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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

‘Everybody’s So Creative!’ and the Rise of the Recipe Reactions

The recipe sold itself as “unique.” Toward the end of March, an anonymous blonde woman appeared on the TikTok page @foodfuns3 and committed a culinary crime. First, she poured an entire box of angel hair pasta into a blender, then she blitzed it into dust, added a couple of eggs, and rolled the resulting dough into new pasta strips. Gamely, she took a bite of the thick, grainy Frakenpasta after cooking it; unconvincingly, she ended the video with the words, “Mmm! It’s like the perfect consistency.”

Despite this onscreen bite, it’s probably safe to assume this pasta dish ended up in the bin.

It’s no longer news that disgusting food videos on TikTok are intentional rage bait, designed to rile up viewers and gain comments, shares, and views for creators. Yet while no one eats the food in these ridiculous recipe videos, they do feed an entire online ecosystem.

Shortly after the blonde woman blended her pasta, The Washington Post tested her recipe on its own social media channels, while the British newspaper Metro made its own video about the “dish.” On TikTok itself, multiple creators responded, superimposing themselves over the video and adding their own commentary. Thanks to the sheer number of hideous recipes that now populate TikTok, a new job has emerged: Recipe Reactor.

Chef Reactions is not the name recorded on Chef Reactions’ birth certificate. Despite the fact that he has more than 3 million TikTok followers, Chef Reactions closely guards his real name and identity because, he says, “I get death threats every single day.” Fiercely protective of his family and a carer for his 88-year-old grandmother, he’s only been recognized three times in public since he exploded on social media a year ago, and he wants to keep it that way. “I’ve worked in kitchens my whole life,” he says. “I didn’t start this with the intention of becoming famous.”

What provokes the death threats? Multiple times a week, Chef Reactions picks an online recipe video and—it’s in the name—reacts to it. He is known for his deadpan delivery, liberal use of swear words, and very evident culinary knowledge. (He really is a chef with almost 20 years’ experience.) The 40-year-old creator reacts to everything from genuinely delicious-looking chocolate sculptures to people cooking inside their toilet bowls.

Some have accused him of bullying, “which I didn’t understand, because most of the videos that I talk about are purposely made for shock value.” (Some recipe videos are also fetish content.) The chef’s angry reactions are unscripted and authentic: “I come from a background of not wasting food, both in my professional life and my personal life. When I was a kid, I was forced to sit at the kitchen table until I finished everything on my plate, so wasting food is a pet peeve of mine.”

Chef Reactions created his TikTok account in May 2022 because, he says, “a dishwasher that worked for me had a video go viral … and it was really stupid, it was maybe the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” Deciding that if she could do it, he could do it too, the chef created his first video, a silly three-second clip in which he makes eyes at some butt-shaped dough.

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The Chef Reactions channel grew quickly. He recently quit his job; brand deals, merchandise sales, and Patreon supporters enable him to recipe-react full time. “I’ve been a chef for so long that it’s hard for me to think of what I do now as work, because I worked so very hard before,” he says. He notes that while he is by no means rich or “set for life,” he could afford a year off to be with his family if he stopped making videos right now. “This has changed my life in ways that I never thought were possible,” he says.

Yet in the year Chef Reactions has been creating his videos, he says the number of rage bait (and fetish) recipes on TikTok has grown. “These accounts are multiplying like gremlins,” he says, “And now people say that I’m partially responsible for that.” Some viewers believe that gross food creators are making videos specifically for the chef to react to, meaning he’s taking the bait and feeding the baiters. While he says it would be “egotistical” for him to believe that videos are made specifically for him, he does acknowledge his part in this strange new ecosystem.

“Without them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today, so it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he says. Equally: “I’m not the only person that does food reactions.”

Tanara Mallory is perhaps currently the most famous and quotable recipe reactor on TikTok; her catchphrase “Everybody’s so creative!” now regularly pops up in the comment section of food videos. The 47-year-old, Philadelphia-based production cook is—as Chef Reactions himself puts it —“hilarious”; her faux-enthusiastic response videos have earned her 3.4 million followers.

Unlike Chef Reactions, however, Mallory has found it hard to profit from her fame. She told The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month that the money she has earned so far only covers “gas and groceries,” even though the hashtag #everybodysocreative now has 486 million views. It’s a problem as old as social media itself: the ability of any creator to monetize their content often depends on their race. “Mallory’s situation,” journalist Beatrice Forman wrote in her profile of the TikTok star, “is all too common for Black social media creators, who have shaped internet culture for decades.” (Mallory didn’t respond to interview requests for this story.)

Yet while recipe reactions may not always be profitable, they do remain popular. Beyond comedy value, why do people like to watch?

Zoë Glatt, a digital anthropologist and postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft’s Social Media Collective, argues that “​​what makes bad recipe videos so perfect for reactions is the ambiguity around whether the original content is made sincerely.” Numerous disturbing recipes have been reported as real trends over the years, and therefore it is undoubtedly satisfying for audiences to hear a straight-talker “reflecting on just how bad these recipes are.”

Glatt says that “reaction videos have always existed as a sort of meta-economy that feeds off of and into the genres of content.” While some reactors do “the bare minimum,” riding the coattails of an original video’s popularity, the best reactions, she says, “offer meaningful or entertaining commentary, reflecting and reifying the feelings that audiences have toward the video and helping to create a sense of community and shared understanding.” Arguably, shared understanding is crucial when you’ve just watched someone blend angel hair and you have to decide if the world’s lost the plot or you have.

It’s unclear how long recipe reactions will continue to be popular. Chef Reactions says, “I think of myself always as on my 14th of 15 minutes of fame.” He is branching out onto YouTube because of rumors of a TikTok ban, and he hopes the world will continue to have an appetite for his content. But being uncertain about the future doesn’t trouble him too much. “If you were to ask me a year ago what my retirement plan was, I would have said, ‘Having a heart attack hovering over an empty deep fryer.’ I didn’t have a retirement plan,” he says. He still doesn’t, but he does now have a flourishing online career. “If it all goes away tomorrow, I can always fall back onto my skill set and continue being a chef.”

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