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Popular YouTube chefs are becoming stars

Helen Rennie of Natick has seen her cooking school boosted by her posted videos.
Helen Rennie of Natick has seen her cooking school boosted by her posted videos.HELEN RENNIE/Helen Rennie

Joe Gatto has all the ingredients to succeed as a celebrity chef. The private chef and instructor is funny, exuberant, and cooks everything from scratch. Bacon? First, he breaks down a slaughtered pig. Mozzarella? He boils the milk and makes it himself, instructing, "Squeeze it like it owes you money."

The chef was a recent guest on an ABC-TV cable food show and has two self-made "From Scratch" videos under his belt. But what the Stoneham resident doesn't have is a "From Scratch" TV show, which is what he wants. "It's hard to get noticed. YouTube is not my thing," says Gatto. "It's a great format but we really want to take this to TV."

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Gatto, 45, may want to rethink YouTube. Everything that has to do with food is the fastest growing category on the Google-owned video-sharing website, which creates stars from the most popular food channels. Many have attracted enough viewers to augment their income through endorsements and by opting into Google's AdSense program, which manages ads for sites at no cost. A rarefied group has attained self-sufficiency, making six figures annually while also fielding cookbook and television show deals. Even those who sidestep advertising say the exposure broadens their audience base.

The statistics behind YouTube's interactive programming attest to its reach. In 2013, YouTube food channel subscriptions jumped 280 percent, with the top 20 culinary channels garnering 370 million views worldwide, according to YouTube data. Self-taught chefs are even outperforming professionals, says Kate Ritchie of OpenSlate, a New York-based video analytics company. Based on a range of metric scores, including influence, audience engagement, subscribers, and monthly views, OpenSlate ranks the current number one YouTube chef as Laura Vitale of "Laura in the Kitchen," starring a 27-year-old New Jersey dynamo. Jamie Oliver, the 39-year-old celebrity chef from the United Kingdom, is number five with "Jamie Oliver's Food Tube."

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YouTube videos are free. In their trailers, cooks and chefs urge viewers to click the red subscribe button on their channels for alerts and up-to-date episodes. "You're seeing this video because you've not subscribed to Food Tube! Why?" asks Oliver. "Food Tube is free, it's fantastic, and it's direct from me to you."

"The traditional way of reaching audiences was cookbooks, then TV, like Julia Child, cooking channels, and 24-hour networks," says Kelly Galvin, a YouTube spokeswoman. "You had to tune in but it wasn't on demand. Now you have chefs you can search, or ingredients you can search, and everyone is interacting. It's a global table of people connecting with food."

Vitale is a huge YouTube success story. One night in 2010, after some wine and the umpteenth discussion about starting her own show, Vitale made bruschetta in her basement kitchen. Her husband, Joe, filmed and uploaded the 9-minute video. It has been viewed more than 450,000 times. "Laura in the Kitchen" now has 800-plus videos, 1.3 million subscribers and more than 6 million monthly views. Early this month, The Cooking Channel launched the "Simply Laura!" series.

"I didn't think a single soul would watch our video," Vitale recalls. "The reason the show works is I'm the same person off and on the camera. When I film in the kitchen, I'm giddy, laugh at myself, and make no apologies for not being the most professional." She has no plans to leave YouTube, even as she expands her empire.

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Vitale's success can be attributed, in part, to consistent uploading of new content. "Someone who publishes a video once a year or once a quarter is not going to get a returning audience like someone spending time publishing every couple of weeks or a couple of times a week," says Ritchie. "That's when an audience is really engaged, and shares [video links] and comments."

Compared to Vitale, Helen Rennie, 37, of "Helen's Kitchen" is small fry with 4,433 subscribers and 52,000 monthly views. The Natick cooking instructor began uploading how-to videos four years ago, after students asked her to post a knife-skills demonstration. "My mother called in a panic: 'Are you an idiot? Who's going to pay you if you give away the videos for free?'  " Rennie recalls. "It hasn't hurt my business at all. In fact, it's helped."

Rennie has not sought advertising. "Your viewers might have to watch the advertisement first before the video," she says. "My core business is running a cooking school."

Google says the sharp rise in food programming popularity is being powered by millennials watching videos on mobile devices. That doesn't mean cooks have to be 18- to 33-years old. Christopher Kimball, 63, is the host of one of YouTube's most popular channels, "America's Test Kitchen." Videos uploaded by the Brookline-based magazine, book, TV, and radio empire include a 43-second segment on how to freeze pie dough, and a 24-minute show on Thanksgiving dinner. YouTube says program length is personal preference. Ritchie of OpenSlate says that anyone who has quality information and editing skills can upload a worthwhile, professional-looking show.

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Chef Joe Gatto of Stoneham avoids YouTube; he wants a TV show. Gattoplans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to finance one season of “From Scratch.”
Chef Joe Gatto of Stoneham avoids YouTube; he wants a TV show. Gattoplans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to finance one season of “From Scratch.”Peggy Hernandez for the boston globe/Peggy Hernandez

This is where Joe Gatto has a unique advantage. Gatto and his wife, Carey, used to work in Hollywood on short films and music videos. Their friends are directors, producers, cinematographers, and film editors. "We know preproduction is where you make your show," Gatto says. "We know the story is in the editing room. We know how to make something visually attractive."

Yet Gatto is flummoxed by his lack of traction. One reason may be the public's inability to view videos on his "From Scratch" site. Gatto's lawyer advises him to keep the shows private until he has a television deal.

While filming a guest appearance on "My Family Recipe Rocks" for ABC-TV's Live Well Network that aired last month, a producer suggested Gatto upload videos to YouTube. Gatto says he's considering the option. In the meantime, he plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign to finance one season of "From Scratch," hoping 13 shows will help land that elusive TV contract.

Gatto may first want to heed Oliver's online message. In his "Food Tube" welcome, the British chef proclaims: "Tell us what's cool and what you want to see. Then we'll get right on it. You won't get that kind of service on the telly."


Peggy Hernandez can be reached at
mphernan1@gmail.com.