A couple months ago, a colleague dropped a link into the food and recipes Slack channel at work, a place where I like to hang out in lieu of actually working. “I recently started watching this Bon Appétit video series. Really smart and really fun,” he wrote, entirely underselling what I would soon discover to be the best thing on YouTube, or for that matter, the internet.
The video, titled “Pastry Chef Attempts to Make Gourmet Pop-Tarts,” was exactly what it purported to be: a faithful (some might say exhaustive) documentation of Bon Appétit food editor Claire Saffitz’s four-day effort to replicate Pop-Tarts, the frozen breakfast pastries that were a staple of many a millennial childhood. Saffitz ends up producing a far superior version of the treat, though the perversity of the task — to bake fresh a frosted pastry that must be able to survive the toasting process in order to convincingly mimic a mass-produced food item that you toast in order to approximate the freshly-baked quality of an actual pastry — is not lost on her. “In the homemade version, does it have to be able to toast?” Saffitz asks two of her Bon Appétit colleagues, hopefully, in the beginning of the video, which is 34 minutes long and has upward of 5 million views. The answer is an unequivocal “yes,” and Saffitz rolls her eyes. “I think that’s total nonsense.” Nevertheless, she persists. The final product involves fresh strawberries and sprinkles made of smashed-up dehydrated icing — and yes, it toasts.
The video is part of a series called "Gourmet Makes," which presents Saffitz with the often Sisyphean task of recreating popular junk food: Snickers, Pop Rocks, Sour Patch Kids, Doritos. It may be my favorite cultural discovery of 2019. And I’m not alone. Though the series debuted in 2017, it experienced a crest of media attention this year. The show was praised in the New York Times and Jezebel. Saffitz, who went to Harvard, was the subject of a feature in The Boston Globe and an extensive profile on the website Man Repeller. The show was treated to a delightfully thorough Vulture post ranking all of its existing episodes. “At this point,” Vulture contributor Louis Peitzman wrote in the introduction, “ 'Gourmet Makes' is less instructional video and more legitimate web series, with all the drama, surprises, and rich character arcs of prestige television.”
He’s not wrong. "Gourmet Makes" is part of what critics have begun to refer to as the “Bon Appétit cinematic universe,” a vast, interconnected collection of shows anchored by the staff of the food publication’s test kitchen in New York City. The videos owe much to the unfiltered charm of the characters and their interpersonal dynamics: the neurotic precision of deputy food editor Chris Morocco, who, someone points out at least once an episode, is a supertaster; the dry wit of food director Carla Lalli Music, who subtly roasts celebrities’ valiant efforts to cook on her show “Back-to-Back Chef”; the distractible exuberance of “It’s Alive” host Brad Leone, who frequently appears in Saffitz’s videos as the encouraging, yet oddly critical, foil to her depressive perfectionist. “Now, take this the right way,” he says after tasting Saffitz’s Gushers, with the look of a man about to bestow a backhanded compliment. “I think you did a better job than I thought you were gonna do.” To which Saffitz replies, “Thank you! I like being underestimated. Then you come out on top.”
None of this would land quite so well — or even make it into the final cut — were it not for the loose, irreverent style of the videos. The setup of "Gourmet Makes" is something of a gimmick, evoking cooking challenge shows like "Iron Chef" and "Chopped," but the Bon Appétit video team films it more like a documentary, following their subject in her meanderings through the kitchen and catching unexpected moments of chaos in the background — usually a test kitchen chef accidentally setting something on fire. A cheeky editing style provides a kind of meta-commentary to the proceedings. There’s sad piano music whenever Saffitz recalls past failures, and her exasperated sighs are cut for maximum dramatic effect. Self-referential moments that might otherwise have landed on the cutting room floor point winkingly to the absurdity of the show, and how it is structured to produce a relentlessly optimistic can-do attitude in its host, whatever her true feelings. "I'm gonna call it quits," Saffitz jokes to Leone after a batch of nougat goes awry. “That’s not the Claire we know and love!” he exclaims, to which she quips, “That’s not the show.”
All of this allows us to see Saffitz as she truly is: exacting and inventive, anxious and emotional. Though she chafes against the show’s uncompromising premise, you get the sense that she would persist anyway, because it’s just in her nature. If she’s going to spend two days trying to recreate Warheads, she may as well strive to make them perfect. How to get the sour hard candies into the desired shape, like a flying saucer with a flat equator? First Saffitz fires up a power rotary tool and attempts to buff them into submission. Then she is struck by inspiration. She gasps. “This is maybe the best idea I’ve ever had,” she says, eyebrows rising. Taking an aluminum baking sheet from her workstation, Saffitz places it on the stove top and turns on the burner. She rolls a candy across the surface, and voilà: the heat melts its sharp circumference into a squared edge. It’s an elegant, unexpected solution, producing a feeling of elation all the more satisfying for being so rare.
Something about Saffitz evokes intense adulation in her fans. Her moods are just so transparent, her moments of triumph so pure. “I want you to know I can accept zero criticism right now,” she tells Morocco at a particularly trying juncture in the Kit Kats episode, and truly, no TV personality has ever said anything so relatable. Saffitz possesses neither the media-trained poise of a television star nor the canny brand awareness of an Instagram influencer. “I would die for Claire from the Bon Appétit test kitchen,” her fans are fond of saying — a twist on the run-me-over-with-a-car meme favored by young people on the internet to express attraction to their favorite stars. The devotion of Saffitz’s fans is violent and self-negating as well, but also protective. They instinctively recognize that their idol's ordinariness makes her particularly vulnerable online, where the fickle winds of favor can turn against even the most beloved figure at any moment. They also know that Saffitz will never think as highly of herself as they do. She’ll always be too hard on herself, which, of course, is precisely why she’s so good.
While I was preparing to write this article, one of my colleagues pointed out that "Gourmet Makes" is really about the creative process. “That’s why so many people want to write about it,” he said. And indeed, here we are. Saffitz’s grueling attempts to make Pop Rocks and Cheez-Its remind me of a much more dynamic version of my own writer’s block. “But isn’t it about the journey,” you ask, “and the friends we make along the way?” That may be true for the viewer, but for a creative, the final product is the main source of satisfaction in any endeavor, since the process itself is rarely pleasant. There are moments in "Gourmet Makes" when the whole enterprise resembles nothing so much as torture. The Twix episode almost breaks Saffitz. She slumps on a stool, felled by chocolate that set too quickly, her face a picture of defeat. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Saffitz snaps when the director asks her to describe what went wrong. They call her the host of "Gourmet Makes" but it’s hard to shake the feeling that she’s actually its victim.
Sometimes, though, everything goes right, and Saffitz sails through the challenge like a marathoner in the first mile. Take the Ruffles episode. Her first attempt is pretty close, and after that it’s mainly a matter of finding a mandoline sharp enough to reliably cut a potato into ridged slices. “I don’t want a challenge for the next one,” Saffitz says at the end of the episode. “Let’s just do more like this.” But she seems haunted. The Ruffles were a little too easy. “Is it better to not work that hard and not be that satisfied, or to work really hard and be exhausted and somewhat more satisfied?” Saffitz muses, her voice faltering, as if she’s not sure she’s been even somewhat satisfied by her work, ever. “I don’t know. Basically, there’s no way to win on this show.” For a brief moment, her face flickers with a dark realization — the knowledge, perhaps, that there is no meaning in life without struggle, and that the struggle is rarely justified by the outcome.
Her colleagues seem to appreciate her efforts, at any rate. “Oh my god, Claire,” test kitchen manager Gaby Melian says, at a loss for words after tasting one of Saffitz’s sour cream and onion chips. Next to her, senior food editor Andy Baraghani chews blissfully. “The crunching sound is making me feel good,” Saffitz says, seeming, for a moment, gratified.