For acclaimed food-cum-film-maker Andrew Rea, better known by his pseudonym Babish, food is not only a celebration of reality, but also an extension of fiction. “Babish Culinary Universe,” his YouTube channel with 9.12 million subscribers, is case in point.
Starting with the name, there’s a novelty to all things Babish. The camera—mounted on the countertop of his home kitchen in New York—reveals only the tattoos on his arms as he walks the audience through inventive recreations of iconic pop culture dishes, sourced from films, T.V. shows, and video games. Ram-don from Parasite is at 10 million views, the Secret Ingredient Soup from Kung Fu Panda at 12 million, Krabby Patty from Spongebob Squarepants at 21 million, and Confit Byaldi from Ratatouille at a whopping 27 million views. What started as a creative exercise in February of 2016 paved way to Rea’s cartwheeling stardom. To this day, the 33-year-old has kept his face hidden in all his videos, peppering them with tongue-in-cheek humour and an almost therapeutic voice instead.
In my attempt to unmask the mystery man in a telephonic interview, I discover a creative genius armed with the drive to cut through digital clutter, and a dreamer with an appetite for perfection.
The internet knows you as Oliver Babish. Tell us a little bit about Andrew Rea.
Contrary to what most people think, I went to film school (and not a culinary school) and worked in post-production for about seven years before starting Binging With Babish in February 2016. It began as a creative exercise when I was in a deep state of depression. I only intended to make one episode of a cooking show that people would want to watch. They not only watched it, but requested for more. So I kept making it. And now I’m discussing it with NGTI, which is pretty cool.
At 15 you were making crepes at a restaurant…
That’s a deep cut. I spent that summer standing over the griddle and just spreading out those thin pancakes repeatedly for nine hours before calling it a day. That is the sum total of my restaurant experience. I’ve waited a couple tables. And I’ve worked one day as a prep cook in a little café in Brooklyn. Amidst the lunch rush in my first shift, I plunged a knife into my finger and started bleeding profusely. But you know, one of the rules of working in the kitchen is that if you can still stand and you’re not actively dying, you have to finish your shift. So they wrapped me up and put a glove that filled up like a balloon of blood as I completed the shift, after which I was promptly fired.
When did you decide to converge your two passions for food and filmmaking?
I’ve loved food and filmmaking my entire life. My mother taught me how to make some very basic dishes. And when she passed away, I kept cooking as a way to feel closer to her. My love for filmmaking on the other hand, started when I was 10. I made a video project to get out of writing an essay. And it worked. But it took me a solid 15 years to figure out that I could put the two of them together. And it happened quite by accident.
You kicked off your first video with the Parks and Recreation burger episode. What about that show spoke to you?
I was watching the show while I was screwing around with my camera in the kitchen. The main characters, Ron and Chris, were having a burger cook-off. And one of the burgers was extremely elaborated and had chutney in black truffle aioli. I wondered what that would taste like in real life. So I whipped it up with painstaking accuracy, and posted it online where it got like 20-30,000 views. Most of the comments were people asking what they wanted to see next. I obliged. And that’s been my business model since.
Has anyone associated with the shows that you’ve featured ever gotten back to you?
Every person that I admire and have been able to meet, I have their kids to thank. Because their kids watch YouTube and sit their parents down and force them to watch my show. That’s what happened with Jon Favreau. He congratulated me in a tweet when I hit a million subscribers. I reached out to him on a whim. And lo and behold, he was in the middle of producing The Chef Show, which at the time was a very nebulous project for him. He asked if I could come on his show. In exchange, he would come on mine. And so I flew out to LA, and had the greatest day of my life at the studio. He acted like a wise uncle to me, and gave me a lot of advice on what it means to be a creator. We’ve been in touch since.
Jacqueline Schaeffer, the creator of WandaVision reached out after watching my dinner episode inspired by the show. She expressed her appreciation for how detail-oriented I was, because they really put their research while making dishes from the 1950s in mid-century America.
You are a food-and-filmmaker. What are some of your favourite food-based films, shows and books?
I have to say Chef after that rant I made about Jon Favreau (laughs). But it is indeed a film that sees food as a unifying communal experience in ways that can affect relationships. Likewise, Big Night is about the healing power of food and its ability to bring people together. Ratatouille would probably be my favourite fictional depiction of food culture. There was recently an article on how the food critic from the movie is one of the greatest Pixar villains. He has motives, but he’s not blindly evil. And I think that he is a great critique of those who critique, if you will. The power of the phrase “anyone can cook” holds true in my opinion. But it takes practice and investment of time and effort, just like anything worth doing. The journey to get there is just as valuable as the experience itself.
You tend to keep it candid. Which dishes have been some of your best hits and worst misses?
Best hits typically come from Basics with Babish, because I’m trying to make the best iteration of a specific dish. But when it comes to movies and TV foods, I have to say timpano (inspired by Big Night). It was my second episode ever, and it’s still one of my greatest triumphs. A very exciting achievement as a home cook is to make something that doesn’t turn into a disaster. Likewise, the following episode on pasta Aglio e Olio has been one of my greatest hits and continues to be one of my favourite snacks when I don’t know what else to eat. I even have a tattoo of it, because it’s such an empowering dish for home cooks. You take seven simple ingredients—eight if you include boiling water—and put them together to make something greater than the sum of its parts.
One of the biggest misses has got to be the milk steak from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It’s a steak boiled in milk until well done, which is then topped with jelly beans. There are lots of foods in fiction that are designed to disgust, and I unflinchingly create them with the same attention to detail and accuracy I see.
Your recreation of the ratatouille has garnered an overwhelming response. Which dish takes you back to your Mum’s cooking?
That’s probably seafood pasta. She used to make a linguini with white clam sauce. It’s just clams out of the can cooked in a very ‘90s suburban mom style. She’d also bake the Nestle Toulouse chocolate chip cookies all the time, using the recipe on the back of the bag, because they were my favourite. It’s the simple things that snap me back in time immediately.
What’s your stance on traditional cooking? Is there a cuisine you are particularly fond of?
Most of my skillset lie in French and Italian preps. So, French is probably my favourite, both to eat and to cook. But if I had to pick a cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, it might be Korean, Thai, Vietnamese or Japanese. But I don’t know how to cook the vast majority of those dishes. I need to work on my sushi game.
Which are some of your favourite Southeast Asian fares?
My absolute favourite that I just made the other day is tteokbokki (Korean rice cakes). They’re really chewy and dense, and pair well with gochujang sauce. I’m also a pho freak. I love any kind of spicy noodle soup. The one problem is that I have a genetic condition in which cilantro tastes like soap. And unfortunately, every single dish in Southeast Asia is loaded with cilantro. So I need to figure out how to say no cilantro in a lot of different languages before I can visit.
Have you tried any Indian recipes?
I had invited late chef Floyd Cardoz on Basics. He was the true ambassador of Indian cooking and he cared a great deal about bringing traditional recipes to New York City. He taught us how to make four different kinds of Indian bread of which I can remember roti, paratha and naan. He also taught us how to make different kinds of curries, which most Americans tend to lump together as that bright orange stuff the chicken swims in. Unfortunately, he passed away of COVID-19 complications earlier last year. His legacy lives on not only in the amazing videos that he’s been in or all the food that he shared with people, but also a spice line that he curated before he left us.
What are some of your favourite food destinations in the world?
Well, there’s so much more of the world that I need to see. The only place that I have been to in Asia is Hong Kong when I was 11. And at that time, the only thing I wanted to eat was McDonald’s. I would do it differently now, once the world reopens.
But the top food destinations that I’ve been to so far are Paris and New Orleans. I live in New York, and it is a melting pot in the true sense. You can get truly authentic cuisines of almost any culture. For instance, if you want the authentic Sichuan cuisine, you can go to Flushing in Queens. I can’t think of many cities where you can do that.
Which places are on your food bucket list?
Bangkok, for sure. There’s also Hanoi. I’ve been dying to go to Tokyo. Back in high school, I almost got to go to Kolkata in India on a hospice volunteer trip. Unfortunately it did not work out. There are so many places in India, Mumbai, in particular, that I would love to visit one day, just to taste authentic Indian cuisine.
At a time when cooking became a creative outlet for most people stuck in quarantine, which were the dishes that truly inspired you?
There was a prolonged period of time when we were just trying to make use of what we had in the pantry. So I put chickpeas to myriad uses—from hummus to roasted crispy snacks, or even meringues, when I whipped the aquafaba. You can turn the liquid into an egg white substitute that works beautifully to make vegan macaroons. Then there were sourdough and kimchi—things that take time and effort to ferment into life. We were able to explore the idea of making something from nothing, which is what bread is.
Can you enlist the cooking basics that we should all attempt to have in our arsenal?
My suggestion there would be to make the things that you love the most. Not only are you going to make it well, but you’ll also be familiar with the flavours. I believe it was Robert Rodriguez who suggested that people should pick five or 10 different dishes that are their favourites, that they should learn to cook with their eyes closed. So that way, they have the ability to make a variety of food very well. And by the time they’ve done that, they’re going to be curious and skilled enough to explore other dishes. My big hope with putting tteokbokki on Basics With Babish was that people—especially in America—who otherwise would not have heard of it, would now be able to try it.
Which are some of your favourite New York food experiences?
It runs the gamut on the absolute dirtiest and cheapest end of the spectrum. You’ve got the Papaya Dog, which is a snappy hot dog with onion relish on it and a papaya shake for three bucks. And there are dollar slices of pizza. I don’t care if they’re frowned upon by pizza snobs, I love it. Flushing offers spectacular noodle soup that is slightly up along the spectrum. Golden Mall (now permanently closed) had great spicy, noodle soup stew. You could get some shaved ice with mango and sweetened condensed milk around the corner. I think that’s a Taiwanese specialty, if I remember correctly. Del Posto (permanently closed) is a restaurant that I dearly miss. It’s a seven or 10 course Italian tasting menu and you always leave feeling like you’re going to die. But it’s worth it.
Jackson Heights is where all the best Indian food in New York City is. There’s also Harlem, where I lived for two years. BLVD Bistro is one of the best soul food places. They do an unbelievably good fried chicken and waffles. I lived right across Marcus Samuelsson’s Red Rooster. I must have gained 15 pounds at that time.
What advice would you give to someone trying to crack the digital culinary-filmmaking scene today?
It’s the same advice that writers give other writers, and creators of any kind give other creators: do what you do best, draw from your personal experiences, and definitely push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Make it uniquely yours.
Do you think Binging with Babish would step out of the pop culture realm and into the outside world?
I hope that we can have a real world, brick and mortar experience one day. I’d love to get a restaurant going in the next couple of years. I’m working on opening a vacation rental and Airbnb up in the Catskill Mountains, to provide a food-centred experience. I’m writing my next book. We’re working on new shows with new talents on the channel, including Rick Martinez, who lives down in Mazatlán, Mexico.
We feel like we have a uniquely empowering message for anybody who wants to learn more about cooking. The more people we can get on board to share that message, the better.
1 tbsp + ½ tsp kosher salt, divided
1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
255 gm fresh fettuccine pasta
57 gm parmesan cheese, grated
⅛ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
340 gm all-purpose flour
227 gm eggs
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
Recipe from America’s Test Kitchen
Bring a large pot of water with 1 tablespoon of salt to a boil.
Meanwhile, add 1 cup heavy cream and the butter to a large skillet. Melt over medium-low heat and allow the mixture to reduce by one third, about 5-10 minutes.
Once the sauce is reduced, turn the heat off and add the remaining 1/2 cup of heavy cream to the skillet. Season with the remaining salt and pepper.
Add the pasta to the boiling water. Cook according to the manufacturer’s directions for ‘al dente’ pasta, about 2-3 minutes.
Transfer the cooked pasta directly into the skillet with the heavy cream sauce. Reserve the pasta water.
Turn the heat to low and add the parmesan and nutmeg to the pasta. Cook the pasta and sauce for about 1-2 minutes, stirring with tongs, until the cheese is melted.
Add about 1/4 cup of the reserved pasta water to the sauce. Once again, stir with the tongs until the sauce is glossy and coats the pasta.
Homemade Pasta Dough
Combine flour, salt, and eggs in a food processor.
Process for 60 seconds until the dough ball forms.
Remove the dough from the processor and form it into a ball.
Wrap the dough tightly and rest for a minimum of 30 minutes at room temperature or up to overnight in the fridge.
Using a pasta roller, work in batches to roll out the dough. Start on the widest setting and decrease the size by two settings with every roll. Roll until the dough reaches the second thinnest setting (or to your preference).
Cut the dough using a pasta cutting attachment or using a knife into long strands about ¼ inch wide.
Dust the pasta in flour and set aside on a large rimmed baking sheet until ready to cook.
(Disclaimer: The recipe has been adapted from www.bingingwithbabish.com for editorial use.)
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.