The Streamy-award winning food YouTuber and New York Times-bestselling author talks about his new cookbook ahead of a book talk at Sixth & I synagogue Saturday.
In 2016, visual effects artist and filmmaker Andrew Rea was in a creative rut. His path out? Film himself recreating the burgers made by Rob Lowe’s Chris Traeger (the “Patented East-Meets-West Traeger Turkey Burger”) and Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson (a plain beef hamburger) from a fan-favorite moment in “Parks and Recreation.” Posting the video on YouTube and r/Food on reddit as “Binging with Babish,” Rea found a receptive audience and new confidence.
Seven years and eight months later, Rea’s project has grown into a 10-million-subscriber-strong YouTube channel with almost 700 videos recreating the foodstuffs from onscreen fiction, from the surreally fantastical (Bubble Bass’s order from “Spongebob Squarepants”) to the eternally intriguing (“The Moistmaker” Ross’s Thanksgiving leftovers sandwich from “Friends”) and the iconic (every variation of shrimp mentioned by Bubba in “Forrest Gump”).
But don’t call Rea a chef: he admits he is as much a student in the kitchen as anyone who tries to scramble eggs for the first time. To emphasize that, he started the “Basics with Babish” show to walk through fundamental lessons in how to understand the art and science of cooking. Like his original show “Binging,” Rea has now spun “Basics” out into a substantial 464-page cookbook loaded with recipes and lessons. Ahead of his D.C. book tour stop at Sixth and I Synagogue Saturday night, October 28 at 7:30 p.m., District Fray called up Rea to do our own deep dive on his book and his shared philosophy for creating food for friends and a YouTube cooking show.
District Fray: Who is this book for?
Andrew Rea: That’s a good question. It’s really intended for novices to intermediates: anybody who is looking to improve their presence in the kitchen. I envision myself 10 years ago, when I was cooking a good meal but I didn’t have a fundamental understanding of why food behaved the way it did. As such, there was something being lost in translation between the recipe and my execution: I would follow a recipe and not understand why things didn’t come out the way they looked in the picture or why something didn’t rise or why something wasn’t finished cooking after a certain amount of time. The only way that I learned that was by making the show, which, by proxy, was making lots and lots and lots of mistakes; and each time learning from them.
When I first heard the announcement, I thought the book would be more simple, like the initial episodes of “Basics” but simple isn’t exactly a word for most of the recipes.
Yeah! There’s Tonkotsu ramen in there that takes two days to make. I specifically called the show and the book “Basics” rather than like “easy,” “quick,” or “full-proof.” The recipes are designed to cover a huge number of different kinds of techniques that can be translated into other dishes that you might want to try. So, I wouldn’t call it a beginner’s cookbook. It’s more of a curious enthusiast’s cookbook.
There’s definitely things in there for beginners…there’s a whole bunch of dishes that are ready in less than half an hour and require minimal tools to make. But, there’s also much larger, complex recipes for people who are already cooking and want to try something different and want to do so both confidently and aware that things might go wrong and that there’s things to learn and ways to circumvent when and if things go wrong.
Is that why it was important for you to precede all the recipes with notes on how you screwed it up and also provide some preemptive FAQ?
Absolutely. It was also born of one of the core tenets of the show, which is me showing my mistakes. A big part of my channel has always been showing my mistakes. In my third episode ever — “Pasta Aglia e Olio from ‘Chef'” — and my second episode ever — “Il Timpano from ‘Big Night'” — I showed where things went wrong. Initially, I did it because I thought it was funny…the outcome [was] it made my cooking and my recipes a lot more accessible. Because, if you see me — somebody who has a cooking show — and I screwed up but still managed to make it, I think and hope it translates to the reader or viewer [as], “If he can do it, I can do it.” That’s the truth: If I can do it, you absolutely can do it.
I assume through social media and just being out on the street you run into people who have maybe never cooked or are terrified of cooking. What’s your suggestion on how they should start? How should they begin and what is the reward for doing so?
I would say, of their own admission, the vast majority of my audience doesn’t cook at all. I totally get and love that people watch the show just because it’s relaxing or because it’s tackling their favorite foods from fiction, but my hope is that it will encourage them to cook. The reason I got a tattoo of pasta aglia e olio on my arm is because so many people were making it. They would post it on Instagram and tag me and say, “This is the first time I ever cooked and it was amazing.” It’s a really empowering dish. It’s seven ingredients that come together to make something greater than the sum of their parts.
So, I would point people to a recipe like that. Pasta is a great place to start because it’s a relatively low investment. Starches in general [are] not too expensive, very filling and forgiving. If you screw up a batch of pasta you’re gonna throw out a $1.50 by throwing out half the box, but it’s not the end of the world without losing your whole evening.
Andrew Rea speaks in conversation with The Washington Post’s food editor Olga Massov at Sixth & I Synagogue on October 28. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. and the talk starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $25-$47, including options to livestream and a signed book, and can be purchased here. Watch all of Rea’s videos on YouTube. Follow him on Instagram at @bingingwithbabish
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