Rather than treating cooking as an inscrutable science, understood only by the upper echelons of the culinary world, chefs such as Nosrat foster direct connections with their audiences. Their shows don’t require costly, rare ingredients, because they understand the needs of the average people who turn to them: When trips to the grocery store can be dangerous, creative combinations of existing foods are paramount. Many of the new shows and ad hoc advice channels on social media that have sprung up—or changed—in response to the pandemic share this mission. Julia Turshen, the author of the 2018 cookbook Now & Again: Go-To Recipes, Inspired Menus + Endless Ideas for Reinventing Leftovers, answered questions about how to prepare new dishes from scraps on her Instagram during the first weeks of the crisis. Along with these tips, Turshen shared food-related writing prompts every weekday, turning her social-media account into a kind of free workshop that drew creative and heartfelt responses from her followers.
For chefs, cookbook authors, and TV hosts whose shows have halted production, Instagram is perhaps the most natural venue for reaching audiences. The pandemic, as well as the interactive nature of the platform itself, has altered the ways that food-media veterans interact with their viewers and readers. Garten is known for being a stickler about not cutting corners; on her show, Barefoot Contessa, she regularly instructs her audience to make recipe ingredients such as pie crusts and stock at home. If they can’t do that, she famously adds, “store-bought is fine.” Now Garten posts photos on Instagram that show her freezer and pantry containing helpful shortcut items. She even soothes anxious followers when she answers questions during the impromptu “town-hall meetings” that have cropped up on her Instagram page.
Read: Ina Garten’s Instagram will get you through quarantine
Among the more natural Instagram users are food-world Millennials whose profiles have risen as people turn to them for recipes that are both satisfying and doable. The cookbook author Alison Roman, for example, first shared the caramelized-shallot-pasta recipe that has taken over Instagram the past few months. The viral pasta, which is made almost entirely from a handful of pantry-friendly ingredients, neatly captures Roman’s cooking style: tasty, unfussy, and aesthetically pleasing food that’s meant to be shared. It’s no wonder that the pasta’s rich red sauce and looping bucatini noodles have drawn in a wide variety of cooks.
Other figures have themselves become viral sensations, drawing on the sense of interpersonal connection that drives cooking itself. Bon Appétit’s YouTube channel features discrete shows with personable, goofy hosts who’ve attracted expansive fan bases. As my colleague Myles Poydras wrote in our recent guide to free pandemic entertainment, “Few things are more pleasing than watching a meal take shape, whether on-screen or in your own kitchen. Bon Appétit’s informal tutorial videos for recipes that range from hibiscus cocktails to classic ratatouille make meals that seem out of your wheelhouse look simple.” As with Nadiya’s Time to Eat, the fun of watching Bon Appétit videos doesn’t necessarily lie in the prospect of re-creating the dishes depicted. Instead, the hosts’ personalities—their pragmatism and seeming willingness to reach straight through viewers’ screens to extend a hand—inspire a broader sense of possibility. When Claire or Brad (the hosts are so ubiquitous to their fans as to be mononymous) shows their audience how to make a recipe, their instructions feel like they’re coming from a friend, not a teacher.
Though her show was filmed in the Before Times, Hussain doesn’t travel to fancy restaurants or culinary institutes. Rather, she pops in to help families (and one single man, a veterinarian who works long hours during lambing season) in their own homes. She walks through the farms and factories where the “short-cut ingredients” that power her key dishes are made. In one episode, Hussain learns how yeast extract—better known as Marmite—is distilled. (This is one of the show’s more undeniably British segments.)