THE FOOD ISSUE
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Behind the scenes of a YouTube cooking show

By Rae Votta

Carolyn Scott-Hamilton has a lot on her plate.

It’s a Thursday at Tastemade’s studio and she’s got about 45 minutes’ worth of work to do before cameras can roll on her weekly cooking show, The Healthy Voyager, and she’s decorating the standard set with her own autumnal touches. I follow her as she grabs a cart and heads to the prep kitchen, grabbing basics like oil and salt, plus small bowls and plates to dress her set. Filming can take a brisk 30 minutes or less on a single episode, but that’s thanks to all the hard work Scott-Hamilton has to put in before they call action.

“I always bring all my own props because so many people use these sets,” Scott-Hamilton explains. “I make it a little different. I’m a holiday freak, so for the holiday ones, I have everything. For the other stuff, my signature stuff is my compost bin and towels and and flowers that match that. I pull out all the ingredients I need and measure them. I don’t show all the chopping; it’s boring to watch. And it makes it easier to film if everything’s pre-set.”

Food content is a major driver in the YouTube space, according to a Google research study. Subscriptions to food channels grew 280 percent in 2014. Half of all adults who consume YouTube content consume food content, and millennial consumers engage with 30 percent more foodie content than any other demographic. Those views translate to purchases in the food space, with 68 percent of moms buying items featured on the YouTube videos they view. Food even made the cut when YouTube decided to market their own stars in this year’s splashy ad campaign, with Rosanna Pansino’s “Nerdy Nummies” taking the spotlight alongside Michelle Phan and Bethany Mota.

But for the bulk of that scene, the YouTube DIY crowd, a cooking show is not all Martha Stewart glamour. There isn’t an endless stream of assistants to help pre-frost cupcakes or measure out ingredients. Often there’s barely even a second take.

“I figure out my menu a month in advance,” Scott-Hamilton says. “We shoot two days in a row per month, and I knock out a ton at once. I usually do three or four [episodes] each day. A month beforehand, I figure out what I’m going to cook so I know the timing, and if I can get any sponsorships, they have time to send me the stuff. The week of the shoot, I do all the shopping or pre-prep. I’m doing cornbread stuffing today, so I made the stuffing at home so we don’t have to wait around 60 minutes while it bakes. There’s some trickery for sure, but it’s all my recipes.”

For the YouTube DIY crowd, a cooking show is not all Martha Stewart glamour.

Scott-Hamilton has the advantage of being a part of Tastemade, a two-year-old multichannel network focused on the food demographic on YouTube. Tastemade provides her a set at its Santa Monica stage to film her segments each month, and the Tastemade team works with her on branding deals, as they do for hundreds of other food-based video creators around the world. 

“Our tagline has always been, ‘Connect the world through food,’” Tastemade Head of Production Jay Holzer told The Kernel. “We wanted to be a global social version of a cooking company. There’s three components to us: There’s the studio portion of our business. We’re a creator of award-winning programming—we won a James Beard award for one of our shows. We’re also a multichannel network. We have people across the globe we work with… all these creators we work with who fall under the Tastemade umbrella. We’re similar to the other MCNs in the operational bits, but we’re different in that we’re vertically focused. We’re definitely focused on quality over quantity.” 

Tastemade’s third component is an app aimed at helping home cooks and video hopefuls make the leap to filming their own shows. It allows users to make a one-minute food show from their mobile device; it takes away some of the pressure if you’re just using the HD camera everyone has in their pocket, Holzer reasons.

“Video is intimidating,” Holzer says. “That’s why we made the Tastemade app. We wanted to make the process of creating high-quality video in the food space as easy as taking pictures. In the same way Instagram set out to make you a better photographer, the Tastemade app should make you a better filmmaker.”

Food programming is more than just pointing and shooting, however. Food is notoriously tricky to shoot well, and Tastemade’s value to the DIY chef is the company’s years of expertise helping creators work in their medium.

“Food’s unique in that it is challenging to make it look good on camera, and it’s got logistical challenges to film,” explained Holzer. “There are great food shows that shoot in their home and have embraced the DIY aspect. There’s definitely people who do it purely from a DIY standpoint, but it takes a lot of practice and a lot of knowhow just in terms of how you work with food from a production standpoint. We have a full prep kitchen. If you’re doing it yourself, at home you don’t have those luxuries; you’re shooting in the same kitchen where you make dinner for your family.”

“In the same way Instagram set out to make you a better photographer, the Tastemade app should make you a better filmmaker.” —Tastemade Head of Production Jay Holzer

Scott-Hamilton says having Tastemade behind her has made certain aspects of her career much easier, although she’s still “chief cook and bottle washer” of her whole enterprise.

“I got lucky that I live local and can use this set, because my kitchen sucks,” she laughs. “[The set] lends itself to a professionalism that I wouldn’t have at home.”

Scott-Hamilton suggests aspiring food show hosts focus on finding their niche and emphasizing what makes them stand out from the rest of the food world. For Scott-Hamilton, that’s a focus on vegan cooking. The food part of her digital empire grew out her traveling and often being unable to find suitable vegan options around the world. 

“I started with my travel show in ’06, and that came out of necessity,” she explained. “I’ve been vegan since ’98, and I’ve been figuring out menus and doing funky stuff. I figured I must not be the only person who suffers when they travel. I started pitching it around as a show, and everyone loved it, but it was way too early in the game of healthy travel. So I started on my own, in the infancy of YouTube.”

The YouTube show has since taken on a life of its own. She often has special guests on her shows, like Sleepy Hollow’s Orlando Jones during her Halloween episode. Scott-Hamilton no longer works as a private chef, which gives her more time to focus on the travel and food shows. She’s also shied away from mainstream established routes to cooking fame, like popular television competition shows.

“They’re not very kind to vegans,” she said. “They make vegans look bad. I don’t want to be subject to that. I’ve been asked to judge some shows; I’ll do that, no problem. If I were a regular chef I totally would, but I think they want to purposely make vegans look bad.”

With her own show, she can control the discourse and really showcase vegan cooking for an audience that cares. But with that control comes a lot of responsibility that falls squarely on Scott-Hamilton’s shoulders. After she finishes her prep and does a costume and makeup change, her three-person crew, plus her husband, finish setting up sound and cameras for the first episode. Back on set, Scott-Hamilton poses as her director leaps up on the countertop and coordinates all the cameras to roll at once, including an overhead rig to get her ingredient action.

Without a teleprompter, Scott-Hamilton nails her lines in a single take, even doing an extra for variety, but once the ingredients for her vegan cornbread stuffing get poured in the pot, there’s no turning back. Scott-Hamilton doesn’t have the time or budget for extra versions of the prep, so every take counts. Those kinds of issues would be alleviated in a television production, and Scott-Hamilton admits that she’s working toward a food career that goes beyond YouTube.

“It’s a one-woman show, and it’s tough. But if you want something done, you can’t wait for it to happen; you just gotta keep plugging away.” —Carolyn Scott-Hamilton

“That’s the end game for sure,” Scott-Hamilton says. “I do a lot of TV already, I do the Today Show and Ricki Lake Show. [My YouTube channel] is building the brand. I love doing the show, but it would be nice to walk in and [see] everything is done. It’s a one-woman show, and it’s tough. But if you want something done, you can’t wait for it to happen; you just gotta keep plugging away.” 

Holzer says he thinks the changing world of digital in the past few years has shifted many YouTube chef’s priorities to a digital focus.

“The content landscape is dramatically changing,” Holzer explains. “You can build as successful of a business online as you can in the traditional avenues. Of course we have people who start a YouTube cooking show because they want a TV cooking show, but we have just as many if not more who start a YouTube cooking show because there’s an amazing business that can be made building a brand around an online show.”

Some YouTubers have already cashed in on mainstream fame. The guys behind Epic Meal Time made the jump to TV this year with Epic Meal Empire on the FYI Network. YouTube has also attracted seasoned chefs who want to expand their domains and find a more personal touch, since the space offers a kind of flexibility you don’t find with a television show. For example, heavyweight Jamie Oliver has begun focusing on his digital presence, even partnering with YouTube’s drunk sweetheart Hannah Hart on videos. 

“You can connect with audience in a way that you can’t when you have a 30-minute television show,” Holzer says. “The line between the two will continue blur as more players get into the over-the-top distribution game, when you start to see what you think of as online media next to traditional media on the same devices. The line is going to blur enough that digital is going to be just as attractive if not more attractive than traditional.”

In the meantime, DIY chefs are continuing to cook up content for their dedicated followers. 

Photo by Rae Votta