Food creators are influencing what and how people cook.
Marissa Mullen is the proud owner of the “Salami River” trademark. Aside from Salami Rivers™, watermelon radish roses, and honey-coated baked brie help Mullen (@thatcheeseboard) get out of bed in the morning. Mullen considers herself as a “cheese board influencer” and the founder of the “Cheese by Numbers” method, which breaks down how to make a cheese board in a simple, approachable manner.
When you log on to TikTok, it is hard not to see cheese boards adorned with edible flowers and cornichon. “Food TikTok” has taken over the app by spice storm and is changing what, why, and how we cook.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of people have found themselves more frequently at home and in the kitchen. Remote working has translated to increased flexibility and a heightened opportunity to get creative with home cooking. And the trend for simple and inspiring recipes has skyrocketed. TikTok has acted as a sous chef to the app’s 689 million users worldwide through food creators incorporating on-hand ingredients while inspiring a Gen-Z audience.
Mullen’s story is like many food creators whose side hustle has turned into their main gig. Before becoming a full-time cheese board influencer, Mullen was the creative coordinator for musician Jon Batiste and worked for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert as a house band coordinator. She swapped the music industry for dijon mustard and whipped ricotta.
Her aesthetic TikTok videos of cheese boards with captions like “cool tones and cucumber curls” set to songs you would find in third-wave coffee shops have helped her earn over 186,000 followers and over three million likes on the app.
Julia Child pioneered food media with one of the first food shows in America, “The French Chef.” Over 58 years later, since the show’s first airdate, people now get their recipes and cooking inspiration in a 60-second format from their smartphones, with the average user spending 45 minutes on TikTok per day.
“What keeps me coming back to Food TikTok are the aesthetics, the effort, the production value, and the convenience,” says Kenneth Barrist, an avid, Gen-Z viewer of food videos on TikTok.
Two of the biggest Food TikTok pioneers are Tabitha Brown (@iamtabithabrown) and Jessica Woo (@sulheejessica). Each has nearly five million followers. Brown has amassed 80 million likes on her videos that highlight vegan eats, while Woo has accumulated 175.5 million likes for her bento box inspired lunches.
Then there is Vivian Aronson (@cookingbomb) who has created approachable takes on traditional dishes that have inspired a young generation to cook differently. Merging the East and the West, Aronson shows her 1.7 million followers on TikTok to make Sichuan food, which is the region Aronson grew up in China.
At 25, she moved to the United States, where she met her now-husband. Aronson loves to mix Western food flavors with those from the East, like Sichuan peppercorn. Her followers are obsessed with learning about her Chinese dishes with a Western twist. Aronson’s hand-pulled cabbage has earned her over six million views. But the videos that show Aronson explaining what to buy at Asian markets are the reason she earned a book deal. She never really thought about how non-mandarin speaking followers do not know what to buy at the markets because Chinese is her first language. And it is easy for her to decipher which brand is better than the other because she can read where the products are from. Spoiler: she recommends you choose anything from Sichuan.
“I didn’t realize that other people have no idea what to get from the Asian market, so I started making videos about what to get,” Aronson explains. “Now, I have a cookbook coming out called ‘Asian Market Cookbook.’”
Jenny Martinez (@jennymartinezzz) also incorporates her culture into her food content. She likes tajin more than anyone else in the world, whether it be in the form of a michelada or on watermelon. Martinez has found notoriety on TikTok through her Mexican-inspired dishes like quesabirria taco, where she incorporates the relatively new birria taco and adds in a twist through the viral pocket quesadilla trend.
In 2020, birria tacos took over TikTok by ancho chile storm. Instead of the corn tortilla being used as a vehicle to scoop up the classic Jalisco meat stew, the tortillas are filled with shredded marinated meat, dipped in the traditional stew base, folded, and then fried on a griddle to crispy perfection. The stew base is then served alongside the fried tacos so that the tacos can be dipped in it.
Viral videos similar to birria tacos showcase the history of dishes, and re-inspired takes on the traditional recipes have helped educate millions about other people’s culture. People have become inspired to try new cuisines and embrace a more culturally diverse palette.
“I’ve definitely been influenced culturally, like Indian food, for example,” says María Fernanda Ramos-Francia Ylizaliturri, a student at Syracuse University. “All of these ingredients that I thought were inaccessible are actually really easy to find. And I like how these dishes on TikTok are traditional or similar to what people have in their countries — they aren’t Americanized.”
On the other side of Food TikTok are creators who take a nutrition-based approach when it comes to motivating people to cook. Ilana Muhlstein started her account @nutritionbabe because she wishes she had the resources TikTok has given Gen-Z. As a teen, she went on a 100-pound weight loss journey and, now at 31, has been able to keep the weight off. As a registered dietitian with an established practice, Muhlstein started creating videos on TikTok to help teens understand various food swaps that translate to lower calories and higher protein.
One of her more recent videos known as “cloud bread pizza” has been watched about 770,000 times. The difference with this personal-sized pizza is that it only contains 210 calories and 29 grams of protein versus the near 600 calories and 26 grams of protein a personal pan pizza may have. Some of her other well-known videos show various ways to enjoy snack plates like guacamole with sides for different health goals.
Although diet cooking hacks have been around for many years and have circulated every social media platform, the difference with TikTok is how participatory the app is. So while a switch to cucumbers from crackers is not a new calorie hack, the way viewers can interact with the content through recreating dishes themselves and TikTok’s iterative nature is one of the most significant influential factors of the app and “is all about how you put your own spin on it,” says Danielle Kleiner-Kanter, director of the Hartman Group.
A significant side to understanding TikTok food creators’ influence on what and how people are cooking is through aesthetics. If you have heard Woo’s signature line, “let’s make some lunch for my kids,” you have seen her videos making meals such as tuna onigiri. Unless your mom turned turmeric rice and hand-cut circles out of seaweed into Pikachu, then you will wish you were one of Woo’s daughters.
“I can usually guarantee that those videos will go viral,” Woo says.
Woo was initially surprised to see the first video of her making lunch for her kids go viral because of how it is an everyday task for her. According to Kleiner-Kanter, qualitative research through observing internet trends, food magazines, and social media helps people understand how social media influences food culture and how these factors translate to how TikTok inspires users to cook. Kleiner-Kanter explains that TikTok reflects trends within society and disseminates what we value and food culture.
Understanding the difference between long-term trends and short-term fads is also crucial in recognizing how TikTok influences millions of people. Superfood smoothies and chickpea cookie dough are foods, for example, that have risen in popularity because of their relation to the overarching health and wellness trend of clean eating.
The same concept applies to #FetaPasta and the pocket quesadilla that infiltrated TikTok. These dishes serve as a fad because of how they grow to viral fame in a matter of hours, remain in the hot seat for a month, and then slowly fade away. While #FetaPasta rose to baked, cheesy fame in February 2021 and left its mark in the Food TikTok world, it went as quickly as it gained notoriety. Although #FetaPasta is looked back on as a “remember when,” according to Kleiner-Kanter, what will stay is the idea behind the dish and the motivation that makes it viral.
“When something goes viral, TikTok is going to show a lot of people that information,” Kleiner-Kanter says.
Instead, the reason a dish goes viral is not the dish itself but the underlying trend of home cooking, for example. Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 54 percent increase in home-cooked meals. This increase in at-home cooking coupled with the long-term trend of consumer demand for convenient food furthers the impact TikTok has on individual cooking habits. That is a big reason why #FetaPasta went viral with over 924 million views. The dish only takes 45 minutes to make and requires four to seven ingredients depending on the spice direction you want to take your #FetaPasta.
“As a college student, I tend to order takeout a lot and just go out to eat because I feel like cooking takes up so much time, and I’m always so tired at the end of the day,” says Ramos-Francia Ylizaliturri. “These videos have definitely influenced me to start cooking more because so many of the recipes are so easy and so quick.”
Some people may roll their eyes when they hear another Gen-Z youth talking about TikTok, but the reality is that the social media app has staying power and influences human behavior. Whether it be Salami Rivers™, vegan eats, bento box lunches, birria tacos, cloud bread pizza, or #FetaPasta, Food TikTok inspires a new generation of home chefs.
Aesthetically adorned cheese boards are only the entry point into the Food TikTok world. The participatory nature of the app has allowed new and old chefs alike to find innovation in their kitchens and take to their phones to film their creations.
The coronavirus pandemic has turned even the worst at-home chefs into, at the very least, potential brunch heroes, proving that through one 60-second video at a time, anyone can cook.
*follower and view counts are accurate to May 2021