Are television chefs born or made? Is there an onscreen gene or are they carved out of the remnants of the heat, sweat, shouting and splattered meat juices of a professional kitchen? On the whole, you’d probably think the latter – that allied to a look-at-me self-confidence and not a little bravado. Or at least that is what most professional chefs will tell you.
And yet the chef I’m watching at work today, Ben Ebbrell, hasn’t spent a great deal of time in a professional kitchen (how could he, he’s only 24), but as you watch him, unsweating and smiling, under the glaring studio lights, whipping up a chocolate dessert as the cameramen quickstep around, it’s hard not to be struck by his tone. He has the tone of the modern television chef down to a tee. You know the thing, the schoolteacher’s self-assurance, the well modulated tones, the rictus grin. He’s pitched somewhere between a T4 presenter and saintly Delia Smith.
Only one thing, though – he isn’t actually a television chef; doesn’t really have a burning desire to be one, either. Ben is much more 21st century: he’s an online chef. And one drawing quite a lot of attention, too – from, by the looks of it, just about everywhere. Along with his schoolmates Barry Taylor, Tom Hemsley and Jamie Spafford he makes up Sortedfood.com, the online cookery class for the Z generation, whose YouTube channel has notched up 10 million views and who, despite their tender years, have two cookbooks out – Sorted: A Recipe for Student Survival andSorted: A Rookie’s Guide to Crackin’ Cooking – and a third imminent.
Their viewers speak of them in the same excited way we all did about Jamie Oliver when he was still the Naked Chef. And they have gathered awards nearly as readily as they have followers: the group won the Best Online entertainment award at the Banff world media awards, while Ben was anointed “next celebrity chef” by the Good Food Channel. None of them is older than 25.
Where did it all start? How did they go from carrying lecture notes to wielding ladles and blow torches on 800,000 computer screens each month? According to Jamie Spafford, it started over pie and chips in Hertfordshire. “I’d gone off to Bournemouth University and was frankly eating a load of rubbish – pies, chips, kebabs, takeaway pizza – and I remember coming home to my parents’ at Easter 2008 and telling Ben, who was at culinary school, in passing in the pub,” says Jamie. “He was pretty appalled.”
The upshot was Ben started giving recipes to his friends. The first few, for want of a better material, were written on beer mats. It was a case of saying, “cook this simple recipe and you’ll save time and money,” says Ben.
Six months later, beer mats no longer cutting it, they self-published their first student cookbook. They hired a “greasy van”, visiting universities around the country to publicise the book. At this time they also started uploading videos to YouTube of them trying out Ben’s unfussy, if quite alluring, recipes. “We quickly found there were more people watching the videos than we had friends – so we figured that these were maybe more important than the book,” says Jamie. And so it proved.
They ditched the van, the books have taken a back seat and Sorted has risen like a soufflé – they now have their own studio, business team and ‘angel investor’, sponsorships from Kenwood and a partnership with EMI, whose artists come and do an online show with them. But the format remains the same as it was in the pub, just with more people watching – several hundred thousand more.
Ben plays the straight man ( “he was in chess club at school,” says Barry), the person with expertise. And it is he who develops the group’s brainstormed ideas into workable recipes, and leads the cooking on the online show, which now goes out daily.
The other two on screen, Barry and Jamie, who claim to not know their choux pastry from something you get in Clarks, despite having been involved since the get-go, are there as the embodiment of their student viewers. “We ask the questions they might ask, make the comments they might make,” says Barry.
The tone – like Vicemagazine for the enterprising cook – can become wearying if you’re a little older. But it plays well if you’re in halls of residence, whether that’s in Leeds and Exeter, Utah or California – Tom, the editor of the films, makes sure of it. Where they excel, and what separates them from television cookery shows, is the to-and-fro with their audience.
They cook, say, spaghetti and then their followers will email, comment and tweet in their requests for, maybe, lasagne the next week. It’s a conversation, they play off each other. “This is why online is more important than any other medium for us,” says Jamie. “You can have an in-depth conversation, unlike television which is slow and didactic, you can really build a relationship with your audience.”
Indeed, if the 1,500 requests per week they receive are anything to go by, it appears their audience is unusually committed, and growing with them. The students they began helping have graduated, grown up, got jobs and quite often paired off, too.
“We see a lot more ‘wife’ and ‘husband’ and ‘partner’ rather than ‘flatmate’ now in the requests – in part, this is our target market ageing and in part because lots of those watching our videos are now in the USA.”
Indeed, the American market is an ever-growing part of their audience, the informal tone and British accent presumably playing well in the States. Future demonstration tours of America are apparently in the offing. Where they do it may change, but one thing is certain – they intend to carry on at it.
While chatting, Taylor mentions the recent $1bn sale of Instagram to Facebook in the same breath as Sorted. That’s far off for now. But, just as Instagram did with vintage and smartphones, they seem to have tapped into three impulses of our age: food as recreation, a drive to do things cheaply, and, of course, interactivity.
The recipes you see them slicing, dicing and frying onscreen are what their viewers asked for a week back. They are cheap, inventive, on the whole wholesome. And like most things connected with the “ foodie” phenomenon, they offer a chance to quietly show off to friends, flatmates and partners current or future, whether that’s by Twitpic, Facebook or plain old dinner party.
The recipes mastered, the seasonality of fruit, vegetable or whatever you like understood, they’re the modern equivalents of the first press of Sonic Youth or Joy Division records teetering for all tosee on your shelf. The Sorted boys get all that, so maybe, five, 10 years down the line, they could just be the foodie equivalent of Instagram: hip, funand,ofcourse, worth a whole lot of money. For now, though, they have a chocolate rice pudding with raspberries to make... and I’m quite hungry.