Andrew Rea Tells Us How Binging With Babish Got Started - Exclusive Interview

It all started with the burger cookoff from "Parks and Recreation." And from there, several years and hundreds of episodes later, "Binging With Babish" creator Andrew Rea has continued mastering his craft while growing a brand. When the self-taught chef debuted his first YouTube video in 2016, he never could have imagined where it would take him. But it caught the internet by storm, immediately gaining traction with viewers asking for more. 

On Rea's "Binging With Babish" YouTube show, he recreates recipes from television shows and movies, along with inspiration from the odd video game. He's been giving curious foodies the answers about how fictional food items such as Krabby Patties from "Spongebob" or Sugar Chicken from "Rick and Morty" might be made in real life and how they actually taste. In addition, he offers tips, tricks, and recipes through one of his other shows "Basics With Babish."

But with over nine million subscribers (and counting), just how did Rea start and grow the Babish Culinary Universe into what it is today? We went straight to the source to find out. In an exclusive interview with Mashed, Rea dishes on the inspiration behind the show, the recipes he's most proud of, and he shares his advice on the most important tools anyone should have in their kitchen.  

Andrew Rea reveals the inspiration behind Binging With Babish

Let's start off with your background in cooking. Can you share a bit about how you learned to cook?

Well, my interest in cooking came from my mom. When I was very young, she would have me help make dinner, and then I would run out and say that I made dinner because I was a kid and I was an a**hole. She instilled an interest in cooking in me, and she passed away when I was very young. I took it up as a hobby in high school as a way to feel closer to her, and I have kept it up as a hobby since. And it was a hobby, right up until it became my job.

Where did the inspiration for the show come from?

Well, I was super depressed. I suffered from depression and anxiety, and I try to be very transparent about that. And I started going to therapy and getting the medication that I needed. With that came some more bandwidth to be creative and to make things again, things that I hadn't done in a long time as a film student and somebody who was an aspiring filmmaker at one point. And so with that bandwidth, I decided to start screwing around in my kitchen.

I wanted to see if I could get into food photography, and while I was just messing around and making a smoothie and testing out what would become the Babish torso angle, I background watched TV shows the way most people listen to music. I was background watching "Parks and Rec" and two of the characters were having a burger cook-off. And I was like, "Huh, I wonder what that would actually taste like." And then I realized, okay, I could try making a show where I make food from movies. And I never intended to make more than one episode.

It was just a creative exercise but it got 10, 20,000 views and a lot of really positive feedback. So I kept making it just as a passion project and as something I knew I was excited about it because I would stay up late working on it. As soon as I shot something, I would rip out the memory card and run over to my computer and start editing it immediately and I hadn't done that since college. So I knew I had something that was, at least, exciting for me and that anybody else wanted to watch it was a bonus.

Can you share a little bit about where the name came from for the show?

Yeah. Because it's kind of a dumb name and because it's proof of the accidental success. It's proof of the accidental success of the channel. I picked an arbitrary name. I named it after my Reddit handle, which is Oliver Babish, which is named after a very obscure character who appeared in eight total episodes of "The West Wing." I just picked a name quickly and without thinking about it too much because, again, this was a creative exercise for me. It wasn't something that I was trying to make into a thing, so the name didn't much matter. Of course, now five and a half years later, everybody thinks that's my actual name. It's printed out on cookware that's being sold around the world. It's a best-selling book. It's strange how things work out like that sometimes.

It's like an alternate persona for you.

Yeah. It's my pseudonym if you will.

Why do you prefer to show only your torso when filming? Where's that creative direction coming from?

Well with Binging and Basics, I only show my torso because I want to keep the focus on the food. I didn't want to make a cooking show that's half vlog, half cooking show, the way a lot of cooking shows were becoming on YouTube at the time. I think that trend has started to dial back some, which is great. I want to keep the focus on the food. That's why I wear a black apron, so the food pops and so you can see the steam coming off it and all that good stuff. And more recently I've been showing my face in my new shows, "Botched by Babish" and "Being with Babish" and a bunch of other shows. Today's episode, in fact, I have Michael Gandolfini joins me from "The Many Saints of Newark," – "The Sopranos" movie — and we do a live cook along with our faces fully visible.

Andrew Rea dishes on the growth of Binging With Babish and the recipe he's most proud of recreating

You've had this really awesome trajectory of growth from just starting with this creative idea and then going from there. At what point did you realize that the show was gaining enough momentum to make it your full-time gig?

Well, I didn't monetize it for the first year of making it. I wanted to use the copyrighted clips and music and everything that I wanted to use. I was being a creative little diva and I didn't want to change my, what I thought was my magic formula. And after a year, my friend and now business partner and co-founder Sawyer Jacobs convinced me to finally start monetizing the fruits of my labor. And I'm very glad he did because I think it was within four months, I was making more on YouTube than I was making at my full-time job. And that's the point when I decided to call it quits and try to pursue this as a full-time gig. So it was about the safest leap that anyone's ever taken because it was well ... [it] might as well have just been accepting another job with a higher pay rate, pretty much.

And what were you doing before you took that leap?

I was in visual effects. I worked for a very small company called Switch fx that my dear friends, the husband and wife team who I'm still very close with today, founded and I worked there for seven years.

Which recipes would you say you are most proud of being able to recreate?

I mean, we're hundreds of episodes in at this point, so it's very hard for me to pick favorites. I think the most satisfied I've ever been with the recreation was probably the Guacamole Sombrero from "Despicable Me 2," which I never thought I'd be able to do because I was like, "I have to deep fry ..." First, I have to figure out how to make a chip, the shape of a hat, and then I have to deep fry it. Somehow this is not physically possible.

But mostly with the incredible assistance of my kitchen producer, Kendall Beach, who just tested batch, after batch, after batch of different combinations of masa and flour, we eventually found a combination that worked and held its shape and was nice and crispy, like a chip. And it probably took the most R & D and it was something that wouldn't have been possible two years ago before I had a small staff. So it's a palpable example of how the company and how the brand and how the show's been able to expand and grow.

Andrew Rea shares the best and worst tasting items he's recreated on Binging With Babish

What would you say are the best and worst tasting items that you've recreated? What was the all-time most disgusting, and the most delicious?

So most disgusting, my mind immediately goes to milk steak from "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" which is a steak boiled in milk and covered with jelly beans. It's not even that it tasted that bad. If you get down to it, it's cooked meat and it's with jelly beans, which is weird but it's not going to make you throw up. It's just conceptually gross ... It looks gross ... It feels gross. So it's more of a mind over matter thing, and I don't have enough mind to get over that matter. But that's where my mind first goes in terms of recipes. I think the most disgusting thing I've ever had to eat on the show was dog food for Bachelor Chow from "Futurama." And that s*** tastes like rancid cheese. It's like the worst thing. And also just, I was eating dog food out of a dog bowl. It's demeaning and it's sensory torture. 

The best thing I think I've ever recreated, it's probably the Sugar Chicken from "Rick and Morty" because I was just making Panda Express off a joke that they were making about Panda Express, which is that, they have a dish called Sugar Chicken because their dishes are so sugary but so good. And I ended up using that joke to come up with what I think is a whole new original method to make orange chicken, which is an oleo-saccharum, which is basically when you mix citrus peel and sugar together, the sugar draws the essential oils out of the citrus peel, which is just packed with citrus flavor. And it's normally used for cocktails, but I used it in the chicken because the chicken needs so much sugar in the sauce that I was like, "Why not use the oleo-saccharum?" It ends up making orange chicken that actually tastes like orange, which I've not had before. Most orange chicken tastes like sugar and like fried chicken in a sweet tangy sauce, which is great. I'm not s******* on orange chicken, but this is the first time I've had orange chicken that really tastes like orange. And it was masterminded from a joke, from the source material, which I think is so romantic. It really makes me very happy creatively.

What is the most requested dish? Is there something that people just keep asking all the time for you to recreate?

I mean, at this point I've made all the most requested dishes that I've ever had but there are still a few outliers. One notably is from "Malcolm in the Middle." Reese makes a turkey stuffed inside a monkfish for Thanksgiving. And I probably have gotten the most requests for that. Of any dish that I have not done, that one's been the most requested. And I frankly refuse to do it because I'm going to ruin both the turkey and the monkfish. And I honestly don't know where to find a whole monkfish. It's probably thousands of dollars and it's four feet long, it's a huge fish and I'm going to ruin both. And I don't want to do that. So I've always said to myself, "That's the dish I'm going to make when I retire." That'll be the last episode of Binging.

Go out with a bang.

Go out with a bang and also just, I never have to do anything like that again.

These are the top 3 items Andrew Rea says you should have in your kitchen

What are the top three items that you think everyone should have in the kitchen?

Oh, boy. A good chef's knife is paramount. A good sharp chef's knife. A sharp knife is a safe knife and a chef's knife is about the most versatile tool that you can have in the kitchen. It's going to do the job of about 50 other gadgets. And once you master it ... and I've not mastered it, but once you're halfway decent at it, it does more in the kitchen than pretty much anything else. 

I like a 12-inch stainless steel, high-walled sauté pan. I think that's the most versatile piece of cookware. You could boil pasta in it, you could deep fry in it, you can sauté in it, you can sear in it, you can braise in it. I use it more than any other piece of cookware. I'm very happy to be releasing one in the very near future. It's a big old 12-inch skillet. And if you watch my videos, I use it in almost every episode. It's my favorite item of cookware.

And then, what I call a BFO or big f*** off cutting board. It's just the biggest cutting board you can feasibly fit in your kitchen because when we're setting up our kitchen, all of our first instincts are to go to Ikea and get the three-pack of plastic cutting boards. The smallest of which is ... I don't know what that's for. Is that for slicing olives or what the f***? It's like three inches by four inches. What good is that? But even the biggest one, if you try to cut a carrot on that, just see if any of the carrot stays on the cutting board. Having a big versatile work surface is very important in the kitchen and something that a lot of beginner cooks don't give enough credence to and it can really make your life a whole lot easier.

What was the inspiration behind your cooking line and why was it important to offer products that are at approachable price points?

Well, I mean, first off my show is about a doofus with a camera who managed to make a cooking show into his full-time job. I'm not a professional, and I've not been to culinary school. I've worked one day in a professional kitchen and I sliced my finger open so badly that they bandaged me up, made me finish the lunch rush, and then fired me on the spot, and I never got paid either. I basically gave them half a day of free labor but I did get blood everywhere, so that's my fault. 

But my inspiration to make the cookware line was first off, finally finding the right partner, which is Gibson USA. We had been approached by countless companies to start a cookware line. And it was either too small and too boutique and by extension, too expensive, or it was too big and too cheap. Merch is such a huge part of the YouTube economy and we didn't want to make merch. We wanted to make real tools. They might have my face stamped on them, but I wanted them to be functional and versatile, and durable. So finally, after four years of making the show, we hooked up with Gibson who has been in the business since the '70s. They make Chrissy Teigen's line. They make Martha Stewart's line. They know what they're doing, and everything that I asked for, nothing was met with, "Ah, that might increase costs." Or, "Ah, that might slow things down." Everything was, "Cool, okay." I would say things like, I want beveled edges on my pans so that nothing gets stuck in the corners. So if you're making a sauce, you don't get bits stuck in the corners that burn and I was expecting them to be like, "Ah, we ..." And immediately they were just like, "Okay, cool." And a new prototype was made. They just really worked with me to make things that I'm very happy with and that I think are a reflection of what I like to do and feel and see in the kitchen.

And we wanted the price point to be as approachable as possible because these are tools aimed at experienced chefs but also beginners. These are great ways to outfit your kitchen if you're wanting to step up your game or even if you're taking your first steps in the kitchen. That's what these things are great for.

Andrew Rea dishes on his experience being on Hot Ones and his all-time favorite sandwich

What was it like participating on "Hot Ones," and would you do it again?

I would absolutely do it again because I handled my spice, I think, better than I thought I was going to do. I could still talk and I wasn't pouring sweat or vomiting or crying or anything, which was really just a really nice surprise. Because I was really expecting to lose my s***. I do not eat that much spicy food but I'm very proud of myself that I was able to get through it and stay cognizant and aware. But as soon as we stopped rolling, I went into the green room and I had to lay down, I was motionless. My fiancé almost called an ambulance because my stomach was doing somersaults. That s***, when it hits your stomach, it is vile. It is poison. But that being said, I would absolutely do it again because not only is Sean another person that I've had on the show, who's become a close friend, but also he's the most amazing interviewer in the game. He is the most affable and informed and curious, genuinely curious, and effective interviewer I've ever had the pleasure of working with.

What's your all-time favorite sandwich?

People are usually really bored by my answer and I apologize. But when I eat a very, very messy, unhealthy, delicious, melty, wonderful sandwich, I generally feel like s*** for a day afterwards, so I can't give it my full blessing. The most balanced sandwich, I think, between healthy and unhealthy, tasty and not going to kill me afterwards, I think, is what I call a Turkey Ruth. It's basically just turkey, coleslaw, Swiss, and potato chips on marble rye. It is a simple, delicious, and not that terrible for you, sandwich. I might love Philly cheesesteaks but I've eaten about 10 times more Turkey Ruths than I have cheesesteaks, so I can't really call them my favorite, can I?

Andrew Rea dishes on his favorite guest on Binging With Babish

So who's been your favorite guest that you've brought on the show? You shouldn't pick favorites, but...

Oh, that's not fair. That's not fair. I have become very close friends with the vast majority of people who have come on my show. So it's like choosing a child. Joel McHale has become a wonderful friend. Michael Gandolfini, we've been friends for the past two years and we decided to do this episode today promoting "The Many Saint of Newark," of our own volition. Everybody thinks that the studio set it up to promote the movie. No, we just wanted to screw around and help promote his movie because I'm proud of him and I think he did a great job. But I really can't pick a favorite guest. I can't do it.

I've either learned a lot from or become very close friends with, or both, with virtually every person that's come on the show.

Is there somebody that you'd still really like to cook with on the show that you're still hoping to bring on?

Oh my God. I mean, name a name and I'll find a reason to get them on the show. Let's see. I'm trying to think of who I really want to call out right now, so I can actually make an effort to get them on the show. Dwayne, The Rock, Johnson. I'd love to see what The Rock is cooking. Sorry. I just love saying that. All my old Food Network idols. Alton Brown, and I still haven't had Chef John on my show, who is another YouTuber and who I learned a lot from. And somehow amazingly, still haven't had J. Kenji López-Alt on my show, who effectively taught me how to cook and we've become tight and we keep in touch. And there's a lot of people that I'd love to get on the show, big stars and giants in the food world alike.

And also, I'm not going to pick favorites, but maybe the most important and formative guest that I had on the show was absolutely, Jon Favreau. Not only did he give me the carving fork from the movie, "Chef," when he saw that I had a tattoo of it but he also, off-camera, he was like my sweet Hollywood uncle. He just gave me wonderful life advice and advice about what it means to be a storyteller and what it means to be making media that's being viewed by so many people. And what that responsibility looks like and feels like. And just the reverence with which to treat such a gift, and it echoes with me in everything that I do.

And you were invited on an episode of "The Chef Show" is that correct?

Correct. He tweeted at me when I hit a million subscribers saying, "Congrats" because he had seen a couple ... well, his kids made him watch my show. That's how virtually every famous person knows who I am, is their kids force them to watch my show. And so, he's no exception and he really appreciated how much care I put into trying to make a movie or show-accurate version of [the] food. I had just signed with William Morris at the time and I had my agent reach out to his agent. They were in the middle of shooting "The Chef Show" which at the time was an untitled project that he had just wanted to work on. He just loved food. He loved making the movie "Chef," and he wanted to build on that and he didn't know what he was going to do with it at the time. But he was like, "I'm shooting this thing, just come out and be in it and I'll be in yours." So I flew out to L.A. and it was one of the most magical days of my life.

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