Andrew Rea is having the time of his life. The YouTube chef is the torso — and sometimes face — of Binging With Babish, the show that takes food from TV shows and movies and recreates them in real life. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes it’s an abomination, but every Tuesday, his fans are treated to real-life twists on fictional dishes.
The show has gained a gigantic following online, and folks online clamor for episodes about foods from their favorite pieces of pop culture.
Babish — named after obscure West Wing character named Oliver Babish — now cooks for a living online, has his own cookbook, and is working with brands to turn his love of the kitchen into a career. In talking with him, it’s easy to see how the show has become such a hit.
Rea is funny, extremely relatable, and easygoing. Hired by Frank’s Hot Sauce to come up with some special recipes for sports fans, he used the culinary improvisation Binging with Babish is known for to deliver a few tasty, and surprising, dishes. When we spoke to Rea, he was coming off a photo shoot with some decidedly inedible versions of his own dishes.
“I’m excited to dig into this food,” Rea said of the clanging buffet carts rattling by. “I’ve been around all this photo food that you can’t eat because there’s, like, nail polish on it and stuff.”
As I said, he’s funny. He was also very familiar with Buffalo-style hot sauce, like Frank’s — it’s part of his origin story.
“You’re goddamn right,” Rea said when I mentioned his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., a short drive from the birthplace of the chicken wing. Over the next twenty minutes, Rea talked with Uproxx about hot sauce, a regional delicacy known as garbage plates, and his contractually obligated rooting interests when it comes to football. The Frasier superfan also touched on the challenges of making YouTube a full-time job, the difficulties that come with life in New York City, and which dishes may or may not have tried to kill him.
I know you’re familiar with Frank’s Hot Sauce because you’re from Rochester, but these three recipes you made using the hot sauce with different recipes is something a bit different. What was the goal here?
Well, I was super excited to partner with Frank’s and they asked me to come up with some outside the box Buffalo game day recipes. I love parm stuff, I love bacon stuff, and I love rib stuff. So these are things that I hadn’t really seen buffalo sauce put on before and it turns out it works pretty swimmingly, just like most things.
You seem like the perfect person to bring on when it comes to experimentation with a food product, given how much you improvise on Binging With Babish. What are some things you’ve learned about that from making the show?
The show really requires some flexibility and agility in terms of figuring out those solutions. Usually, there are some big gaps that I need to fill, some things that need to be figured out. That’s one of the complexities of the show and it came in handy trying to figure out some unique recipes today.
So you’re a huge Frasier fan, which anyone can tell just by watching the show’s first few episodes. I know you have a big Frasier episode that’s somewhere in your graveyard, too. It seems the show is having kind of a moment with younger people discovering it on streaming sites like Netflix and getting back into it. How happy does that make you?
It’s extremely exiting for me. I’m very happy Frasier is having a moment, I’d like to go ahead and take credit for my role in that movement. I have a Frasier tattoo, I’m not sure if you’re aware of that. It’s the Seattle skyline from the show’s opening credits.
It’s one of my favorite tattoos because then people come up to me and say, “Oh you’re from Seattle!” and I can say, “I’ve never been to Seattle.”
It seems like the next logical thing for you to do is to go there and … I don’t know how many other TV shows are based there but you have to see what you can work with for some new episodes.
Well, then I wouldn’t be able to tell that joke!
That’s fair. That’s a good point.
But I’m dying to see Seattle because I love coffee and I love rain and I love Frasier. It’s kind of Mecca for me.
So when you started the show you’re using kind of a stage name, which was a reference to The West Wing. But now that the show’s so big, do you kind of wish you attached your name to it? Or did the anonymity help you find your footing?
There was definitely some allure to the anonymity because I didn’t show my face until I hit a million subscribers. I think there was definitely some allure there and that might have played a role. But I do wish I could go back in time because I picked that name very arbitrarily and now it’s my entire brand identity.
How big of a West Wing guy were you? Do you wish you picked a Frasier character?
It’s borderline. I wanted to have a very obscure character and that is an extremely obscure character. I believe he appeared in four episodes in the entire series.
So in some of these episodes, you’re spending a lot of money, and more than that, you’re putting a lot of time into making them. It seems like it takes a lot of work to go from a fun joke in a TV show or movie to something that’s palatable. Does that become a headache for you or do you like the challenge of trying to make these things work?
I absolutely love the challenge. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m excited to tackle things that I’ve never made before, typically. If you’re watching me cook on the show you’re watching me make something I’m making for the first time, because I always shoot it just in case it comes out right.
So you’re generally seeing me make something for the first time ever, like when I made dumplings recently, from Spider-Man. That was the first time for me. I have an upcoming Super Bowl episode where I’m going to make some chicken wings, lollipop-style buffalo wings — that was my first time trying to do this sort of modernist buffalo wing where you cut around the bone and scrape the meat off so you can eat it all in one bite. That was very much a first for me.
So you’re from Rochester, and I know the area very well — I grew up in Niagara Falls. But I’ve never had a garbage plate. So this is your civic duty to explain to the rest of the world what a garbage plate is and why Rochester loves it.
The garbage plate is a, I would call it a national icon. I would call it the beating heart of a nation. The garbage plate is … I know where it was invented, at Nick Tahou’s, but I don’t know why it was invented. (laughs)
It’s a real mishmash of greasy fast food and carbs that, boy oh boy is it good. You don’t really understand it until you’ve had one. I think that should be Rochester’s new slogan: You don’t really understand it until you’ve tried it.
It’s kind of like Wegmans. Everybody who hasn’t had Wegmans before is baffled by people like me that are preaching the good word of Wegmans. They’re like, “How can you love a grocery store so much?” You gotta try it. You gotta go there and see it for yourself, and every single person that’s gone there for the first time agrees with me instantly. It’s a magical place.
Trust me, friend. I completely understand. Unfortunately, I live in Boston now. Which has Wegmans but none of them are close to mass transit.
I feel you, man. I live in New York City so there’s no Wegmans around here.
There was some talk of one showing up in Brooklyn, right?
It should be opening this year, but it is in Brooklyn Navy Yard, so it might as well be in another state.
The cooking community on YouTube seems really supportive and is full of characters. You’ve had a few different YouTubers on your show but I had to ask about Brad Leone from Bon Appetit. Was he as charming and funny in real life as he comes across in the test kitchen?
He’s exactly the same person as he is on the show. There’s zero difference — when the camera starts rolling he continues being Brad. He’s a force of nature, and I’m very excited to see what he does in the coming year.
What’s the transition been like for you to make Binging With Babish your full-time job? I know you had a creative job before this, but making the leap to doing this full time must have been a big change.
It’s been amazing. Every day is a dream. This is my dream job. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked but I’m loving every minute of it. I’m probably working twice as many hours as when I was doing the full-time job, and I haven’t felt tired from it yet because it’s enlivening. It’s an absolute dream come true.
There have been some challenges, mostly on the business side of things. I’m not a businessperson, I’m a creative person. So it’s been a little hard for me to be a businessman. But I’ve got some amazing partners that are helping me out and we’re trying to make things as big as possible.
When you’re coming up with ideas for the show, are you finding things on your own or are fans giving you the majority of your ideas? How much of these are things you want to make or are you satisfying the demands of others?
I’d say that like 75 percent of the ideas are from the audience, which is amazing. It’s amazing to have a show concept that essentially feeds itself. Half of the comments are people saying what they want to see in the next episode. It makes it a lot easier for me.
But there are times it’s easier to just jump in and make what I want to make. This week’s episode is a good example of that, because I wanted to make some quick and easy appetizers and I wanted to show how to make puff pastry quickly with some puff pastry cheats. So I had to dig a little bit to try and find a reference that works for that. That’s where the 25 percent comes from, where I just sort of … I sometimes make something that nobody asked for.
The past two weeks are a perfect example. This week nobody was asking for those weird appetizers a character mentioned on Bob’s Burgers — they’re not even burgers. But the next week is something that everybody was asking for, almost every episode has a comment asking for Creme De La Creme A La Edgar from The Aristocats. I honestly dismissed it because my foggy childhood memory told me it was just dipping some crackers into water. But it turned out to be pretty interesting.
The business part of this is fascinating because, from a marketing standpoint, it’s kind of a perfect show. You’re starting on your own but when you attach these big shows to what you’re doing, there’s already this fanbase you can tap into to get attention for what you’re doing. At what point did you realize you could really turn the show into something?
I really had the first indication that I should really apply myself and make the show into something was the first episode that kind of got some attention. The Moistmaker from Friends, that got kind of reblogged a few times. I believe you guys wrote about it.
It netted me a few tens of thousands of subscribers and I thought, “OK, time to start doing this every week.”
This is a very specific question, but in the Banana Pudding Pizza and Arrested Development special episodes, you don’t eat some of the dishes because of a nasty banana allergy. However, in the Rachel’s English Trifle episode, you put bananas in and appear eat them. So what’s the deal?
I’ve featured bananas in a few things. Yes, Arrested Development was the first time I talked about my banana allergy. Which I’m not entirely sure is a thing. It’s a long story. I’ve gone into anaphylactic shock twice. I’m sorry I’m going to make this long … OK, this is too involved. Suffice to say, I’ve had some allergy scares. … But I didn’t to eat any of that stuff.
One last thing: what’s the one thing you’d say to buy if someone’s putting together their first kitchen? Maybe something that you might find particularly useful but not consider.
Big cutting board and a really good knife. You need a sharp knife and a really big cutting board.