There’s no doubt about it: social media has revolutionized the food business. Scrolling through endless food porn on Instagram tipped off a craze that has now fully blown up with TikTok, which has turned everyone into a 15-second chef.
That also might be the problem. Today, everyone is an expert in everything, without the credentials.
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On one hand, the intense love around food on social media has heightened interest in the culinary world, but at the same time, classically-trained chefs worry that the influx of short-form content is “trivializing” the art of cooking. Just ask Alton Brown and Kristen Kish, co-hosts of the new “Iron Chef” on Netflix — but that’s not to say they don’t appreciate what social media has done for their business.
“We became rock stars,” Kish says. “Chefs became rock stars.”
Social media has essentially done for Gen Z what the food genre of television did for Millennials when cooking shows exploded in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. After all, Brown is one of the godfathers of cooking TV, having spent 20 years at Food Network, and Kish burst onto the scene after winning “Top Chef.” Generations of viewers learned to cook from watching celebrity chefs like them, and today, new generations are learning from TikTok — except the teachers aren’t actually chefs.
Kish says that shows like “Top Chef” and “Iron Chef” began to “reshape what food and food competition look like.” She adds, “Up-and-comers who nobody knew were were given a platform to showcase what they love, and it was always about the food. Food came first and then storytelling. It gave us a platform. The gap was bridged, so therefore food became more of a full picture story with heart and soul, and not just food on a plate.”
That said, the two stars of “Iron Chef” are not the biggest fans of TikTok. We could explain, but it’s more fun to let Brown and Kish do all the talking — here, in this impassioned conversation with Variety that’s filled with lots of laughs and emotion.
How has media — both television and social media — enhanced public interest in food?
Alton Brown: Well, I think that food in and of itself is a form of media that is universal and forms connective tissue between people. There’s no one that I can think of that’s anti-food. Everybody likes to eat. Most of us are comforted by the communion of eating together or the actual act of cooking. Even if we don’t do it, we we tend to like to watch it. With every extension of contact in the human realm, whether it’s Instagram or TikTok or whatever it is, food will end up permeating. But it’s not surprising because food is one of the few things that that bonds us. And the more different forms of media there are, the more we actually crave that.
At what point did you start to notice a shift from food being popular on television to blowing up on social media?
Brown: I got into this because I used to direct TV commercials and I cooked in my spare time, and one day in the late ’80s, I started thinking, “You know, I think food media is going to be the next big thing. I should do something about that.” And then in the early ’90s, I quit and went to culinary school because I wanted to make TV shows about food. I got that one right. Nailed that!
Kristen Kish: [Laughing]
Brown: I think every generation has to discover that in their own way. My generation, we got into food because maybe our parents or grandparents cooked. Before my generation, it was Julia Child. Now, we’ve got a generation who are completely taught by people in the media. I have people tell me, “You know, I do this because you were the first generation on TV who truly cooked for everyone and taught me how to cook.” But I think TikTok was actually the game changer, even though it started with Instagram.
What do you think about TikTok?
Brown: Oddly enough, the very thing that made food even more crazy popular, it’s just not a place I go. There’s a lack of human connectivity there.
Kish: Well, I think TikTok, basically the short-form 15-second stuff, makes you feel like you can do it because it makes it look like it’s easy. And perhaps the recipe is easy. But something will always appear easier if you cut out 50 steps.
Brown: It also trivializes cooking in a way that I find potentially harmful because we’re going to have a whole generation who think that cooking is just putting nuts in ice cream or something like that.
Kish: It’s actually very annoying. A ground-up cabbage salad became the thing. How the F does that happen?!
Brown: Because it can be conveyed in 15 seconds.
Kish: But it’s cabbage with basically an herb green dressing! She made an herb coleslaw! We’ve been making herb coleslaw for how many years?
Brown: Umm, since I was 8?
Kish: Like, how does that happen?
Brown: Because generations get to where they have enough separation from the original source material where they think they invented everything.
Kish: They’re like, “Wow, that looks great.” You asshole, I’ve been cooking that for my dinner when I was lazy for the past how many years!
Brown: And now you know what it feels like!
Kish: It’s aggravating. [Turns to Variety reporter] Why do you love the cabbage salad?
I’ve never made it.
Kish: Oh, you really knew what we were talking about! [Laughing]
I waste a lot of time watching food videos on TikTok.
But I’m odd for my generation, and really like to spend time cooking. It’s calming for me to be in the kitchen and I cook for hours. I’ve always liked it. And I agree with you — TikTok makes cooking look very easy and very quick, but it’s not actually that fast.
Brown: It tries to bring cooking down to the level of social media consumption, which is that, “I can consume this video in 15 seconds, therefore I can make this food in 15 seconds.” Right? There’s no reality there. That’s the thing that’s complicated.
So, TikTok has brought a huge interest to food and you’d think that would result in more interest in shows like “Iron Chef,” which is a good thing. That said, what is the harm in it?
Kish: Well first, I never want to make it seem like my job is hard. My job is not hard. Cooking is not hard. But what I do is an art. And how I do it, I take a lot of pleasure and pride in that process. And if that process is completely null and void at a certain point because no one understands the efforts, then the diners at the restaurant don’t understand exactly what’s going on. They don’t appreciate the process of a restaurant. They don’t understand why that chicken is $40 — well, it’s because it took 10 hours to brine and then five hours to smoke.
Actually, maybe I should make the opposite of TikTok, and do real-live cooking streaming of how long things take. Do you think people would watch it?
Brown: I would watch it. I would watch your chicken soak for 10 hours.
Kish: Thank you very much. And then I can charge even more money to watch it!
Brown: One of the horrible things that happens is that technique itself becomes trivialized. Is there a right and wrong way to cut up the cabbage for the slaw? Well, actually no, because that’s a dish that is not incredibly technique-driven. However, a lot of things are. So it’s not just that people like Kristen and I are upset because we spent years learning how to make a carrot look the same every single time. It’s that once you start deciding that something doesn’t matter because it takes a long time, well then, maybe having a relationship doesn’t matter, maybe raising a child doesn’t matter — maybe a lot of things matter because it takes longer than 15 minutes or 15 seconds. I think we are afraid of the trivialization of craft.
And I think that’s the very thing of what makes “Iron Chef” looks magical — it’s like, “Oh my gosh, how do they do that?” It creates a market, while snuffing out another one altogether. It’s tricky business.
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