The first time you see Brad Leone on It’s Alive With Brad, he f*cks up. Leone is tending to vats of kombucha, talking to the camera as he works a siphon to move liquid between containers when the tube slips out of his hand, then out of the bottle and onto the floor.
“Oh god, oh god, oh cut,” Leone says, desperately trying to stop the fermented liquid from spilling onto the pristine tile floor of the Bon Appétit test kitchen, located on the 35th floor of One World Trade Center. “Cut Vin!” Leone shouts to now-former BA cameraman Vincent Cross, but the camera keeps rolling.
The next shot you see the host sadly unfurling paper towels while other BA employees tease him. But once everything is up and running again, Leone’s expertise is soon revealed. What follows is a relatively scientific, extremely funny nine-minute video about the process of making the fermented drink — complete with pop-up citations, weird sounds, and video effects that punctuate jokes made by and at the expense of Leone. Three years after it was published, it’s been viewed more than 2.9 million times on YouTube.
In the years since, It’s Alive With Brad went on to explore other fermented food items like cultured butter, sauerkraut, and kimchi. As viewership grew, it became the model for how Condé Nast learned to approach video online for its flagship culinary magazine. At first blush, it’s remarkable that Bon Appétit took its test kitchen manager and made him the face — and hands — of everything it represents in streaming video. But once you meet Brad Leone, you quickly learn he’s far more than a silly guy from New Jersey who specializes in fermentation.
To call Leone a celebrity chef would probably be inaccurate. He’s definitely internet famous, though, which is to say he’s instantly recognizable to a legion of people who have seen him on YouTube, gleefully fermenting things high above lower Manhattan. Tens of millions have watched his Bon Appétit videos, he has more than 600,000 followers on Instagram as of this writing, and he’s made appearances on non-BA shows like Hot Ones and Late Night with Seth Meyers. Bon Appétit’s videos have their own Twitter “out of context” account and inspired a meme page on Instagram with 235,000+ followers (the account’s picture is, of course, of Leone), while a certain segment of Reddit breaks down his episodes and crossovers into other BA test kitchen series. The Marvel Cinematic Universe of cooking, if you will.
Bringing Brad to the masses, however, bucked a considerable amount of conventional wisdom about what cooking looks like online, especially for a magazine like Bon Appétit. In a sea of top-down, fast-forwarded videos of dishes springing to life, the magazine’s offerings look strikingly different from the “hands and pans” videos that dominated Facebook feeds and have become memes of their own. Much of that has to do with Brad, and how quickly his quirky videos took off once they hit YouTube.
“Putting Brad in a conventional cooking show environment didn’t make any sense,” says Matt Duckor, vice president and head of programming lifestyle and style for Condé Nast. Duckor recalled a story I’d heard a few different times about Leone and other Bon Appétit staffers attending a “media training” run by a woman who was far from impressed by the beanie-clad kitchen manager. Each chef did a test video in a traditionally serious stand-up style. Leone called his “terrible,” and it was bad enough that he and Cross decided to try something different.
“People like hanging out with him. He’s always doing weird projects and stuff in the kitchen. Just go get a camera and follow him around,” Leone explains, detailing how the first It’s Alive With Brad was shot. Leone told me the kombucha episode “sat on a hard drive in someone’s drawer” for nearly a year until Matt Hunziker edited what became the first episode, full of floating “Brad Says” heads and text graphics reminiscent of Pop Up Video and Talk Soup.
“It almost never happened,” Leone says. “They were finally convinced, just put it out. Who cares? Take a risk. What’s the worst that can happen? No one watches it and we delete it. Can you delete things from the Internet? I don’t know.”
You can try, but Bon Appétit didn’t have to. The video became a cult hit on YouTube, carving its own lane in the “quirky” brand of cooking videos — which range from gross food challenges to amateur chefs carving out a following using humor and general weirdness. It’s a style that other companies are starting to mimic, too, passing the all-important “authenticity test” with flying colors. That it worked so well for Leone, however, speaks less to the power of Bon Appétit’s reputation and more for how much fun the host made it look to poke around in the test kitchen fermenting things. It’s Alive is a hangout show, perhaps more than even a cooking show.
In-person and online, Leone has a certain Newman-esque quality of natural affability. His thick northern New Jersey accent turns water to “wurder” and he often punctuates sentences with a quick two-part laugh. He uses filler words like “bing” and “bang” and “boom” that pop up, notated, on screen. A decade ago, he was a carpenter, working in construction and paving roads. He then “took a risk,” secured a loan to move to New York, and got into culinary school. He didn’t want to work in a restaurant, though, and took a Condé Nast internship after graduation.
Once the internship ran out, Leone learned the kitchen was restructuring and they’d need someone at the very bottom of the ladder. Dishes, sweeping, that sort of stuff. Over the course of nine years, he parlayed his low-level gig into the test kitchen assistant, then the kitchen manager when he started filming It’s Alive.
“I basically took a job as a glorified dishwasher and just kind of worked my way up.”
The BA kitchen itself — full of stainless steel tables and experimental appliances — has become a character all its own. Condé Nast has a full kitchen studio in Industry City in Brooklyn, but BA’s move to One World Trade in 2016 put their working test kitchen high above Manhattan. It became the natural location to shoot videos, often with other chefs working and interacting in the background — capturing a certain spontaneous and collaborative element.
“No one would ever think of it as a video shooting space,” Duckor says. “There’s floor to ceiling windows with uncontrollable light sources. But that just sort of adds to the realness of what we’re doing. People can see themselves popping into the test kitchen.”
In-person, the kitchen is far smaller than it looks on YouTube. The entrance is behind the refrigerator, and unseen behind the camera are a few conference rooms where BA photoshoots and other meetings take place. The run and gun vibe adds some element of surprise to what happens on camera and the editors seem all too ready for happy accidents.
“It’s really just a room for these people to all do what they do,” Duckor said. “There’s no real magic to it aside from these incredible people who work together every day.”
For Leone, that work is now shooting videos full-time. His popularity has allowed BA to expand It’s Alive, including a native streaming app with its content available beyond YouTube. With It’s Alive: Goin’ Places, the Brad show has gone on the road much more often, with longer runtimes and shooting in locations like a Sotol distillery in Texas and spearfishing in Hawaii. For Leone, the trips are fun, but they also provide an opportunity to do something he’s truly passionate about: telling the story of where our food comes from.
“At the end of the day I think food is a universal language, and so is humor,” he says. “Combining that with the educational and flecks of important stories and facts and situations that are happening revolving around the planet and the people… I think it’s great. It’s a great opportunity to flex that platform for not only me but Condé Nast and Bon Appétit to really, you know, have that kind of three-point punch of entertainment, fun, and educational stuff to really get behind some important stuff.”
Goin’ Places — complete with drone shots, well-edited musical cues, and interviews — feels miles removed from Leone spilling kombucha on the test kitchen floor. Which is good, because it’s much closer to the kind of show Leone wants to make. The jokes are still there and Leone is still himself, but the story is not about Leone’s journey as much as it is a spotlight on others doing interesting things with food and drink. Leone’s insatiable curiosity, captured in those first It’s Alive episodes, is at its most potent when he’s off seeing the world. Like the first video outside of the test kitchen, when he visited an oyster farm in Duxbury, Massachusetts, gleefully learning how responsible oyster harvesting and shucking happens in the real world.
“I was kind of lobbying for lack of a better word, ‘Hey, let’s go do these things,’” he says. “Because fermentation’s great but in my mind, I always wanted to tell those other stories. My dream is telling where food comes from and connecting people back to food. So I’m glad it progressively started to allow me to do that.”
It also takes a bit of the attention off of Brad, who is entirely unfazed by his online celebrity but doesn’t want to be the butt of every joke. The line between silly and mean can be thin, especially in the wilds of YouTube comment sections. Everyone I talked to for this piece was careful to note, no one is making fun of Brad… even if the videos often can look that way.
“All that stuff is the weird things that bounce around inside my head when I watch him do what he’s doing,” Matt Hunziker said at an It’s Alive event in Brooklyn last year. “I don’t think that if I hated Brad I could do it, because I have to spend most of my days listening to him talk through making pickles and stuff like that.”
For fans of Leone’s videos, even the mistakes are part of the charm. At an event premiering It’s Alive: Goin’ Places, a couple insisted on buying Leone some Lambrusco, a fermented wine that Brad once tried to make in glass bottles that were not fermentation grade and, subsequently, burst on contact.
“I opened it and glass turned to sand,” Leone said. “We’re talking full-on explosion.”
Leone had micro-cuts on his face and conceded that people really could have gotten hurt, but no one was roasting Leone when the couple shared the bottle. For many like them, Brad is the inspiration they need to dive into fermentation, or even just cooking for themselves in the first place. Still, though the host says he has a “pretty thick skin,” his initial reaction to the tone of It’s Alive wasn’t positive.
“At first it pissed me off,” he says. “I didn’t like the kombucha episode. It just made me look sloppy and yada, yada, yada.”
Leone admits his system back then was “pretty rough” and he’s refined the fabled Fermentation Station (everyone who has ever seen the show just reflexively heard a little “choo-choo!” sound in their head) considerably since then. But the show is about experimentation and learning, something Leone has embraced. And it does show him in a genuine light: extremely funny, willing to learn, and generally a person who makes things happen.
“We want a show that genuinely reflects Brad’s unique personality, what does that look like?” Duckor said. “It’s a show that keeps in all the accidents, all the mess-ups. And that went on to inform all of our content.”
If you look around other Bon Appétit videos, you’ll see Brad showing off a custom bow while Claire Saffitz attempts to make gourmet Peeps. Associate editor Alex Delany took on the entire menu of iconic New York taqueria Los Tacos No. 1. Bon Appétit even has its own Avengers-style show: Making Perfect, where all of BA’s on-camera talent attempt to make the perfect pizza. In these other series — which, it’s worth mentioning, have been criticized for featuring almost exclusively white hosts — the visual jokes are muted considerably, but the tone is extremely familiar.
“Only so many people are going to watch an amazing recipe get made by someone with skills that they don’t know,” Duckor says, using the “amazing” pastry chef Saffiz as an example. “But a lot of people will watch it in the context of her making a Twinkie from scratch. So I think it’s been that exercise of saying ‘What’s the core appeal of these people and what do we have to say as a brand about X. And what’s the format that we can kind of pair it with and bring it to a wider audience?'”
Leone had a far less institutional message in mind.
“I wanted to put the human element back in food,” he says. “When people make recipes at home things go wrong. People make mistakes. Things happen. I think that’s a more fun video to watch. And it turned out to be true.”
It’s why our introduction to Brad is him spilling kombucha on the floor. Other episodes are surprisingly honest about mixups and mistakes made by professional chefs. Claire and Brad have to make sourdough bread twice because it didn’t turn out right the first time. In an episode with Binging With Babish star Andrew Rea, they accidentally make miso BBQ sauce with a years-old can of expired peppers. Editing these parts out, however, would be the worst possible instinct. It’s Alive is a cooking show for an imperfect world, and Leone likes it that way.
“That’s life, man. And that’s cooking. And I feel like it’s really important to show that,” he says. “Everything you do isn’t going to be the cover. Sorry to tell the secret. I can get into fancy plating but I also like comfort food and good old-fashioned cooking. I like recipes but they’ve always been just inspirational guidance. Cooking should come from your soul. It should come from what you want to eat. What you’re craving. Listening to your body and not just A B C and D to get to G or whatever.”
Fittingly, Leone was on the cover of Bon Appétit in November, his hands and torso appearing behind a perfectly spiced and glazed Thanksgiving turkey. It was an unintentional reminder of what BA’s videos perhaps could have been without Leone, unidentifiable hands and pans making perfect dishes to be shared on social media. We might need a few extra paper towels in this Brad-inspired cooking universe, but it’s definitely made the kitchen much more fun.