With a whistle and a heel spin he’s on a mission against bland packaged food, and despite the profanities and tattoos he’s as loved by parents as by their children. They make their own copycat videos and send them in, hoping for some of his time. His favourite are the ones kids make: “They’re trying not to swear—that's very funny.”
As Australians grappled with prolonged social isolation and lockdown, they turned to the respite of digital entertainment—and food—like never before. One unlikely benefactor was Nat, the self-made star of Nat’s What I Reckon, whose “Quarantine Cooking” videos now boast tens of millions of views. Nat's expletive-laden, no-nonsense cooking tutorials have earned him a huge fanbase both in Australia and abroad, prompting YouTube comments heavy with adoration. (“On lockdown in Texas and I’ve seriously watched this 3 times and laughed harder each time”; “Quite possibly some of the best cooking advice on YT, and I get paid to train people how to do this shit!”)
VICE caught up with Nat and his partner, Jules, at a park in Sydney’s Inner West, where the couple go walking every afternoon. Nat, who chooses not to reveal his surname to protect what's left of his privacy, is riding high after his first live-TV interview that morning (Channel 7’s Sunrise). “A chance to be a bit of a dickhead on live TV was good fun,” he says, spraying disinfectant liberally into the air. It’s hard to tell if the disinfectant is there as a comedic prop, or because of Covid-19 and Nat’s very real hypochondria. But like a lot of Nat’s humour, I suspect it’s a bit from column A and a bit from column B.
Either way, his fans can’t get enough of his off-brand sense of humour, or his one-liners: "Good onya champ," "Fuck it’s hot,"—and, more recently, "Fuck jar sauce!" But Nat’s humour goes beyond the culinary, often poking fun at the mundane aspects of Australia’s cultural landscape. His first taste of (pre-Covid) popularity arrived after he uploaded The Overpriced Boat Show Review: a visit to the annual boat show at Sydney’s Darling Harbour, where, like a punk-rock fish out of water, Nat wanders around the convention centre giving acerbic reviews of the luxury items on display. It was the first time people started recognising him in the street, he says. “As soon as that boat show shit came out, fucking boom. It seemed like three or four people a day [were recognising me], and I was like, what the fuck is going on here.”
It’s a wry piece of social commentary disguised as jokes about 2G wireless toilets and boating shoes, and set the tone for a series of popular follow-up videos in which Nat reviews events ranging from Sydney’s Mind, Body and Spirit Festival, to Canberra’s Summernats. Eventually laying the groundwork for his current tirade against the banalities of packaged foods and that most hated enemy: jarred pasta sauce.
Nat credits his cynicism and distrust for mainstream Australian values on a troubled upbringing within Sydney’s Hillsong Church community. His father was a minister there for many years when Nat was a child, and the pressure to conform to the restrictions of the church left an indelible mark on the video star. It was, Nat says, “very closed off. You're all made to feel very welcome—as long as you believe and do and say what they do and say, and if you’re at all queer or if you go against [their rules] in any way shape or form, then you're shunned and shut out very quickly.” The lasting effect is a distrust of social norms. “I think that’s what informs a lot of my comedy. Making fun of that shit. Absurd, mediocre, mundane shit. And the church is all of those things for me—at least, that church is.”
When he talks about this period of his life, Nat chooses his words carefully, often trailing off. In addition to his discomfort with Hillsong, he was bullied a lot in school, and suffered the parallel hurt of a broken home. “Mum was pretty hard with me,” he says. “And yeah, could be pretty tough with me at times…”
When Nat was 14, his father (and Nat) left the church. Nat continued his schooling at an inner-city Waldorf school, a style of education focussed on creativity and individuality. But even in the loose confines of Waldorf, Nat made it as far as year 11 before dropping out (“As soon as someone reminded me that I didn’t have to be there, I was like fucking see ya.”) He eventually attended a private college in Sydney, where he studied singing and guitar. Afterwards, he “more or less focused on [music] until the comedy thing, just playing music and being a fucking rat bag.”
Nat’s drive to push back at the mundanities of modern culture no doubt stems from his own encounters with life’s harsh realities. They didn't end after the church, with a series of health scares following him into early adulthood. He went backpacking in India as a teenager, and, unknown to him at the time, came home with a case of tuberculosis. The TB laid dormant for a few years, until Nat came down with glandular fever when he was 20, and his health rapidly deteriorated.
“I was a fucking Coronavirus on legs," he recalls, "I gave it to my sister, I gave it to my girlfriend, I gave it to a bunch of my mates. I didn’t fucking know what I had. I went to the doctor and they didn’t know what I had. They don't really test for things like that in the Western world.
“I had chronic fatigue and I couldn't stand up for long. I couldn’t walk up three steps without needing a five minute break. I’d cough constantly and vomit all day, and my body wasted pretty rapidly. I think I lost close to 25 kilos in nine months or something … All I could do was sleep. I could barely breathe. I was just drowning, sitting still was fucked. You just cough up fucking liquid. It’s fucked. Pretty traumatic. It also fucks with your head pretty bad.”
Nat spent a few months quarantined in hospital, before being discharged to live in seclusion with his mother as he recovered. It's a time Nat fondly credits as giving the two a chance to patch up their previously rocky relationship. After recovering from TB, Nat’s lungs were never the same again, and five years later, one of them suddenly collapsed. He was rushed again to hospital where he had most of his lung removed.
Nat has long used social media as a platform for frank discussion about his personal battles with mental health issues, including a video in which he reviews “anxiety, depression and Tool’s latest song”. In 2019, he was an ambassador for the UNSW Big Anxiety Festival. He says anxiety and depression have been “a daily demon” he’s had to do his best to live with, and credits a strong community of friends as integral to his wellbeing. “The universe exists the way you see it,” he says. “So if you can talk to someone and they can help talk you through things, it changes that universe. It's like being on a bad trip, you know? Having someone tell you everything’s alright. [That] changes reality a little bit for you.”
He also credits his strong support network of friends for giving him confidence to perform comedy. He started making silly videos as a way to entertain them, and it was only due to their initial encouragement that he started uploading them online. “Most I've pulled down now, pretty fucking annoying videos," he says, modestly. "But yeah, it just kind of went from there.”
Barry Carter, one of Nat’s oldest friends, says Nat has always used cooking as a way to connect with people. “He’s been doing it as long as I’ve known him. I think it’s always a good way for him to socialise.” It's true, says Nat, but it's even bigger that that: cooking is an integral part of his personality. “It's like meditation for me. It’s one of the first things I think about in a day. I think, ‘what can I cook?’ and ‘who can I cook for?’ That’s dead-set the truth.”
Nat's partner, Jules, is another major supporting influence in his life. The two met through a dating app in 2016, and have since become an inseparable team, with Jules doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work on the channel. A designer by trade, Jules’ bold and unique designs can be seen emblazoned across the range of t-shirts, hoodies, and merchandise sold through Nat’s website. When asked about the potential challenges of working so closely together, Jules has a laugh about Nat’s increased popularity, “I tell you what," she says, "people are thirsty in quarantine right now. Nat gets proposed to several times a week.”
What does the future hold? “At the moment it’s doing this,” Nat says. “I [also] love performing live. So my goal is to make that more and more of a thing.” He also still plays music in two bands, Keggerdeth and Penalties. Due to Covid-19 restrictions he's had to reschedule his (now sold-out) ‘Nat’s What I Reckon: On Purpose’ national tour, which he wrote before his Quarantine Cooking videos exploded. I ask if he’s worried fans will expect cooking videos for the rest of his career. “Yeah, that's definitely the case. I’m trying to share other things, but I think at the moment the crowd is asking for this. It'll make continuing the tour later on down the track interesting, because my tour doesn’t really have anything to do with cooking at all.
"Thankfully, most of the tickets have sold, but for anyone that’s bought tickets they might turn up and get a bit of a rude shock when I'm not really fucking cooking anything.” Follow Matthew on Twitter.
If you are struggling with mental issues, support is available through the following services: Lifeline: 13 11 14, Mensline: 1300 789 978, Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800, beyondblue: 1300 224 636.