How do you make a Krabby Patty? What goes into McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce? Can the Soup Nazi’s recipes be recreated? Just what the heck did Lumière serve to Belle during the “Be Our Guest” sequence in Beauty and the Beast?
If any of these questions have ever occurred to you while watching your favorite shows and movies, you’re not alone. In fact, Andrew Rea has built a YouTube empire based on those simple queries about the endless menu of food in pop culture.
His channel, Binging with Babish, has attracted over five million followers thanks to videos in which Rea makes dishes from film and television. He’s made everything from the strudel eaten by Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds, to milk steak and jelly beans, the vile preference of Charlie Kelly in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Millions of subscribers and one friendship with Jon Favreau later, Rea hopped on a phone call with me to talk about his culinary success and new cookbook, Binging with Babish: 100 Recipes Recreated from Your Favorite Movies and TV Shows.
“This new book, I really put a lot of myself into,” said Rea, who, despite his current gastronomic vocation, is actually trained in filmmaking. “I have a lot of … almost inadvisably personal stories in there, where I’m talking about how the show was really my personal renaissance. I was in a broken marriage, I had hit the ceiling on my career, and I was creatively stifled. I wasn’t cooking anymore, which used to be my favorite thing to do. It was just a sign of the cloud of depression that was hanging over me. Then I started making the show and it pulled me out and how something as simple as a YouTube series where somebody’s recreating foods from Parks & Rec is actually my saving grace.”
Featuring the first 100 recipes from his show (sans the Lover’s Delight ice cream sundae from NBC’s 30 Rock), the book contains a foreword written by Jon Favreau. The man behind the MCU’s Iron Man and The Mandalorian on Disney+ took a deep dive into the world of exciting one’s tastebuds with the mouth-watering 2014 film, Chef. In the years since that movie’s release, Rea has recreated dishes from it, had Favreau on his show, and even appeared on Favreau’s Netflix cooking series, The Chef Show.
“I’m still stunned that I’ve met him,” said Andrew, who had the carving fork from Chef gifted to him by the filmmaker. “It’s all thanks to his kids. His kids watch my show and they sat him down and made him watch it and he got into it and then before I know it, we’re exchanging tweets. Then I sent him an impassioned letter being like, ‘If you just wanna have a beer sometime or if you’d like to come on the show, I’d be honored.’ Two-to-three weeks later, I’m on a plane out to L.A., and I’m going to his studio to meet him and be on his show and [have him] be on my mine. Utterly surreal and it’s still the greatest day of my life. It was nuts and for him to have written such a touching personal thoughtful and flattering foreword to the book. [It’s] a new level of surreal. He really didn’t have to make such an impassioned assessment of what I do, and he really wrote something special. There are many many aspects of my life that I’m in constant disbelief of, and that is chief among them.”
Naturally, Rea’s favorite onscreen recipe to date is Pasta Agilo o Olio from Chef. As if to underscore that point, it’s one of the very first dishes featured in his new book.
“It’s not just because I’m Jon Favreau-biased, but because I think it’s an important recipe, especially for burgeoning chefs,” he continued. “I think [the movie] is an important food movie; it’s a movie that actually cares about food and the connecting power it can have … Chef really cares about food, and there are scenes where it shows how food can bond a father and son, it can repair … a broken love and in this scene, [it shows] how you can seduce and charm and excite someone. For newcomers to the kitchen, Pasta Agilo o Olio is revelatory because it’s seven ingredients-eight if you count the boiling water. They all come together to make something greater than the sum of their parts. That’s magic if you’ve never done that before in the kitchen.”
As for his least favorite recipe, Andrew absolutely hates the aforementioned milk steak and jelly beans, which is just beef boiled in milk and topped with colored sugar. Not really the most appetizing thing in the world, which is why that version of the dish didn’t even make the cut.
“Since that recipe’s a little simplistic and utterly disgusting, it’s not actually in the book. My version of it is, but it’s far and way, the most disgusting I’ve had to put in my mouth for the show. That’s the worst for sure,” he admitted.
Some meals are easier than others, but when it comes to generally-defined foods like the “Grey Stuff” from Beauty and the Beast or Bubble Bass’s complex order from SpongeBob SquarePants, a little creativity needs to be involved. Even something as simple-sounding as apple strudel requires a little finessing.
“[For Beauty,] I was like, ‘This is 18th Century France … It’s probably pâté. It’s probably liver,'” Rea recounted, elucidating how this Disney recreation was a reaction to the internet claiming that the “Grey Stuff” was a red velvet brownie surrounded by “grey” cookies and cream-flavored whipped cream.
“I wanted to really get it as right as I possibly could, so I researched that. It’s about looking at the context, it’s about looking at the situation in which the food is being eaten,” he said. “I made strudel from Ingloruious Basterds with butter even though, traditionally, during that time, it might’ve been made with lard. I made it with butter because it’s an Austrian dessert, but they were eating it in France. They were eating it in Nazi-occupied France and they probably would’ve used butter … It’s about taking a look at where is the food being eaten? When? By whom? And determining how to most accurately recreate it using that information.”
But why are we so fascinated about what the cuisine we see in our favorite pieces of pop culture? Clearly it’s a fascination many of us share, given the fact that it’s allowed Andrew to cultivate an impressive following of five million subscribers.
“There’s a logical side to it and there’s a mysterious side to it. The serious side is that, just like everybody else, I crave the food that I see onscreen. I don’t know why. It’s probably because there’s a prop stylist [or] a food stylist on set that’s making it look super-duper good. But for some reason, you really wanna try it,” Rea postulated. “It seems extra appealing and inviting when you see it in your favorite movie. The one that jumps out to me is all the jellies and ice cream and cakes that you see in Jurassic Park in the last third of the movie. It’s probably because these kids have just been through this horrendous ordeal, chased by dinosaurs and snotted on and electrocuted and attacked by a T. Rex and all this stuff and finally, they have this beautiful catharsis of, ‘We’re safe and look at all these sweets.’ It’s like a kid’s dream come true, so that makes it a particularly appealing thing.”
He followed that up with:
“I [also] think that it’s an opportunity to live vicariously [through] your favorite character, a way to manifest a piece of your favorite fiction right there in front of you. It’s the only way you can really do that. I mean, you could buy props from the set … but food is a universal language and to be able to use it to manifest a piece of your favorite movie [or show] right in your kitchen, it’s an exciting thing to be able to do.”
Andrew’s love of cooking stems from his mother, who sadly passed away when he was young. Nevertheless, the act of cooking helps him feel closer to her.
“I was 11 [when she passed away], so [I] didn’t get the chance to really get into anything too complicated, but she taught me how to make cookies and stew. The easier stuff, the comfort foods,” he said. “I think that cooking can be a wonderful way to honor someone, to honor their legacy, and to feel closer to them when they’re gone. We have a very emotional and personal connection with foods. We all do, depending on what we grew up with. And so, whenever I make chocolate chip cookies, I feel closer to my mom because she taught me how to make my first. They may have been off the back of a Nestle Tollhouse bag, but they were the best in the world to me. That’s where [my love of cooking] started and the ability to make something that I can serve to someone and it elicits an ‘Ooo’ from them, that’s an exciting and connecting feeling. That’s something that brings you closer to the people around you.”
With that said, Rea doesn’t claim to be a professional chef, something that makes his videos so fun and relatable. He’s never afraid to admit he’s made a mistake, which, in turn, makes cooking a less daunting task for the average viewer.
“It was definitely a requirement for me to be honest because I am not a chef. I have not been to culinary school. I went to film school and I’m better at editing than I am at cooking. I can edit and make it look like I’m good at what I do. But it was imperative for me to be honest because I’m by no means an expert,” he said. “If anything, I’ve become an expert over the past three years because I’ve studied it so rigorously, but I have not been trained and I have not worked in a professional kitchen environment. [So,] I wanted it to be accessible … traditional cooking shows … are great, but they are a bit misleading because it’s beautiful people in beautiful kitchens making beautiful dishes on their first try. If anything, that can be over intimidating as a new cook if you’re totally inexperienced or haven’t tried cooking before. That might put you off [and make you say], ‘I can’t do what this person does.'”
Describing himself as “your local goofball screwing up and burning things now and then,” Andrew is able to show others that, “‘Ok, this happens and just do this and you’ll be fine, and this took me 10 tries but eventually I got it.’ It can get more people cooking and I think that making food content more accessible and more empowering is something that I had to do at first because I’m no authority so I can’t pretend to be one. Then I realized that’s the way cooking shows should be, that’s what’s gonna get people in the kitchen.”
As his presence in the worlds of food and YouTube continues to grow, Rea has enjoyed more and more collaborations with other edible personalities like Matty Matheson, Isaac Toups, and Sean Evans.
He also has expanded his repertoire to include Basics with Babish, a sister series of tutorials on how to make classic kitchen standbys like broth and bread from scratch. Lastly, he plans to open a brick-and-mortar location in Brooklyn that he currently dubs “The Babery,”-a name that allegedly elicits a good-natured laugh from anyone who hears it. As such, it might just stay that way.
“We’re literally negotiating a lease right now. It’s going to be a brew pub where you can have a beer and have a snack, and you can watch me make the show because we’re gonna be setting up my studio right there,” he explained. “It’s almost like going to see The Today Show, but afterwards you get to have a beer with the host. That’s the thing I’m most excited about right now. It’s gonna open up a lot of opportunities for collaboration with anybody who wants to come and use the studio to host guest cooking demonstrations and classes and tastings and live ticketed events. It’s gonna be a great place of food and fun and creativity.”
Even as Andrew’s fame and notoriety balloons, he’s still committed to delivering new episodes (which he shoots, edits, and color corrects himself) every week without fail.
“You can expect Binging to come out, as it has, every Tuesday going on for three years now. It will continue to come out every week, I will never stop until I’m dead or close to it,” he concluded.
When I asked what pop culture nosh would be joining the Clean Plate Club next, Rea said:
“That’s the question I’m constantly asking myself because I literally figured out what I’m making for next week’s episode like yesterday and I haven’t even shot it yet. Very by the seat of my pants around here. That is the question I’m constantly asking myself and nothing’s coming to mind at the moment, but do let me know if you see something that looks pretty good. Just shout it out in the comments, I’m listening.”
The Binging with Babish cookbook goes on sale tomorrow, Oct. 22. You can pick up a copy on Amazon here. To promote the publication, Andrew is kicking off a book tour all over the United States. As a self-confessed fan boy of Frasier, he can’t wait to visit Seattle. For a full list of where he’ll be visiting, click here.