daughter, and son-in-law. The foundation supports community kitchens to offer life skills and culinary training to adults with high barriers to employment.
In other words, what Pépin has done is pared down his cooking instruction for people and moved it over to be where people are: on their phones, in short, incremental bursts, looking to make mashed potatoes or poach an egg in a way Jacques Pépin would approve of.
“My daughter said, could you do three, four, five, minutes [on video] to show people how to do very simple things?” Pépin said of the genesis of his cooking technique videos. “I said, sure. And it is quite astonishing. After writing over 30 books, and some of the books like ‘The Art of Cooking’ are more sophisticated in the sense of the teaching, it seems now that the people are more interested in something simpler, more straightforward, less complicated, and so forth.”
In the past, Pépin explained, people may have been more interested in his advanced cookbooks and more complex cooking styles, but today, he finds that people are more drawn to learning straightforward, basic cooking techniques—techniques they’ve never learned from their families, or from cookbooks in the past. His techniques are timeless, so they stay the same even though the medium by which he’s reaching his audience is changing.
“I don't cook the same way that I did in 1975,” Pépin said. “But the way you peel an asparagus, or peel an egg or sharpen a knife is the same. So the technique does not really change. We used to poach an egg and serve that as an eggs benedict with hollandaise sauce and people may not do that anymore, but you still poach the egg the same way and serve it maybe with some asparagus or something like that. So, that's why I always basically concentrate on technique.”
"Our way to be viral and have people talk about what we do is by re-imagining the ordinary into extraordinary." — Guy Oranim, CEO, So Yummy
The art of capturing attention
A few years ago, when Facebook decided to more heavily promote videos on its Newsfeed, a series of social-first brands started to dominate it with food-focused videos. The videos were frequently shot in an overhead view and in hyperspeed showed the creation of an easy weeknight dinner or a specialty cocktail.
First Media’s So Yummy, which has 25 million Facebook fans and 10 million Instagram followers, was one of the media brands to adopt this style. So Yummy is in the business of capturing your attention on social media, and it does so through super-viral food videos.
When So Yummy started, it had to catch up to the upstarts that were already incumbents. Buzzfeed’s Tasty, for example, already had millions of followers.
“It was clear to us that if we try to do the same thing as Tasty, we won't get very far,” Guy Oranim, So Yummy CEO said. “Our way to be viral and have people talk about what we do is by re-imagining the ordinary into extraordinary. We present our ideas in such an unexpected yet creative and relevant way that people had these moments that just made them feel obligated to share it. We took the same philosophy to food.”
So Yummy has a website, but people aren’t going there for its videos: its content thrives on social platforms. The company knows it’s competing for eyeballs in a matter of seconds, and that every choice—from the lighting of the video to the image its editors use at the beginning of the video to capture audience attention—matters. “We put a lot of effort in the opener, in creating the right composition that is inviting and almost forces you to pay attention to it,” Oranim said.
So Yummy, Oranim explained, lives by several pillars: A video has to make the person sharing it look smart. It has to provide insight about how to make some kind of food quickly and efficiently to save the viewer time. And it has to provide healthier options whenever possible.
“When people are internally pitching a video idea, they need to convince the editor who gives it a go, why this is an idea that’s relevant to the target audience of So Yummy, why it’s relevant, why it’s important, and why would people share it,” Oranim said. “And if this gets an okay, only then we will move to actually produce it.”
Compared to a channel like Tasty or Tastemade, Oranim said that So Yummy might produce less content, but it achieves similar levels of virality. “We are so pedantic in terms of creating only videos that can go viral. If I don't think this video can go viral, I won't do it. Even if I won't release any videos this week, I won't release a video that I think is not viral,” he said.
So Yummy’s philosophy, Oranim explained, is that over time, the algorithm on a platform like Instagram starts to understand that So Yummy is consistent in producing and delivering hyper-viral videos. After a while, the platform benefits by exposing more and more users to So Yummy’s videos.
“They know that we can convert their attention way more efficiently to actual views. And when we convert them to viewers, the platform can actually make money,” Oranim said. “It's a game of how you convert attention to viewing and viewing to shares.”
Combining different types of storytelling
Though she’s a lawyer and passionate runner by day, Joanne Molinaro is better known to her 1.4 million TikTok followers as The Korean Vegan. Molinaro, a relative newcomer to TikTok, also has maintained a website where she shares stories about her life and family alongside pictures of recipes.
“I did not join TikTok with the idea of expanding the brand,” Molinaro told me. But, she says, “they immediately picked up on the fact that I'm very liberal. So I was like, Oh, this is going to be my political social media. I thought I would talk a lot about politics. And then I posted a really crappy video of me making some potatoes and it went viral. And I was like, Oh, okay. I guess people just really want me to do food. So I'll just do food.”
What makes Molinaro unique is the parallel stories she tells using TikTok. In the video you’re watching, she’s doing basic Korean vegan food prep, like frying vegetables for japchae or preparing rice cakes for tteokbokki. It’s very beautiful, unhurried videography. But what sets Molinaro apart is her voiceover. In 60 seconds or less, Molinaro explains a story from her past, which could be about her Korean family, an interpersonal relationship, or politics.
Sometimes, Molinaro uses other viral videos on the platform as teaching opportunities, like this video in which she tells a story about her first memories of discrimination while making tteokbokki.
“I view [TikTok] as a very excellent teaching opportunity, like... you may not understand why people are hurt when they see that. You can't because you're not Asian and you haven't had to deal with it,” Molinaro said. “So let me tell you a little story while you watch me make some tteokbokki, which is delicious. And maybe in a non-confrontational, non-combative way, I can get across something to that person.”
Although she’s primarily a digital creator, Molinaro is also working on a cookbook. The process of writing a cookbook has taught her that it’s essential to add value to a paying audience in a way she doesn’t have to on TikTok or Instagram, where people consume her content for free.
“Where cookbook writers really need to start being more strategic is how can I be a source of truth as opposed to trying to substitute what's out there?” Monilaro said. “Because I don't think they're going to be able to replace TikTok, YouTube, blogs, because you're paying money for cookbooks where those things are free. If you're asking the consumer to pay money, sometimes substantial amounts of money, for the content in the book, then it needs to, you need to add some value.”
“The future of food media is probably headed towards things that can be accessed through mobile devices. So not television." — Joanne Molinaro, The Korean Vegan
The future of food media
Food creators have already moved to smaller and smaller screens in order to reach larger audiences and drive engagement, doing everything possible to capture your attention and appeal to you with different forms of storytelling. So what comes next?
There’s good news for Molinaro and her cookbook: Pépin predicts that print media will continue to be an important part of the food landscape because of its timeless appeal.
“It's kind of a security blanket, your cookbook,” he said. “People read a novel and then give it away or whatever, but the cookbook they keep for years. So many people who write cookbooks, you happen to like that one, because it corresponds with your idea of what to do. So it's very personal and you usually keep that cookbook.”
Technology fundamentally changed the food content scene. It makes anyone with internet access a contender for people’s eyeballs on Instagram, but also crowds the market with tons of new players that are vying for your attention
Once upon a time, you needed professional cameras, lighting, and a studio to make professional-looking food media. Today all you need is a smartphone to make and distribute content.