Alton Brown was nearly three months into quarantine when he decided to get adventurous. The chef and host of Food Network staples like “Good Eats” and “Iron Chef America” was preparing curry with his wife when they realized they didn’t have any rice on hand. Instead, they turned to an unlikely substitute — oatmeal, mixed with heaps of ghee and turmeric — to pull together their savory dish.
“That’s probably not something I would have done pre-quarantine,” admits Brown. “At this point, I’m looking at everything in the kitchen a little differently.”
A license to get creative is emblematic of Brown’s spontaneous nature on “Quarantine Quitchen,” a new YouTube series he created with his wife while sheltering at home. Since ingredients are scarce and people are exercising more caution about going to the grocery store, the coronavirus pandemic has given the general public a renewed appreciation for cooking. And celebrity chefs have been at the forefront of the at-home culinary revolution, guiding America through the global crisis by livestreaming cooking classes, offering tips and tricks on Instagram Live and engaging with fans on Twitter.
More than 100,000 viewers tune in to Brown’s weekly series, where the couple sips cocktails, occasionally break out a guitar to strum a few tunes and challenge each other to create a dish based on random ingredients scraped together from the refrigerator and pantry. “Quarantine Quitchen” gives an unvarnished look at one of the most popular celebrity chefs in rare form, bantering with his wife and throwing around the occasional four-letter swear word while he performs the seemingly impossible task of assembling an edible meal from tamarind candies, pumpkin puree, kale and coconut milk.
“What people are responding to, besides just the food, is the reality of a couple at home,” Brown says. “There is something very appealing about that live aspect and the feeling that anything can happen. If somebody drops an f-bomb, which occasionally happens in my house, it’s not going to be edited. We’re gonna drink while we cook. Sometimes we have to go to the refrigerator, and guess what? The refrigerator looks horrible, just like yours. And guess what? Sometimes there are dishes piled on the sink, just like your house.”
With live sports on hold, movie theaters shuttered and vacation plans scrapped as COVID-19 continues to span the globe, it’s unsurprising that people have turned to food as a diversion. Yes, we need it to survive. But culinary experts point out that it provides a level of comfort beyond mere sustenance.
“I’m always intrigued — I’ll use that word — by people who tell me they don’t give a shit about food. I always call bullshit,” says Antoni Porowski, the resident foodie on Netflix’s “Queer Eye.” “As soon as you start talking to somebody about what their childhood was like, there’s always some kind of a tradition, whether it’s a special holiday or a weekly family ritual of Sunday night dinners. There’s a sentimentality. Food can be so comforting.”
Viewers aren’t just looking to celebrity chefs for entertainment. Because restaurants have been closed and there are mouths to feed, many people who are not accustomed to cooking three meals each day, every day — must feed not only themselves but their families. So they’re turning to the pros for guidance.
At first, Porowski used social isolation to test complex recipes he hadn’t had time to crack while filming “Queer Eye.” But he realized that near-empty grocery stores would make that difficult. So he decided to showcase a Tex-Mex omelet, complete with salsa and sour cream. “A lot of people commented, ‘We haven’t had eggs in our grocery store for over a week,’” he recalls. Considering that feedback, Porowski came up with a recipe for chicken tenders, supplanting egg wash with a yogurt marinade.
“I would look at the comments every day as I post videos and just try to tweak recipes because of the experiences at grocery stores,” Porowski says. “It made me reposition my thinking. What else are people missing in different parts of the country?”
Padma Lakshmi, the host of “Top Chef,” has taken to Instagram to give her nearly 800,000 followers a step-by-step breakdown of how to prepare everything from lasagna to baby back ribs. Her young daughter, Krishna, frequently lends a hand in the kitchen.
“It’s a teaching moment for a lot of people who are intimidated by cooking,” Lakshmi says of her social media feed. “One thing I try to do in my videos is to show that everything is replaceable, especially in this time where the rules of cooking should be more fluid.”
That kind of flexibility is helpful, since people who have been at home since March are tired of turning to the same recipes.
“One thing I try to do in my videos is to show that everything is replaceable, especially in this time where the rules of cooking should be more fluid.”
“I don’t think we can make assumptions that Americans — even those who know how to cook — can make 20 to 30 meals in a row without taking a break by grabbing takeout,” says Alex Guarnaschelli, who hosts the Food Network series “Supermarket Stakeout” and frequently appears on shows like “Beat Bobby Flay,” “Iron Chef” and “Chopped.” “What you’re going to make, and how you’re going to put it all together, can be very anxiety producing, especially for people with lots of kids and people who lost work.”
On Twitter, Guarnaschelli routinely interacts with her 673,000 followers, who come to her for advice on how to beautify cakes (“Make a ganache or buttercream frosting that covers up any little flaws”), seasoning fish (“Salt, pepper, lemon. Maybe some oregano? Keep it simple”) or saving over-salted risotto (“Add mascarpone cheese or reduced cream”). For kitchen novices, or even those trying to spice up everyday meals, it’s like having your own chef on speed dial. Guarnaschelli says it provides a boost of confidence.
“I think that’s why so many people turn to chefs and say, ‘Can I do this?’ People are realizing that if they make a mistake, it might end up being delicious too,” she says. “I’ve made some great dishes by accident. I’ve made many awful ones, by the way.”
Such missteps can be forgiven, especially in quarantine, where a lack of ingredients can force people to be more creative than they’d normally like. Some are resorting to combing through their cabinets for anything edible. Others are finding that staples, like butter and flour, are nowhere to be found, and they need a substitute. That’s been the inspiration behind a new series from Porowski called “Show Me What You’re Working With.” In the Netflix show, Porowski asks anyone who needs a little encouragement to let him know the food they have on hand. From there, he comes up with a simple recipe using rogue ingredients. In recent episodes, most of which are 10 minutes long, he’s made fried sardine balls and shakshuka with a Korean twist.
“I don’t go in with any assumption or any goals,” says Porowski. “It’s actually a lot like ‘Queer Eye,’ where it’s asking open-ended questions: ‘Show me what’s in your fridge. What’s in your pantry? Do you have any weird ingredients you don’t really know how to cook?’ I work with that.”
As with Brown’s show, Porowski has found that audiences have been especially receptive to the do-it-yourself feel. It’s a unique chance for viewers to see TV personalities offering advice in their natural habitats — and it gives everyone permission to make mistakes.
“I love my cooking shows, from ‘Top Chef’ to literally every single Food Network show. But I think people really want to relate to something,” Porowski says. “When I started making my videos, I was like, ‘I’m literally going to record one take, and if I mess up something, that’s just what the video is going to be.’”
The scaled-back production is symbolic, in a way, of go-to recipes like banana bread and sourdough starter kits, that have become the breakout stars of quarantine. Try scrolling through Instagram or Facebook without coming across an attempt at baked goods.
“People go back to basics,” Porowski says. “It’s no surprise that bread has had this unbelievable moment. People are so obsessed with [it] because it’s a simple thing.”
“People are realizing that if they make a mistake, it might end up being delicious.”
Alex Guarnaschelli, “Supermarket Stakeout”
As a child, Nadiya Hussain, winner of Season 6 of “The Great British Bake Off,” was taught to repurpose food that others would be inclined to discard. The host of Netflix’s “Time to Eat” is instructing people on Instagram and Twitter about innovative ways to use leftovers.
In Hussain’s house in London, where she lives with her husband and their children, no orange peel goes un-zested; no scrap goes unused. Recently in an Instagram story, she broke down how to incorporate banana peels in a pulled-chicken burger. “There were lots of people who were like, ‘That looks a little bit mad,’” she admits. Even so, she’s refined the art of collecting things that “we would normally throw away,” using the zest of citrus fruits for casseroles, curry and icing.
“I find a way of being creative but also helping at the same time,” she says. “As soon as I started to put stuff like that up on social media, there was a massive response. I think it’s a curiosity. If there’s something that you’re not used to eating, even though you’re skeptical, there is an element of you that thinks, ‘Maybe I should just secretly give it a go.’”
For those looking to take a break from the stove or grill, Guy Fieri has been providing an escape from the kitchen with a variety of food competition events for charity. The restaurateur and TV personality teamed up last month with actor Bill Murray for “Nacho Average Showdown” on Food Network’s Facebook page, enlisting all-star judges like Shaquille O’Neal and actor Terry Crews to decide who makes the best tortillas with all the fixings. Fieri also hosted a cookoff between Will Smith and Kevin James in April, in which the two Hollywood heavyweights went toe-to-toe putting their own spin on pasta.
“I couldn’t eat the food, but I got to watch it and give these guys little hints and directions on how to make it,” Fieri says of the matchup between Smith and James. “Oh, it was hysterical. You know I like to say it, but everybody loves food. You don’t even have to be eating it. It just gives people comfort.”
The events raised money for Fieri’s Restaurant Employee Relief Fund, which gives financial aid to restaurant workers affected by coronavirus shutdowns; an estimated 8 million of them are out of work. Since May, Fieri has helped 40,000 people with grants of $500, distributing more than $20 million. His goal is to collect $100 million.
“I hate this time we’re in. It just breaks my heart because there are so many tragedies and so many sad stories,” Fieri says. “But boy, it gives you a little bit of hope for mankind when you see people stepping up and getting involved. Restaurants are really important to the fabric of our community. And so they’re going to need some help and support.”
As states begin reopening, restaurants have started to resume business. But dining venues will look different, at least for now, since they’ve been given strict guidelines to ensure safety, like capping capacity and keeping plenty of space between tables. Those whose livelihoods are rooted in the restaurant industry note that dining out is about more than getting out of the house to grab a meal.
“Yes, we want delicious food. And yes, we want to take pictures of it and put it on Instagram,” Brown says. “But what we really crave as humans is that communal aspect of being there with other people, even if you don’t know them.”
And if you’re at home, getting tips for making the hungry people you know happy.