When Andrew Rea started his YouTube channel — based around his flagship show, Binging with Babish — back in February of 2016, there’s no way he could have known the heights he’d reach. Rea’s show started out with the Frasier theme song, covers of iconic dishes from TV and movies, and a real sense of accessibility that’s often absent from mainstream cooking shows.
Fast forward four years and Rea has the “Babish Culinary Universe” — with multiple shows on YouTube. He has cookbooks. He has 8.23 million subscribers. And he’s ready to push his brand beyond his own name and personality.
Two months ago, the Babish Culinary Universe launched its newest show, Stump Sohla, starring Sohla El-Waylly. Chef El-Waylly is widely known for her beloved videos from the Bon Appetit Test Kitchen and her role in helping expose racial discrimination at Condé Nast. After she left BA over pay disparities allegedly based on race and gender, Babish reached out to her and the rest is history.
This month, Rea and El-Waylly teamed up with Blue Moon to create a Thanksgiving Live Stream to help all of us cook a better fall feast. More specifically, the duo teamed up to figure out Thanksgiving recipes that pair well with beer — very much in the wheelhouse of things we love. With the live stream currently up, we jumped on a call with Rea and El-Waylly to talk about their process, making food content during a pandemic, and what this holiday (and its complicated legacy) means to them.
Let’s get into it!
What’s your favorite food memory of Thanksgiving?
Sohla: When my husband and I first moved to New York, we didn’t know many people in the city. But we were lucky enough to both have the night off and were determined to have a gathering. We invited everyone and anyone who crossed our paths — from the bartender we met once to other line cooks we had never spoken to. We didn’t expect anyone to come by, but everyone did. Crammed in our little studio, these strangers became family for a day, and ever since it’s been a reminder of how gathering around food can bring people together.
Andrew: My favorite Thanksgiving memory would probably be the special plate my mom got me. As a child, I was adamant that my food not touch: a tall order for a meal like Thanksgiving. My mom searched far and wide, in the days before the internet no less, for a compartmentalized plate that would match her blue willow china. Finally, she found one and, at long last, I was able to keep my turkey and potatoes from touching.
Nowadays, I just mix everything up into a mushy pile like everyone else. But every Thanksgiving, I remember my mother’s kindness in catering to my peculiarities.
Let’s take a step back for a second. Can you tell us what was the impetus for you bringing Sohla onboard?
Andrew: The impetus for that, really, was Sohla becoming available. I have wanted to expand the channel for a long time, for years even. And we didn’t want to do it until we knew we could bring somebody on board that could carry with them the core competencies as a brand that we’ve tried to build, which is one of encouragement and being as informational as we are entertaining. And Sohla is all of those things. So as soon as we had the opportunity to work with her, as soon as the idea crossed my mind, I DM-ed her on Instagram and we were getting coffee in like the next day or two.
The one good thing about being small is that we’re spry. So it went from idea to concept to execution in a matter of weeks to a month or so.
I don’t want to get into the whole Rappaport thing, that’s been covered a million times, but did you feel like you were looking for a new home when Andrew DM-ed you, or were you just in a holding pattern?
Sohla: I wasn’t really looking for anything. I was just having really bad meetings and contract negotiations with Condé Nast. And then I was like, “You know what, maybe this is a good opportunity to just stop this.” So I didn’t really have any plans. So when this opportunity came around, I was like, “Yeah, why not? It’s not going to be worse than this.”
Stump Sohla has a different vibe than the shows with Andrew yet very much in the same wheelhouse. Did it feel like a natural progression to do a special about Thanksgiving?
Andrew: Well, we had the opportunity to partner with Blue Moon. The more that we talked about it, the more we realized that it was an essential thing to do for the channel. Everybody’s stuck where they are and not able to see the people they love the way they normally do this time of year. So to be able to give a place for everybody not only to learn a few things but to hang out and have a beer, it’s something we’re really excited about.
Mostly because we just get to cook and drink beer on camera. That we get paid to do this is, frankly, a miracle.
Sohla: Yeah. I think it’s going to be really fun. I think people will enjoy just seeing us have fun together because the holidays are going to be a little bit different. The recipes that we’re going to be demo-ing are a little bit different. I think they’re really fun.
I feel like they have a little bit of a sense of humor. And I hope that people just enjoy watching it.
How was the recipe development different on the Thanksgiving episode compared to your average episode?
Sohla: We wanted to make sure these are dependable recipes that people can make. So we did a lot of testing. There’s a culinary producer, her name’s Kendall. She’s fantastic. I usually recipe develop alone, so it was really fun being able to work with her.
So how does that process work?
Sohla: I’d give her a recipe, she’d test it and give me notes, and then I’d try it again. And then we just did this back and forth thing until we came up with something that we felt was going to be easy and delicious and offer something fun and new to people.
Andrew, have you had a similar process now in developing new recipes now that Kendall’s around? Or are you still down in the trenches on your own?
Andrew: Well, like I was saying about why we brought Sohla on board is because she very much identifies with our corporate culture, which is, “show your mistakes.” So I too do not do much recipe development. If I mess up, I want to catch it on camera so I not only can look silly but also show you at home what not to do. I can make the mistakes so you don’t have to. I am, however, vigorously testing today because the upcoming episode of Stump Sohla is a bake-off between her and me.
And she’s going to wipe the floor with me.
Sohla: No, I’m not.
Andrew: So I’m doing my best to get a little practice in because we’re talking about someone who went to CIA [the Culinary Institute of America].
Sohla: But to level the playing field, I’m not practicing at all.
Andrew: Thank you. I just made a batch of my cookies, trying to mold it into the thing, and it’s spot welded to the mold. So that’s the main thing that I’m trying to figure out right now. Normally, I do not do any recipe testing, but I’m not trying to go into this thing naked.
What did you draw from your own experiences of Thanksgiving and what did you draw from 2020 and everyday life now to create this menu?
Andrew: Well, the menu was largely inspired by the flavors of the beer. And as such, since we wanted to capture citrus, coriander, the other flavors in the beer, it led us to the Southwest. A place that I can confidently say neither of us are from and a place that I can say I’ve never even been to. So we’re looking forward to giving it a shot.
But Sohla, this was largely your idea. You can speak to this better than I can.
Sohla: Well, actually, when we were working on the Thanksgiving episode that just aired this weekend, Jess, Andrew’s girlfriend, was talking about corn casserole, which is something I’ve never had before. It’s her favorite Thanksgiving dish where they mix a can of creamed corn with a Jiffy Cornbread. And there’s sour cream. There’s lots of stuff in it. So the corn spoonbread was kind of inspired by that. It’s going to be our stand-in for stuffing kind of thing. But it’s much lighter than stuffing. It’s also gluten-free, which I think it’s really important to meet a lot of dietary restrictions these days.
So I think it was slightly inspired by that cornbread casserole, but then we took it to the Southwest because we really wanted it to match the bright citrusy flavors of the beer. And then we were just all in a basement together talking about it and it turned into what it turned into. That’s why it’s really fun brainstorming with everyone.
Andrew: I was just saying there are no rules around these parts. So for recipe development, it can just start as a silly conversation and we can get some really wild ideas. And we can sort of whittle it down to something that makes us happy and will make the viewers happy.
So you did a great thing a couple of episodes back where you did a walkthrough of the new space and we saw that you each have your own kitchen now. Can you tell us how you guys go through recipe development for Stump Sohla?
Sohla: So for Stump Sohla, I prefer not to develop. I prefer to do it all on camera. So if I fail, you get to see that and we can all enjoy my failure together. So the stuff for Stump Sohla is all pretty spontaneous, which is why sometimes the shoots can be a couple of days, depending on if something goes wrong.
It’s really hard to plan things for that because I’m doing a lot of stuff that I’ve never done before.
People being stuck in means there’s a lot more YouTube watching. Have you noticed people have been more engaged with the whole Babish Culinary Universe, especially now that you’ve brought on Sohla? And how has that changed the way you work?
Andrew: Everybody’s watching a lot of YouTube nowadays. So yes, we have viewership growth, subscriber growth, larger engagement. I always was very, very fortunate to have a very engaged audience, no matter what was going on in the world. So people being stuck at home and having to figure out new things to watch has brought in new viewers. And now we’re just lucky enough to be able to continue chugging and functioning in this strange new world. So that’s why we’re just cranking out content like never before because we’re very lucky to have this opportunity to do so.
How are you guys looking to continue pushing the envelope for the future of the channel?
Sohla: We’re just going to keep going. We have a bunch of new ideas for season two. And what has happened with season one is we’ll go in with something really simple, there’s an upcoming episode where the wheel ended on sad and birthday. So… it’s sad birthday meals.
It started out with me making a cake and then it turned into something crazy. So we don’t really thoroughly plan stuff. Because if it is a small theme, we can just have a really cool idea in the moment and then just roll with it. So I guess we’re just going to keep going. We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing. I feel like we’re all gelling more and more and getting to know each other better and that’s making the shoots get more creative and the content is getting cooler.
Andrew: Outside of Stump Sohla, which we’re very excited to get into season two, which is hilarious that we’ve called it season two because this is YouTube. But yeah, we’re just going to keep going. Might take a little break, but it’s not like we’re going to wait a year like a television show.
Apart from that, we also have new personalities that we’re pursuing to create content with. Can’t say exactly who just yet, but we’re working with another popular YouTube personality right now to establish the visual identity of their show. It’s going to be a really colorful, really culturally focused show. I’m trying to be as vague as I can. But that should be premiering hopefully later this year, if not early next year.
So we are going to continue adding names to the roster.