The first time I heard the name Chef John, I was standing in the kitchen at my boyfriend’s childhood home. He and his mother were debating what to make for dinner. Perhaps they could “try a Chef John recipe,” suggested Kathy, his mother. “I like his voice,” Kathy added, by way of encouragement.
A few weeks later, we were lying in bed, and my boyfriend pulled up a cooking video on YouTube that I didn’t recognize. When he hit play, a gently paternal voice murmured out of the speaker. It was Chef John. I rested my head on my boyfriend's shoulder and we watched until that voice lulled us to sleep.
By now I’ve watched almost all of Chef John’s videos, mostly right before bed. He’s extremely prolific: He’s cooked up rack of lamb, pork buns, grilled cheese, and garlic shrimp, among many, many other dishes. And though I am a practiced and passionate baker, I must confess that I rarely recreate Chef John’s recipes in my own kitchen. That’s just not why I watch his videos. I watch them to relax, and to leave the troubles of daily life behind.
Chef John doesn’t let the nearly 3 million subscribers to his Food Wishes channel see his face; only his hands. Dad jokes pepper his narrative (“You’re the Rick Bayless of how to play this,” or “I like my sweet potatoes like I like my bodybuilders: Well-greased and glistening”). Kathy has a point: His voice has a pleasant sing-song quality; he chirps like a friendly bird perched on your windowsill.
Typically, Chef John doesn’t use high-end cooking equipment in his videos (sometimes his professional-grade blender does make an appearance, though). And while he is adept with a chef’s knife, he doesn’t go out of his way to show off skills beyond what the average cook can achieve at home. Without wandering into amateurish or unprofessional territory, Chef John does not edit out his mistakes during the cooking process: If an egg yolk breaks or garlic butter splatters all over his cookie sheet, he keeps it moving without an apology.
In 2019, the era of Trump and irreversible climate change, Chef John’s YouTube channel is a calm port in an endless shitstorm. His simple words of encouragement, and the sheer enjoyment he gets from cooking—which he wants to share with others—is a balm in a time of increasing hopelessness, an escape to a place where kindness and generosity are the only rules of engagement.
Shows like Chef's Table are great and wonderful and have elevated the everyday person's fluency in restaurants and cooking, but what Chef John does is prove that an alternative exists to all that glamour and sexiness if you’re just a regular person. His videos are not art-directed, flawless, or aspirational. Chef John reminds his audience that food is also to be eaten. His fallibility and earnestness, the characteristics that might make him seem unexceptional, are in fact liberating for home cooks and anyone else looking for a new form of Internet escapism, who need to feel empowered to fail, and to make food (or art) for ourselves, not to impress others.
I emailed Chef John (real name: John Mitzewich) to find out more about his motivations for launching Food Wishes in 2007, and he was exactly as you’d expect him to be. He told me he’s “never not tickled” when fans say they watch his videos to unwind—a comment he receives with “surprising frequency”—then expressed worry that I hadn’t received his reply because he still uses Yahoo mail.
John explains that when he first started filming his recipes (after a stint as a culinary school instructor), he simply taped his camera to his spice rack or a burner on his oven. Back then, John recalls that “almost every recipe video looked like someone doing an audition reel for Top Chef.” Once he began to gain a following, he had a striking realization: His was one of the few cooking channels that featured no chef in the frame. (In the intervening years, that top-down, hands-and-pans format has become wildly popular on Instagram in particular, as you’ve probably noticed from a quick scan of your Discover tab.)
“So basically, due to lack of resources, and any video production experience, I stumbled onto a format that people really connected to,” he says. “We were cooking something delicious together, versus them watching me cook.”
Over time, John did gain the skills and the resources to up his production quality—especially after Food Wishes' 2011 acquisition by Internet juggernaut AllRecipes—but has never really felt the impetus to do so; his goal, he tells me, has always been to make “the food the star.” And yet, perhaps just as organically as John stumbled upon his show’s format, Food Wishes evolved into a show that draws almost all of its appeal from the charm and warmth of its host. He invited us over to his house for dinner, and we—all three million of us—formed an unexpected bond with him. The feeling is reciprocated.
“It's not so much a cooking show for me,” he says, “as it is getting to spend some time, twice a week, every week, cooking and joking around with my dear friends online. Hopefully, that comes across.”
If you’re reading this, Chef John, trust me: it does.